Manoj Bajpayee: ‘Hindi filmmakers should go back to the drawing board’

After COVID, Hindi mainstream cinema is confused, and there is a “desperate attempt to entertain” that was not there before, says the actor.

Published : May 12, 2024 12:17 IST - 11 MINS READ

In 2024, Manoj Bajpayee is really everywhere, appearing in OTT offerings, in theatres, and in film festivals.

In 2024, Manoj Bajpayee is really everywhere, appearing in OTT offerings, in theatres, and in film festivals. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The team of The Fable was jumping up and down—for joy and for Instagram—in the mid century modernist foyer of Berlin’s Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) building. Manoj Bajpayee, 54, stood graciously for the first few photographs, and then sat down a little to the left of where his 34-year-old director Raam Reddy and team continued their youthful photo shoot. Even at rest, Bajpayee exuded a kind of coiled nervous energy—quiet, unfailingly polite, but also watchful.

Meeting the Mumbai-based actor in Berlin, on the fringes of the Berlin Film Festival where his film The Fable was premiering, felt unusual and yet oddly fitting. Born in 1969 to a farming family in rural Champaran, Bihar, Bajpayee’s journey to becoming Hindi cinema’s best-known “alternative hero” has been nothing if not unusual. Rejected more than once by the National School of Drama, Bajpayee conquered his disappointment by finding work with Delhi’s theatre stalwarts like Barry John and N.K. Sharma, with whom he founded the Act One troupe in 1990. The route to cinema was not easy either. Bajpayee’s first film was Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994), which premiered at Cannes and was India’s entry to the Oscars that year. But his minor role as the dacoit Man Singh did not get him any new work. What it did, though, was lodge his performance in the mind of Ram Gopal Verma, who when he met Bajpayee two years later, promised him a role in his next film, a gangster drama set in Mumbai. This, of course, was the era-defining Satya (1998), with Bajpayee’s Bhikhu Mhatre at its incandescent core.

Fine turns in films like ShoolKaunZubeidaaAks, and Pinjar followed. While it has not always been a smooth ride, Bajpayee has successfully stayed the course. In 2024, he is really everywhere, appearing in OTT offerings, in theatres, and in film festivals. Bajpayee’s recent roles have run the gamut in terms of power and social position: a middle-class lawyer in Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai, a troubled business scion in Gulmohar, a semi-feudal plantation owner in The Fable, a dispossessed Adivasi in Joram, and to top it off, a double role as both an abusive, womanising husband and a clingy, put-upon lover in Killer Soup. Clearly, this is an actor at the peak of his prowess. Excerpts from an interview:

You were an Amitabh Bachchan fan but began your career in parallel cinema—Bandit QueenDrohkaal—and were part of creating a more realistic mainstream cinema, Satya onwards. How would you evaluate the state of Hindi cinema today, especially given OTT platforms and the pandemic?

I think Hindi cinema had reached a good place—experimenting, entertaining but also not compromising on art. So many films—Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!Gangs of WasseypurSpecial 26, and many others achieved this mix. Then COVID came, and people got out of the habit of going to the theatre. They aren’t completely back yet. During the pandemic, audiences got a chance to explore the new medium [OTT] that had come into their households. Now that option of watching on your phone is always there. Post pandemic, the Hindi mainstream is confused. I see a desperate attempt to entertain that was not there before. Earlier, creators came from a place of conviction. Now they don’t know what will convince the audience to come out of their homes and spend the kind of money needed.

Thus the tilt towards spectacle?

That is the Marvel effect! It was there before, too, but it is much more now. Producers seem to feel that people need an extravaganza to come to the theatre.

Also Read | Rise of ‘Hindutva’ cinema

Is that true?

I don’t think so. The success of Kantara, or a small film like 12th Fail, or the huge critical acclaim for a film like Joram… give me hope. Hindi filmmakers should go back to the drawing board. Before COVID, we were doing everything right: women-led films were doing well, films were engaging as well as entertaining…. But now the fear of failing is such that there is a push towards extravaganza. I think we just need to look at Amitabh Bachchan’s films. Larger than life characters, yes, often rags-to-riches plots, the triumph of good over evil. But the hero was a coolie, or an orphan, or a police inspector who was non-corrupt, or an unwanted child who becomes a multimillionaire. People related to and clapped for him. Replace Marvel-style films with this; you’d save a lot of money on VFX.

But Hindi cinema no longer tells stories about poor people; they are not the paying audience.

But the same audience is watching a Telugu film where the protagonist is from a poor background. They are watching Kantara in the non-Kannada circuit and making it successful. Kantara’s story is like a lok katha, with a hero from a village. If we take the lead from there, I think we will find clarity.

By “from there” what do you mean?

South India. I do not mean imitate them, but take a cue from them. Heroes should look like us, talk about the problems that the common man is facing. Very few Indians actually make it to the civil services, but when you make something like 12th Fail, the level of identification is huge. The Marvel model might make money once or twice, but that is not a long-lasting solution. I have no problem with larger than life films. But stories should be rooted in our society. Because people want hope, and you can’t give them hope by showing life on Mars.

Has OTT helped or hindered?

OTT has opened up possibilities for storytelling. You can make things with good intentions and find an audience. Take Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai. A regular lawyer fighting for a minor, fearful that someone might come out of any gali and kill him. It became a streaming phenomenon overnight. So audiences are looking for relatable characters, stories that offer excitement—and hope.

Sirf Ek Bandaa... is said to be based on a real-life sexual assault case against Asaram Bapu. But are things getting more difficult, the stories that can be told?

The censor situation was as brutal 20 years ago. But filmmakers are intelligent people. You can’t sit down and say you can’t make a film. You are a creative person, right? Then you will find a way. Among just my films, think of Sirf Ek Bandaa… or Gulmohar—that “family film” speaks of so many things so cleverly. Or Joram, about a tribal man who is displaced… and Joram has a U/A certificate.

