HT Brunch Exclusive Cover Story: The Manoj Bajpayee you never knew
Interviewed by friend, colleague and National-award winning editor Apurva Asrani, the actor reveals more than he ever has!Updated: Oct 13, 2019 00:06 IST
Manoj Bajpayee is almost an hour late for our meeting. He calls me thrice with traffic updates. I answer in monosyllables. He knows I’m sulking. “I’m sorry, Apu, please don’t be mad at me,” he says, alighting from an unassuming car. How can I be mad at him? He’s as real as they get! But I don’t tell him that. I say, “You’re buying drinks tonight, and I’m getting the most expensive cocktails.” “Done,” he says relieved. “I’m buying dinner too.”
This is a hip, young, members-only club, populated with millennials. In his tight tee and white sneakers, Manoj seems to fit in just fine. Heads turn as he walks by. “Loved you in The Family Man,” says almost everybody, and Manoj skips gleefully to the elevator. “Most of these kids didn’t see Satya, [Gangs Of] Wasseypur or even Aligarh,” he tells me, “But they know me now thanks to The Family Man.”
Manoj is proud of himself. He has conquered a new medium and a new audience. This is fuel for the neanimorphic Mumbaikar who turned 50 last April. A month before that he had won the prestigious Padmashri award.
King of Mumbai
I remember meeting Manoj for the first time in 1997. It was in the home of director Ramgopal Varma and we were about to start the film Satya. Every day a new team member joined the vodka-assisted creative sessions. Manoj was one of the early recruits. He had a thick mop of curly hair, a coltish frame and eyes that could brighten up any conversation. He had shifted to Mumbai after a stint with NSD, and though he had a significant film like Bandit Queen (1994) to his credit, he was yet to make his mark.
I sip my saccharine cocktail, already planning to switch my drink for the next round. Manoj samples three kinds of wine and finally settles for a sparkling one. “I don’t drink much these days and I never eat dinner at night,” he says as we order sliders. I look at Manoj’s face and see features that weren’t visible in 1997. He has prominent cheekbones, his hair is straight and his pout more pronounced. His eyes still sparkle the same way.
“Tell me,” I say, nostalgic about our Satya days. “If you had been given a choice, which part would you have wanted to play? Bhiku or Satya?”
“I don’t have a problem with star kids. I have a problem with the so-called ‘owners’ of the film industry, who look at us as ‘outsiders’ and don’t respect us.”
“You knew there was no bound script,” he says. “So while I was preparing for the film, I had thought mine was the titular role. But as the story took shape I learned I was to play Bhikhu Mhatre and that Satya was going to someone else.” He was disappointed, but as the character shaped up, he realised that he had the part that would bring out his best.
I recall an early preview of Satya at Mumbai’s Famous studio for Amitabh Bachchan. The superstar put his arm around Manoj’s shoulder and walked him all the way downstairs, singing his praises. Manoj had giggled like a school boy and turned a shade of vermillion. We also recall the mass hysteria in Mumbai’s single screens when Bajpayee (Bajpayi then) stands on a cliff and shouts, “Who is the King of Mumbai?” The front benchers had leapt up in unison and shouted, “Bhiku Mhatre.”
“Most of these kids didn’t see Satya, [Gangs Of] Wasseypur or even Aligarh. But they know me now thanks to The Family Man”
He orders his second glass of sparkling wine and continues, “After Satya I was flooded with offers. Producers lined my house – but they wanted me to play the villain or the heroine’s brother. Films like Satya just weren’t being made. Though I managed some good projects, I entered a lean period, where I felt a sense of frustration.”
Rebel with a cause
Didn’t he also become known for anger issues? There were stories of run-in’s with filmmakers and co actors; anecdotes of drunken rage even. Manoj doesn’t deny it all. “I used to get angry very easily. But I wasn’t a rebel without a cause. I couldn’t stand the hypocrisy that is so rampant. I was enraged by the double speak and I called it out. And the drunkenness – see, I couldn’t stand those filmi parties where people pretended to like everything about everyone and later say shit behind their backs. The only way I could tolerate them was if I had a few drinks.”
“What’s changed now?” I ask. “I’m more spiritual now. I don’t hold grudges,” he says. “I’ve accepted that you can’t change people, but you can control your reactions. Besides, I don’t go to parties anymore, so I don’t drink much at all.” I glance at Manoj’s drink on the table. It’s barely half finished, a testimonial to his words.
I dig out a quote from an old interview of his: “If you are a person who believes in ability and hard work and not surrendering to peoples’ whims and fancies, then it is quite an impossible industry,” he had said. What’s his take on the nepotism debate?
“If you are a person who believes in ability and hard work and not surrendering to peoples’ whims and fancies, then it is quite an impossible industry”
“I don’t have a problem with star children making it. They will get their launch, but stand only on merit. I have a problem with these so-called ‘owners’ of the industry, the self-proclaimed ‘insiders’ who look at us as ‘outsiders’ and don’t respect us,” he says.
“But that’s mainstream filmmaking,” I explain. “It’s driven by numbers and they can’t fathom how anyone who doesn’t make Rs 200 crore even exists.”
