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Manoj Bajpayee: The relentless, stubborn genius

Manoj Bajpayee has survived rejections, dejections and sneers to emerge as one of Indian cinema's most acclaimed actors. His bittersweet experiences in the industry have compelled him to stay on the fringe, but the fighter in him has no complaints

Kunal Purandare
Published: Jan 10, 2023 11:19:34 AM IST
Updated: Jan 13, 2023 10:05:05 AM IST

Manoj Bajpayee: The relentless, stubborn geniusThe ride has not been easy… it has taken a lot out of me, a lot of blood and sweat. I don’t wish for any other actor to be in my shoes at all: Manoj Bajpayee Image: Madhu Kapparath; Styling: Ashish Sharma, Bhavika Kundnani; Makeup & Hair: Manish Joshi, Sachin Jadhav; Outfit By Jayesh Shah Label; Shoes By Es Caro Royale; Watch By Swarovski

Manoj Bajpayee hasn’t forgotten that he was chucked out of three projects in a day. Instead of drowning in sorrow or cursing his luck, he chose to have a good time that evening. “I partied with three friends who could afford a bottle or two of rum. We made mutton curry and drank like a fish,” he recalls.   
It was the early ’90s and Bajpayee, who hailed from a farming family in Bihar, was trying to make a mark in the Hindi film industry as an actor. Though he had a background in theatre, having performed in various plays in Delhi, he found it difficult to break through in an industry known to eulogise ‘stars’. In the absence of casting directors, aspiring actors had to go through numerous auditions and make multiple rounds of production houses to bag that elusive opportunity.

Many a times, the assistant directors would tear his photos in front of him as he didn’t look like a ‘typical hero’. There were days when he would be chosen for a part, tested before a director and then shown the door. Bajpayee, 53, however, took the humiliation on his chin. “It did not deter me one bit,” he says. “I have been a fighter since my childhood. I am stubborn and don’t give up easily. I feel all the traits I was born with came in handy when I was dealing with my miseries or failures. Giving up was never an option for me; it never felt like one because the passion was great, and the resolve was far higher and mightier.”

Almost 30 years since that struggle, Bajpayee is now regarded as one of Indian cinema’s most acclaimed actors with three National Awards to his credit. He’s had to pay a hefty price though. “It took a lot out of me. A lot of blood and sweat. The ride has not been easy and I don’t wish for any other actor to be in my shoes at all,” he says.

Manoj Bajpayee: The relentless, stubborn genius

Satya: The Turning Point

Filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998) changed the trajectory of his career. Bajpayee, who essayed the role of gangster Bhiku Mhatre in the film, became an overnight sensation, but he hadn’t anticipated the hysteria. “After we finished shooting, I knew one thing—even if Satya didn’t turn out to be a successful film, I’ll have a job for a very long time. I’ll be a professional actor who will earn his bread and butter, and that too as a respected actor. That was the feeling I had. And then it became a blockbuster,” he says.  

Varma was impressed when he saw Bajpayee in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994) in which the actor had very few scenes. A shot where Bajpayee is holding Seema Biswas—who plays Phoolan Devi—so that she doesn’t get provoked and expose herself to those wanting to kill her left him spellbound. “I was mesmerised with the expression in his eyes. There was so much of terror. I know he has done theatre, but in films, I had not seen that kind of depth of intensity. So he was stuck in my mind, although I didn’t even know his name then,” the filmmaker tells Forbes India.

Prior to Satya, when Varma was casting for Daud (1997), one of his assistants, who had worked on Bandit Queen, suggested Bajpayee’s name to the director to play one of the four goons behind actor Paresh Rawal, the main character. That’s when the filmmaker met Bajpayee. He told him that Daud was a spoofy, satirical film and that he shouldn’t do it, but the actor insisted that he just wanted to work.

Manoj Bajpayee: The relentless, stubborn genius

During the making of Daud, Satya was being conceptualised and the director was convinced that Bajpayee should be the lead actor. “But when the script was getting ready, I had a gut feeling that he should play Bhiku Mhatre,” says Varma. “I told Manoj, ‘Trust me, the role for you is Bhiku’s. It will be far superior to any other character’. He couldn’t say it, but he was disappointed [at not getting the lead role]. But he still did it.”

Bajpayee recalls he didn’t have a script in hand and that he worked on a basic structure while shooting for Satya. “We used to improvise and shoot randomly. They had given me a brief of the character,” he says. Based on that, he prepared extensively to play Bhiku Mhatre. For instance, he imbibed the traits from someone from his hometown whom he knew from his childhood, and purchased his own clothes for his screen appearance. “I worked on the character for six months—internally and externally. I used to improvise with random, imaginary scenes… I internalised the character. And put all that in the scenes that were given to me on that day,” says Bajpayee.

Satya gave him an identity, appreciation and almost every award. “When we started shooting, everybody, not only me, was completely taken aback with the way Manoj was performing. I remember Chakravarthy, who played the lead role, used to be intimidated with his performance. Having said that… that he would become such a cult went beyond my expectations,” says Varma, who later collaborated with Bajpayee on Kaun (1999) as director, and Shool (1999) and Road (2002) as producer.

