Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

I want to be remembered for the work I do: Pankaj Tripathi

The 47-year-old actor entered the Rs 100-crore club for the first time, and won his second national award this year, making a mark for his distinctive style and sense of realism

Anubhuti Matta
Published: Jan 2, 2024 12:12:00 PM IST
Updated: Jan 2, 2024 01:07:17 PM IST

I want to be remembered for the work I do: Pankaj TripathiPankaj Tripathi's entry into the world of OTT in 2018 allowed him to showcase his versatility as an actor, especially as the uncrowned king and don, Kaleen Bhaiya, from the web series, Mirzapur. Image: Madhu Kapparath; Styling: Vineet Chauhan; Hair: Eikash Biswakarma; Make up: Suresh Mohanty

October 16, 2004. On this day, Pankaj Tripathi set foot in Mumbai aspiring to be a film actor.

Exactly 19 years later, on October 17, 2023, he received the National Award for the best supporting actor for the comedy-drama Mimi (2021). And, it was not his first. In 2017, he earned a special mention for his performance in Amit Masurkar’s dark comedy Newton.

His two-decade journey may have been a series of hits and misses, but for the 47-year-old artiste known for his calm demeanour and easygoing style of acting, 2023 has been a significant year.

Aside from the award, he entered the Rs 100-crore club for the first time, with two films—OMG 2, and Fukrey 3. In December, he played a lead role in the crime drama, Kadak Singh, released on an OTT platform.

The next few months also look bright for the star. He plays the lead as former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a biopic titled Main Atal Hoon. Other soon-to-be-released web series and movies include Mirzapur 3, Stree 2, Murder Mubarak, and Metro In Dino.

“I want to be remembered for the work I do,” Tripathi says. “I’ve seen all my roles with a human lens and given it a human angle.”

This factor, say critics, is the prime reason for making him an extraordinary hero in an otherwise ordinary tale of a boy from a small town who makes it big in Bollywood.

“He’s managed to strike a chord with the audience because there is such an air of simplicity and authenticity about him,” says film critic Anupama Chopra. “He’s a very fine actor who does a lot with very little.”

Starting young

Given his humble background, it’s no surprise that he knows how to do more with less.

The youngest of four children born in a farming family in Bihar’s Belsand, a village that didn’t have electricity until a few years ago, Tripathi was an introvert till Class 10. But he had already taken a liking to theatre, watching plays in the village and even acting in them. He continued dramatics in Patna and Delhi, where he had enrolled himself in the National School of Drama, until he realised that working in the medium wasn’t enough for survival.

“Mumbai aana hi pada [I had to come to Mumbai],” he says. “I was mentally prepared to be patient for 10 years to get noticed or get a significant part in a movie.”

He made a debut in Abhishek Bachchan-starrer, Run, in 2004—playing a character without a name, in merely two scenes, with his voice dubbed by someone else. He went on to do about 15 films in the years to come, in addition to advertisements, television shows, corporate films, “…or whatever came my way”, he says.

I want to be remembered for the work I do: Pankaj Tripathi

Luckily, his 10-year mark to get noticed in the world of Hindi cinema was cut short to eight. In 2012, he was seen playing the role of a butcher named Sultan in Anurag Kashyap’s crime film Gangs of Wasseypur. “I remember it to be one of the happiest days in his journey as an actor,” says his wife, Mridula. “With this role, the people, critics, writers, and directors started taking note of him.”  

In the years he had waited to reach here, nothing came in the way of his motivation. “I didn’t have any complex about coming from rural India, not looking like a traditional actor, or having studied in a Hindi-medium school. When there are no complexes, there will be no fear,” he says. “I knew the craft of acting; I was just waiting for the right opportunity. I began with small roles and small scenes, so I ensured that I don’t get ignored, by the audience or by the critics.”  

Earning a spot

Tripathi continued acting with other big-budget Bollywood movies such as Dabangg 2 (2012), Fukrey (2013), Singham Returns (2014), Dilwale, Nil Battey Sannata (2015), and more. He played a small-town government official in Masaan (2015), Neeraj Ghaywan’s independent drama, with critics calling it a small but impactful role.

Also read: From Shah Rukh Khan to Rani Mukerji: 2023 Showstoppers - Film edition

In 2017, he got his first lead role in Shanker Raman’s thriller, Gurgaon. In the same year, he played a significant role in Newton, which won the National Film Award for the best feature film in Hindi.

It was also selected as the official Indian entry for the 90th Academy Awards under the best foreign language film.

His entry into the world of OTT in 2018 allowed him to showcase his versatility as an actor, especially as the uncrowned king and don, Kaleen Bhaiya, from the web series, Mirzapur, making him into an overnight star. According to reports dated 2020, the series created history with its second season as the most-watched show within a week of its release.

