Fire, family and a fine filter: Anupama Chopra on Manoj Bajpayee
For too long, Manoj Bajpayee’s career was hit or miss. Now, he’s ruling the small screen. He owes it to his decisions to say no.
Twenty-five years ago, about a month after the release of Satya, I conducted an interview with director Ram Gopal Varma and actor Manoj Bajpayee for India Today magazine.
Satya was a blockbuster and a game-changer in terms of storytelling and aesthetic. Manoj, a three-time National School of Drama reject, was suddenly hot property in Bollywood.
He had made his feature debut four years earlier, in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994), but had landed nothing noteworthy since.
When I asked him what his hopes for the future were now, he said: “I have only one condition. I want to play a protagonist. I won’t play an uncle or brother. I have the capacity, the energy, and I work very hard. The industry is morally bound to give me better stuff.”
Re-reading that interview recently, Manoj’s ferocious talent and youthful naivete about how the industry works reminded me of a heart-breaking scene from Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance (2009). An aspiring actor (played by a superb Konkona Sen Sharma) tells a predatory, oily producer that she deserves a break because she can act. He replies, with exasperation: “Woh kisse chahiye? (Who wants that?)”
For too long, Manoj’s career was hit or miss. He won three National Awards, for his roles in Satya, Pinjar (2003) and Bhonsle (2018). He has 98 credits as actor on IMDb. But his filmography is bereft of A-list directors and banners, with the exception of the sole Yash Raj Films title, Veer-Zaara (2004).
He said in interviews that he chose to place himself on the fringes of the mainstream. And then, in 2019, came Season 1 of The Family Man, a series that jumpstarted his career a second time, and found him a new generation of fans. As the hapless spy Srikant Tiwari, struggling to balance his deliciously dangerous career and his dysfunctional family, he is absolute perfection. (It helps that the writing and direction by Raj and DK are stellar.)
Varma put it well in a recent interview: “Manoj has been made by God for OTT.”
Manoj’s performances in this year’s streaming films Gulmohar and Sirf Ek Bandaa Kaafi Hai bolster this idea. In Gulmohar, he is Arun, the mild and deferential older son of an affluent Delhi family. Arun suppresses his pain and his disappointments until one day, he explodes. It’s a towering performance in a lower register.
Compare this with the more showboating, chewing-the-scenery act he delivers in Sirf Ek…, where he plays a lawyer going up against a powerful godman in court. In the climax, he delivers a long monologue with such aplomb that it makes you want to stand up and applaud. The film was such a success on Zee 5 that the producers decided to give it a limited run in theatres too. Meanwhile, The Family Man has been confirmed for a third season.
In a recent interview, Manoj told me that he did not let filmmakers “waste” him. This has been his strength, he says. For almost 30 years, he has had the courage to say no. There is an invaluable lesson for actors in this.