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An Actor Prepares

Having established his credentials, Bajpayee followed the same path, but went down soon after to “merge with the dust”. He was confident that he would be back with one opportunity, and he got plenty—Rajneeti (2010), Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and Special 26 (2013) to name a few. “I was back in the reckoning. And life has been good since,” he says.

The struggle then, the actor continues, was not to look for money. “I was somehow managing my household and kitchen. Money was not coming, but the name was becoming bigger and bigger—not at all matching the size of the wallet or my bank account,” he laughs. “But I was not worried about it. The initial goal was to establish myself for life.”

Another challenge was to keep himself away from all the conventional work and especially the villain’s role. “In those days, people used to put a stamp on you. I wanted to run away from that tag. And in the process, I offended many of the bigwigs. They got so offended that work stopped coming from them. For many days, I was without work,” explains Bajpayee, who had to choose from the handful of offers that came his way. “It was two steps forward and one step back, which I was good at. Tomorrow, even if I have to take four steps back, I won’t mind because I love this job, I love this craft called acting. This is what I have done and this is what I will do for the rest of my life.”

Among those who showed faith in Bajpayee was Shyam Benegal, who cast him as a prince in Zubeidaa (2001). Ironically, the actor had been rejected for his ‘looks’ by a section of the same industry some years ago. The director was looking for someone dusky, not very fair-skinned like the usual heroes, but also good looking. “When I saw Manoj, he seemed perfect for the part. But he was hesitant because he had previously done parts which were the opposite—lumpen characters, working-class types,” says Benegal, known for making path-breaking films such as Ankur, Nishant, Manthan and Bhumika in the 1970s.

Bajpayee points out that his exposure to people from that strata of society was zilch. “I played that royal character without meeting any of them. It was purely on imagination. It was possible because of Shyam Benegal and his help,” he says.

Manoj Bajpayee: The relentless, stubborn genius

Benegal calls it a small hiccup and says he was 100 percent sure that Bajpayee would bring the right style, approach and nuances. “He is such a fine actor, nothing is really beyond him. He’s a consummate actor, and he picks up things quickly… one just has to give him a little hint and then he’s on top of it,” says Benegal, adding that the actor learnt to ride a horse and even play polo for the film, shooting for which finished six days before it was scheduled to end. “He later told me he was terrified. But he’s a diligent actor and wants to get into the part properly,” he adds.

The process for Bajpayee changes according to the script, genre and character. In Aligarh (2015), he played Ramchandra Siras, a professor of Marathi at Aligarh Muslim University, who is suspended for his sexual orientation, and found dead days later. Bajpayee began learning Marathi much to the surprise of the assistant director who wondered why it was necessary when the film was being made in Hindi. “I started making myself familiar with Marathi poets, recitations and books. My idea was to approach him as a poet, as a Lata Mangeshkar fan, more than him being gay. His sexuality was never my concern. The person, the poet were concerns. His love for Marathi was far more important to me. That is why I worked on the literature aspect more than anything else. And it propelled me to become Ramchandra Siras,” he says, giving a peek into his mind as an artiste.

Varma reveals that Bajpayee takes his work extremely seriously. “He gets into the skin of the character… even between shots, he is in character—from the time he wears his clothes and makeup till pack up. I haven’t experienced that kind of sincerity and intensity,” he says. “Unlike a normal film star, where nothing changes about them except their clothes and hairstyle, Manoj changes his entire personality. You won’t believe a Bhiku Mhatre can do something like a Kaun and then a Shool.”

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Fringe Benefits

Actor Gajraj Rao has known Bajpayee since 1990 when they were a part of the Act One theatre group in Delhi. “He was a mystery… there was a mystique about him,” he says. Rao, who recently starred with the actor in Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa, a short story in a four-part anthology called Ray that released on Netflix in 2021, says he was a transformed person during theatre rehearsals.

For the play Netua, based on the ‘launda naach’, a folk art form from Bihar where men dress up as women and dance like them, Bajpayee rehearsed dancing for three months. “When Manoj was in the green room, you could feel 400 W of energy. It cannot be explained. And he was not pretending to be serious,” says Rao. “His personality, his look… it would be as scared and as timid as the character he was enacting. He becomes the part and plays it with utmost sincerity. I saw the same when he became a film actor. He remains totally engrossed and does not take his profession lightly.”

Over-the-top (OTT) platforms have proven to be a boon for actors like Bajpayee who are constantly looking to push the envelope and exploit their versatility. The actor says cinema did not have the capacity to do justice to the kind of talent that exists in the country. It was divided into lobbies, and box office performance was all that mattered, he rues. “OTT has broken the template that we were following. It has made itself available to quality and talent. That has changed the whole equation,” says Bajpayee, who earned lavish praise for his performance in The Family Man, a web series. “Manoj has been made by God for OTT… there’ll be a more intelligent audience there and he can bring in a lot of reality. Manoj’s shelf life is unlimited,” says Varma.