Another web series, Criminal Justice, in which he brought his distinctive style and a sense of realism as a seasoned lawyer, Madhav Mishra, became the reason for drawing viewers.

I want to be remembered for the work I do: Pankaj Tripathi

“The joy of working with him is that he can take what’s written on the page and elevate it to heights you couldn’t ever imagine. He is so present as an actor, it’s remarkable—that’s what makes him seem so effortless,” says Yashwant Mundhra, a writer/director who worked alongside Tripathi as the director’s assistant on Criminal Justice 2.

Mundhra recounts a piece of advice he received from the actor. “He told me that if I wanted to be a better filmmaker, I needed to watch films a little less and live life a little more. I think these are words he lives by, and this is what makes him so relatable to the audience.”

In today’s times, one has to make believable and authentic content, feels Kadak Singh director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, and Tripathi is as real as it can get, he says. “He’s the kind who absorbs, he sees, doesn’t look. He feels, doesn’t touch. This comes from him being so rooted and grounded, and it shows on screen.”

Name, fame, recognition

For Tripathi, the connection with people and relatability is an achievement bigger than fame, name, recognition, and numbers. “Viewers feel that someone from among them is on the big screen,” he says. “I wished to win the National Award because it comes from the government, not necessarily other awards. It is the biggest compliment an actor can receive.”

Milestones such as being part of the Rs 100-crore club may be important because the medium of cinema is ultimately a business of art, Tripathi says. “Many people benefit from it and it means our content has reached people. It indicates that our credibility as actors has increased and the audience wants to see us. All of us feel good, and it is a big motivation for producers to make and invest in more films,” he says.

I want to be remembered for the work I do: Pankaj Tripathi

But he is also not the one to keep a tab on numbers. “I’m not into reading trade magazines, or concerned about how much a film is earning each day.”

Speak of other feel-good moments and he says it’s when seniors praise him for his work.

“Waheeda Rehman ji had once told me that she’s a fan of my work. I was shaking. Nana Patekar, Asha Bhosle, and Jackie Shroff are some others who’ve said they liked my work, and I keep thinking would they even know me, but I feel really good,” he laughs.

Also read: I am constantly competing with myself. I am not competing with anyone else: Kareena Kapoor Khan

The true meaning of success for him, he says, will always be, to be meaningful. “I keep thinking about what I’m doing for an individual apart from entertaining them.”  

Among the various social causes, along with his family, he’s adopted a school in his village, improved its infrastructure, ensured there is electric supply, installed solar energy panels, and more recently, inaugurated a library in memory of his late father. Recently, he was also announced as the brand ambassador of the Kasturi Cotton Bharat Initiative to help cotton farmers and others in the chain earn better. In October 2022, he was made the national icon of the Election Commission to help create awareness among voters.

I want to be remembered for the work I do: Pankaj Tripathi“Acting has taught me how to live. It has also made me a better person,” says Tripathi. “I understand human psychology better. As an actor, you tend to feel more emotions than a common man, because it’s our job to explore and show them,” he adds.

Agrees Mridula. “He has become more sensitive, more emotional towards things around him, with experiences he has grown with. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is that he never wanted a lot, he still doesn’t.”

All he ever yearned for was to be a good human being, she says. And his co-actors can only attest to that.

“He is the most giving actor with an innate ability to pull the audience with his performance,” says Jaya Ahsan, a five-time National Award winner in Bangladesh and Tripathi’s co-star in Kadak Singh. “It was an experience of a lifetime working with him.”

Rasika Dugal, his co-actor in Powder (2010) and Mirzapur (2018) says he takes himself or his craft neither seriously nor lightly. “There is always an underlying thread of his signature humour that makes what he does on screen so endearing, unpredictable and so watchable.” And adds, “He is among the few actors who manages to keep his inner creative life alive while being one of the busiest ones in the country.”

But, Tripathi does not want to be so busy.

“Mujhe jeevan itminaan se jeena hai [I want to live life easy and slow]. I love gardening, cooking, eating, sleeping. I like to cook for my wife and listen to music,” he says. “I may go back to the village when I stop working, I am never sure about myself, so I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

I want to be remembered for the work I do: Pankaj Tripathi

But the environmentalist in him wants to build a private 40-acre forest, grow all kinds of vegetables, flowers, and fruits, build a hut, and live in it.

“When I came to Mumbai, I had a small goal. I wanted to own a small home, so my family could live well, and have a decent life. I’m way past that goal now. The world measures growth in terms of material possessions. I’m happy I’ve grown materialistically, but happier that I’ve grown spiritually."