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Could these be exceptions?

One can be an exception, not five. I think cinema and theatre have gone through changes and challenges in any decade and always come out on top.

Theatre was where you began as an actor. Do you miss it?

I miss it. So much that I tried going back to it. But theatre does not give you crutches—no takes, editing, background music, or sound. What you see with your naked eyes is the truth. It is an actor’s medium, but the actor has to be completely prepared. I was not. I would have to completely stop working in cinema for a time, to work on myself and be ready for theatre.

Is that something you might do?

Yes, I might.

What is it you miss about theatre? The audience?

The audience used to be a blur. It was as if nothing else existed. The stage was my safest space in the world. That is what I miss.

Is the film set not like that?

The film set, you can’t really own it. There are too many factors that own it.

Do you still watch theatre?

Yes, I do. Whenever I am free and there is a play by friends—Makarand Deshpande or Danish Husain, so many people—I go to Prithvi Theatre.

Do you prepare for a role by seeking out real people who resemble your character?

I have met lakhs of people, thousands of them very closely, from all strata of society. From a village to a Paharganj basti to a Vasant Vihar palace, life has taken me everywhere. Everything is stored in the hard drive of my brain. So no.

I may not have grown up as a rich businessman’s son, but playing Arun Batra in Gulmohar or playing Dev in The Fable was not hard. These people are all around me, I know how they think. What was hard was Zubeidaa. To play a prince is a whole different mindset. I still remember [Shyam] Benegal telling me, “You don’t know anything about poverty. You are raja and they are praja. And you are not an exploiter. Don’t complicate matters too much. From the moment you open your eyes, you have only known this.”

Do filmmakers write roles for you now?

When you’re dealing with Raam Reddy or Devashish Makhija or Kanu Behl, these are very creatively committed people. They do not write roles for anybody. But if those roles suit me, they do give me scripts to read. There I can compliment myself, I have never led a closed life, and I think they also feel that if Manoj Bajpayee comes on board, he doesn’t go away easily.

Are there roles you want to play? Any historical figures, maybe?

Oh no, I don’t want to do biopics. See, you need an Attenborough to make a Gandhi. And then Attenborough needs to give Ben Kingsley the time to prepare. We do not give our biopics that commitment of time, money, and energy. Also some shades of grey are needed, which Indian biopics don’t offer. The only biopic I have done is Aligarh. I based the character of Dr Siras on a one-minute interview clip with Barkha Dutt. It was almost nothing to go by. But people who knew Siras told me, “He was just like how you showed him.”

**EDS: TO GO WITH STORY** Mumbai: Bollywood actors Sharmila Tagore and Manoj Bajpayee in a still from the upcoming film 'Gulmohar'. (PTI Photo)(PTI02_17_2023_000149B)

**EDS: TO GO WITH STORY** Mumbai: Bollywood actors Sharmila Tagore and Manoj Bajpayee in a still from the upcoming film 'Gulmohar'. (PTI Photo)(PTI02_17_2023_000149B) | Photo Credit: -

Does acting ever seem scary to you, its power?

I think acting affects people, though only up to a point. Dev’s journey in The Fable makes people realise the void they unknowingly carry. Siras’ plight in Aligarh affects people because it is hard to see a person trapped in his own house. We relate to it because we are all the time invaded.

Have you had that Dilip Kumar experience, of being too close to the character?

It happened with Shool. But I was very young then. I did not know how to switch off and switch on. But even now, am I ever totally off? How many bruises I carry, I will only know at the end of my life. Until then I am enjoying myself. Maybe my moodiness is also the effect of playing all these characters so deeply. But I love acting. If I love the perks, I have to love the bruises.

Has acting ever felt strange to you, the combination of intensely feeling something internally but having to perform it externally?

Acting is like stripping yourself in front of everyone. If you are ready for that, then come into this business. But yes, it’s amazing there are many actors like me—people who prefer to be quiet, very shy in many ways—who suddenly feel completely comfortable when the camera is on. It excites me, what art can do to an artist.

Do you feel like each role teaches you something new?

Yes. Each role’s humanity affects me. Also, don’t forget that the script is written material. You are finding new meaning as you go through every line, repeatedly.

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Are you a reader?

I am a reader, but not a voracious one. Because I do not have time. I read my scripts on flights.

Have scripts become more professional?

They have. When I entered the industry, there was only narration. People looked at me strangely if I asked for a script. Then people started giving me a page. Then 10 pages. Now you see professional bound scripts. I ask for them in Devanagari, I am from Hindi medium. To read Hindi in Roman is impossible for me.

You would be an exception since most Hindi film scripts are originally written in English, and most actors and even directors are increasingly only English-speaking. Does this disconnect not link to the lack of rooted stories?

Definitely. Look at all the filmmakers who have made an impact, from Vishal Bhardwaj to Rakeysh Mehra to Hansal Mehta to Anurag Kashyap to Devashish Makhija: all of them write in Hindi, though they studied in English medium. I’m glad you asked me this. If you’re from north India, and coming into this industry, Hindi should be something you practice. Sure, we need English, absolutely, it’s empowering. But the lack of Hindi is a handicap. I sometimes see on a talk show, people making fun of a [Hindi] word that some actor has used. I think, how can you do that? You are making fun of yourselves. And I tell my 13-year-old daughter, sit with me, work on your Hindi, you’ll be at a huge advantage. She gets irritated, but it will have an impact. Especially since she is very active in theatre in school, and she wants to act. We are heading towards a situation in this industry where knowing Hindi will be the exception. 

Trisha Gupta is a writer and critic based in Delhi, and a professor of practice at the Jindal School of Journalism.

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