Manoj Bajpayee: The relentless, stubborn genius

Raj Nidimoru, who along with Krishna DK, directed The Family Man, says they wanted to subvert the spy genre and were looking for a common man, a slightly old-school dad, but still a guy who is fierce when you fight a threat to the country. “We didn’t want a James Bond,” he says, adding that when they approached Bajpayee for the role, it was done in minutes. “We told him the concept and the plot a bit. We ended up talking about the story for 20 minutes, and then spent the next two hours drinking and laughing,” he says.

Bajpayee has consciously chosen to stay on the fringe after the experiences he’s had in the industry. “I realised it’s better to do your own job rather than become a nobody in that lobby, always depending on their smile or their good gesture, which was not agreeable to me. I found my own path, and my own space, which was on the fringe. And I was very happy. Since then I have purposely kept myself on the fringe,” he tells Forbes India. “Then, I am not answerable to anyone, not looking at someone’s validation or approval. I am choosing things the way I want to… that gives me a great sense of freedom. And that is crucial for me as an actor.”

After all these years, Bajpayee continues to hone his craft with his meticulous preparation and is still nervous before facing the camera. “But the nervousness is not seen by people. That much I have learnt—how to hide my nervousness. It’s all camouflaged,” he says, adding that he is confident once he knows the script backwards and even stays aloof for the first seven to 10 days when he begins work on a character.

Nidimoru reveals that the actor was restless while shooting the second season of The Family Man. “It was a challenge because he had never done a sequel. His mind was constantly thinking about what new aspect he could bring to the character and how he could incorporate subtle shades in various scenes,” he says. “He’s constantly evolving as an artiste. A lot of people stagnate after a while. For him, there’s a constant need to be better.”

The actor who was conferred the Padma Shri in 2019 explains why being an insider-outsider in the fraternity was essential for an outsider like him. “The fraternity that used to be was mainstream. It was about give and take. I didn’t have anything to give them and they didn’t have anything to give me. So, we respected each other, but we never mingled with each other,” he says.

Manoj Bajpayee: The relentless, stubborn genius

Actor Shefali Shah, who played Bajpayee’s wife in Satya, believes an actor like him deserved a lot more. “Manoj had not received his due in the industry for a long time, but thanks to the past few years and the OTT boom, he has been finally getting the recognition and adulation he deserves,” she says, adding that performing with an actor like him makes the process that much more enriching and rewarding.

Benegal agrees. “The film industry has not made full use of him. He is extremely capable. And he will save you a lot of money on the sets… I know actors who’ll take 14 to 16 takes for a shot, but he’s not like that. He comes absolutely prepared,” he says. “He’s a dream to work with.” Varma says once you spot an actor of Bajpayee’s calibre, as a director, “I would be greedy to look at all the other various facets about him”.

Miraculous Journey

Despite the tribulations, Bajpayee was sure of his destination though he didn’t know when he’d reach there. “In between, we were ready for the rejections and also for a few bottles of rum,” he laughs.

Manoj Bajpayee: The relentless, stubborn geniusWhen Bajpayee was facing a trial by fire during his initial years in Mumbai and Delhi where he spent days without food or money, Rao saw him and his determination from close quarters. “He was like a wild animal. The fire in his belly was strong and it reflected in his eyes. He would read a lot of books. He was greedy for work, extremely stubborn and was sure that he would make a mark one day. He is very strong mentally, you cannot take him lightly ever,” says the actor, who believes Bajpayee brings integrity to a project. “He works like a catalyst, like an adhesive. You won’t see him walking alone on screen… he is walking with a tribe, with a bunch of actors because he’s not performing solo or just for himself. He makes the other characters a part of his onscreen journey. It can happen only when you are not insecure. He’s a secure actor and it shows.”

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An actor’s security dictates a lot of things on the sets, believes Nidimoru. “Manoj is one of the best co-actors one can have. He really works with the opposite guy—whether it’s a kid or a seasoned actor. He vibes off them and makes it easy for them. He’s constantly working off our eyesight… a quick coaching happens with his fellow actors.” The director reveals that Bajpayee is different off-screen, always joking around, but “he lives every scene”.

Rejections, and dejections, could never overpower the actor’s nerves of steel. The only time he appeared frazzled was when the National School of Drama rejected his application thrice. In interviews he has been quoted as saying that he contemplated suicide after that. But he tells Forbes India: “It was just a passing thought. It has now become a headline.”

Surviving in a competitive industry for close to three decades is testimony to Bajpayee’s willpower and never-say-die attitude. His wife calls it a miracle. But he says God has been kind and all is well that ends well. “When you see television cameras not interested in capturing you entering a venue, people snickering at you on your face, producers and distributors rejecting your films… just listening to ‘no’ every day for 26 years is not a joke,” he says. “Anybody else would just go down with those many detractors, enemies, people offended by your journey or audacity… to face all that and then come this far… my wife is right, it is a miraculous journey.”

(This story appears in the 13 January, 2023 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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