“I wouldn’t paint them all with the same brush,” Manoj says. He recalls his meeting with Yash Chopra when he was offered Veer-Zaara (2004). The veteran filmmaker had said, ‘Son, I know this might not be the kind of role you deserve, and if you refuse it I would totally understand, but I love your work and really want you to be part of this film.’ “I signed the film out of respect for the man,” Manoj says passionately.
Man, woman and child
His phone rings. It is his daughter Ava. “I have to take this call,” says Manoj. A waiter rushes over to say cellphones can’t be used in this club. Manoj profusely apologises. “What can I do?” he says, hanging up. “Shabana (his wife) and I finally bought Ava a mobile phone, now obviously she will need to use it.”
Ava goes to an elite school, uses an iPad and will be given a laptop soon. Quite different from the way you were brought up, no? I ask the actor born to a poor farmer in a Bihar village. “Not really,” Manoj says. “My father may have been poor but he gave me the best schooling and the best clothes he could afford. I do the same with Ava.”
“My drunkenness? See, I couldn’t stand those filmi parties where people pretended to like everything about everyone and later say shit behind their backs. The only way I could tolerate them was if I had a few drinks”
But how can he control the content that Ava will watch on her phone? Does it not worry him?
Manoj recalls how one day he walked into a room to see Ava watching a kissing scene on TV. “I just ran out, embarrassed,” he laughs. “Shabana sat Ava down and explained how kissing is natural…but for adults only.”
He talks of Shabana with awe, explaining that she grew up reading good authors and watching great filmmakers. “She knows her mind clearly,” he says.
Shabana had debuted as Neha in Kareeb, a film that released in 1998, the same year as Satya. Manoj and Neha courted for eight years before they tied the knot. During this period, Shabana stopped doing films. I wonder if Manoj might have influenced her decision in some way. “The decision was hers. But I might have been a bit too protective,” Manoj admits. “I know how women are treated here and I can’t stand it when they are objectified. But Shabana is working again,” he adds with a smile. “You don’t worry anymore?” I ask him. “No,” he laughs. “She’s a tough girl now, even I am afraid of her.”
Sympathy and empathy
One of Manoj’s most attractive qualities is his candour. He’s easy to talk to, because unlike many successful actors, he listens. I never have to be afraid of hurting his ego.
Even back in the day, I remember, it was easy for me to confide in him. Once, before Satya released, I took Manoj to a gay party in suburban Mumbai. He was quite a hit with the boys and blushed when they flirted with him. When we left, he had a huge grin on his face, and jokingly reminded me that he was still straight; that the party hadn’t converted him.
“I’ve accepted that you can’t change people, but you can control your reactions”
“I remember that party,” Manoj says, grinning again. “You know why I was so comfortable? Because my teacher was Barry John, who had come out to me before I even knew what the word gay meant. I stayed in his house, slept in his bed even, but he was dignified and gracious. And after I got to know you as well, I knew that I could never pigeonhole gay men into stereotypes.”
This dignified lens is evident in Manoj’s nuanced performance as the homosexual Professor Siras in Aligarh, which was also my writing debut. That he was able to infuse so much love into the character and win the hearts of even the most homophobic is testimony to an actor with incredible empathy.
On home ground
More than a year ago, Manoj decided to take a year off work. “Why?” I ask.
“Exhaustion,” he says. “And disappointment. I was trying to balance commercial cinema with meaningful stuff. I had to ensure that Budhia Singh (2016), Gully Guleiyan (2017) and Bhonsle (which he also produced in 2018) were made, and for that I needed to also do a Tevar (2015), Baaghi 2 (2018) and Satyameva Jayate (2018). I am grateful for these mainstream films because they gave me a market position that I could leverage for my passion projects. But I ended up very tired by the end of it.”
“And disappointed why?” I ask.
“Because the films I was pushing weren’t getting their due, but the mainstream stuff was making money. Every time my work in an Aligarh (2015) or in a Gully Guleiyan was ignored, it hurt me. Then I had high hopes for Neeraj Pandey’s Aiyaary (2018)…and it didn’t do well. One day, I was so tired mentally that I fainted. It was a wake-up call for me to prioritise myself from now on.”
“How did you manage to sit at home for a whole year?” I ask him, curious. “I meditated and did kriya yoga,” he says with a look of accomplishment. “I spent time with my wife and my daughter…and I learned how to cook. Then after 10 months of sitting at home, I started working again on The Family Man (2019).”
Having sampled a mean mutton curry that he had prepared, and having watched the superb The Family Man, it seems to me that Manoj’s year off work was well worth it.
We order another drink.
“This is the last one,” Manoj says with a wink.
Author bio: Apurva Asrani is a National Award winning filmmaker based in Mumbai. He is best known for editing the films Satya (1998) and Shahid (2012), the web series Made in Heaven (2019), and for writing the acclaimed human rights drama Aligarh (2015).
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From HT Brunch, October 13, 2019
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First Published: Oct 12, 2019 21:54 IST