Pankaj Tripathi, the scene-stealer of ‘Gurgaon’
Gangs of Wasseypur actor’s latest outing on screen
What do cooking a four-course meal and acting in a film have in common? The two don’t appear that different when the actor in question is Pankaj Tripathi, who played the butcher-henchman Sultan Qureshi from Gangs of Wasseypur (GOW) to perfection. “While cooking, I imagine the end product, its texture and look. Acting is quite similar. I visualise how the character would look on the screen, his diction, body language and gestures,” says 42-year-old Tripathi who once worked as a chef at a five-star hotel in Patna for two years.
That was in 1993, after his father, a farmer in Bihar’s Gopalganj district, made peace with the fact that he was not going to study medicine; and that Pankaj, a sprinter and minor player in Patna’s college politics, would find his calling in acting after he’d watched the play Andha Kuan. “It made me realise the potential of theatre,” says Pankaj.
After doing theatre and street plays in Patna for seven years, he joined Delhi’s National School of Drama.
Critics have described his latest release, Gurgaon, as mean, dystopic and loaded with toxic masculinity.
Pankaj plays Kehri Singh, a builder in New Delhi’s satellite town. The kidnapping of Singh’s daughter (Ragini Khanna) triggers a chain of events that forms the backdrop of the film. “We named the film Gurgaon because people can instantly connect to it but the story can be set in New Mumbai or Spain,” says Tripathi, insisting that the film is not about a social issue specific to the region. “It is a multi-layered film. The more you dwell on it, the more you will get out of it.”
In 2004, the year Tripathi landed in Mumbai, the Hindi film audience was not yet attuned to indie films that would go on to propel actors such as Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Sanjay Mishra, Piyush Mishra and Deepak Dobriyal into the limelight.
During that phase, Tripathi did ad films, corporate films, TV serials (Gulaal, Powder) and spent hours at director Ram Gopal Varma’s office. “My friends familiar with the film industry suggested I approach Ramu because he was giving work to non-stars. He even considered me as a lead for one of his projects but it didn’t work out,” he recalls.
A major reason why actors like him have it easier now is because the audience is evolving, particularly with platforms such as Netflix and Amazon. Solid content does not depend on star power, believes Tripathi. “This is a wonderful phase. A film like Kick is a perfect example of the significance of someone like Nawaz bhai. Filmmakers are now offering combinations of a star and an actor,” he says.
We would not have seen him playing Sultan in Wasseypur, if it wasn’t for a stroke of luck.
Fitting the part
“Anurag (Kashyap) did not like my audition but casting director Mukesh Chhabra insisted that I fit the part perfectly. Then Anurag made all his assistant directors see the audition. They liked it and I got the part.”
Eventually, Kashyap was so impressed with Tripathi’s talent that the part was developed during the shoot.
Gangs of Wasseypur was followed by Masaan and Anaarkali of Aarah. “Post GOW, I got around 50 scripts, all of which wanted me to play a killer. I had to be very cautious in choosing my roles,” he says.
Having worked with Kashyap and Neeraj Ghaywan, the actor is not averse to playing a part in an out-and-out masala film. “Why not? I am a halvaai who has a good range to offer, right from samosa to gulaab jamun,” he says.
Tripathi believes that he must give commercial films the respect they deserve because these films put the money in the market that is then used to make indie films. “They give us recognition and money.”
The only flip side, he says is that occasionally filmmakers don’t know what to do with character actors, how to use them best. “Why are you buying an elephant if you cannot manage it?” he quips.
Early in his career, he would think of a neighbour, relative or friend from his hometown, to take inspiration for a role. He played parts he could resonate with. “I come from a very grounded family. My village got electricity only a few years ago. My ethos and values used to reflect in whatever role I played,” he says.
But having lived in Mumbai for more than a decade, how does he ensure that the learning process continues? Who is the inspiration now? “I am a keen observer of the world around me. I keep absorbing. I don’t wear shades. I don’t travel in vehicles which have tinted glass. I try to travel to a new town after every film,” he says.