My life feels like a fairy tale in the middle of its happy ending, says actor Pankaj Tripathi
The 45-year-old actor has, over the past three years, become the man to watch. He returns as the dreaded gangster Kaleen Bhaiya in Mirzapur S2. He sat down with Wknd to talk films, life and Bollywood.
The Pankaj Tripathi we know grabs the spotlight in every frame. Even the Pankaj Tripathi we don’t know is “bahut hi kamaal ka aadmi”, in his words. A traveller, a foodie, a trained chef and a scholar of heritage.
Talking to Wknd, the 45-year-old says his life feels like a fairy tale in the middle of its happy ending. The actor has had the kinds of roles he always dreamed of, over the last three years — from the no-nonsense assistant commandant Aatma Singh in Newton (2017) to Guruji in Sacred Games (2019) and the brutal gangster Kaleen Bhaiya, who’s made a return in the newly released Season 2 of Mirzapur on Amazon Prime.
“I shot almost every day from 2017 until the lockdown. Even now I get offers to do a film or a show all the time,” he says. When not shooting, he spends his time at his sea-facing home in Madh Island with his wife Mridula and daughter Aashi.
It’s a very different life from the one he had growing up in a family of farmers and priests in the town of Belsand in Gopalganj district, Bihar. College took him to Patna, where he first got involved in theatre, while studying hotel management. After working for two years as an assistant chef at a hotel in that city, Tripathi’s love for acting won out.
He moved to Delhi, graduated from the National School of Drama in 2004, and shifted to Mumbai to try his luck in Bollywood.
“I feel like my journey as an actor is a lesson in hope,” he says. “A lesson that the world is not such a bad place as we tend to think it is. Yes, no one launched me. I climbed my way up with one-scene, two-scene roles. But I have realised that the film industry respects talent.”
From his unnamed character in the 2004 Abhishek Bachchan starrer Run to the role that shot him to fame — gangster Sultan Qureshi in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) — and now Kaleen Bhaiya, who dominates the landscape in Mirzapur, he hasn’t done a part that hasn’t been noticed by viewers and critics alike.
The audience is everything, he says. “In my theatre days at Patna’s Kalidas Rangalaya, we used to welcome the audience saying, “a very warm welcome to the learned audience”. We did so because we expected the audience to be learned. And in my later years, the audience hasn’t disappointed me.”
Tripathi says he also found the industry to be inclusive, and has an interesting take on this. Coming from a place where caste and class determined to a great degree who you befriended, lived with and worked with, he found the Mumbai film sets, he says, “beautiful and democratic”. “No one knows or cares about class, caste or religion. There’s generally an air of respect. There may be more than one food tables, but only because there are generally so many people. For me, it’s felt very inclusive.”
Of course the sector has flaws, he adds. What sector doesn’t? “I have got recognition only in my 40s,” he adds. “The film industry needs to evolve so that that age can come down to 30… or less!”
The emergence of web-streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime have, of course, been game-changers for non-star actors like him. “I have been performing like this for 15 years. OTT platforms have given me a reach that none of the other platforms could. Now it’s time for us all to explore more regional stories — Hindi literature, Bengali literature, literature from the south. I would love to do roles written in stories by authors like Vinod Kumar Shukla, Divya Prakash Dubey, Satya Vyas or Nilotpal Mrinal.”
As immersed in work as he is, the lockdown has taught Tripathi a surprising lesson. “Suddenly life stopped. I have realised the most important thing about life is life itself.”
In lockdown he has found his way back to boredom and laziness and started “rediscovering himself”. “I have a few releases in the coming months, the earliest being Ludo on Netflix. But I have decided not to go back to work before early next year,” he says. “I also haven’t decided what project to start work on next. I like this pause.”