Pankaj Tripathi: 'Modi is the traditional Hindustani hero, Kejriwal is the common man’

(This is Part 3 of an ongoing series on evolving definitions of masculinity in Hindi cinema)

He had been around for several years in the Hindi film industry before he played the bloodthirsty Sultan Qureshi in the film that became his calling card, Anurag Kashyap’s violence-ridden Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012.

Variety is clearly Pankaj Tripathi’s glucose as an artiste.

Last year in the internationally lauded and awarded Masaan, he played a hesitant suitor to a feisty female colleague, his manner towards her a marked contrast to the aggressive wooing of women by so many commercial Hindi film heroes even today. He is currently basking in the universal praise he has received for his performance as an eccentric school principal with questionable though well-intentioned teaching methods in the sleeper hit Nil Battey Sannata, in which Swara Bhaskar plays the lead. Nil Battey is now entering its seventh week in theatres, which is unprecedented for such a low-key, low-budget venture.

In a conversation with contributing editor Anna M.M. Vetticad, Pankaj Tripathi discusses the meaning of ‘mardaangi’ in Bollywood’s dictionary and heroes who molest heroines in the guise of courtship. He also explains why the success of small Hindi films these days telling stories of Everywoman and Everyman are a sign of changing audience tastes and an evolving society. These are excerpts from the English translation of an interview that was conducted in Hindi:

There is a line you did not cross with your character’s quirks in Nil Battey Sannata. Did you deliberately control yourself? Were you aware that if you crossed a certain line, you would have made Srivastava Sir effeminate?

Yes I was absolutely aware of it.

A caricatured effeminate man is a character we are used to seeing in Hindi cinema. Why did you stop yourself?

When I first read the role, he was quite flat. What you see on screen is not entirely what the character was in the script. I felt that since this film makes such a serious and important point, since it is a serious story of a mother and daughter, and there is humour in only that one scene where the mother comes to get admission for herself in school, my task was to make my character interesting. But there was a line in my mind that I was very clear I would not cross.

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Pankaj Tripathi. Image from IBN Live.

Generally, when actors are trying to make their characters entertaining, they end up crossing the very thin line that divides entertainment and buffoonery. I wanted him to be believable as a serious guy. He is a Maths teacher, the kind I would have been if I had become a teacher: he is serious but he makes sure he starts off by livening up the class, catching the attention of students whose minds are wandering, so that everyone is alert when he teaches his subject. While doing so, I was determined that none of this should come across as a caricature, buffoonery or mimicry.

Most actors in such roles end up mimicking an old actor, either consciously or sub-consciously. They’ll play the teacher as, say, Prem Chopra, Pran or Jeevan might have played him. My references don’t come from cinema. Most actors who join films are very inspired by cinema. I’m not. I’ve perhaps seen 40 films in my life, perhaps two or three films from Hollywood or world cinema. So my performances are drawn from reality, from the life I’ve lived, the people I’ve met.

There’s nothing wrong with a man being what people consider effeminate. Why does Hindi cinema choose to caricature such men?

You should watch my next film Anarkali Arawali which stars Swara Bhaskar. I play a dancer from a small town called Ara in Bihar who runs a song and dance troupe and performs with them on stage. He has some very feminine moves when he dances,

You will see that this performance too is one I’ve given with great care to ensure that it does not cross over into buffoonery and a caricature of the kind actors do when they’re playing gay men on screen. Actors usually play gay to draw laughs and they end up misrepresenting gay people.

There is such a thing as maatra, amount. An actor shoud be aware of the economics of his gestures and emotions. Is this too much or too little, if I go beyond this will it be a waste? I learnt this from my guru, Baba B.V. Karanth at the National School of Drama. He said, Pankaj, you should not waste your gestures, they should be measured with care. Many actors get carried away, they start enjoying their own performance on set especially when the crew starts reacting with laughter during the shoot. They begin to think they’re doing a great job.

I begin to get worried if people on set enjoy my performance too much, because we forget that what they are seeing in real life and what I can then re-watch on our 16-17 inch monitor will be watched by the audience on a screen of 30 feet. What may seem less while shooting could be too much on the big screen.

Besides, I’ve worked as a cook so I know the exact texture, thickness, look and smell of a dish even before I make it. My process while acting too is similar.

Would you like to play a conventional macho Hindi film hero like the guy in Singham who flies through the air and beats up 50 people single-handedly? You know the kind of hero who exemplifies the Hindi film fixation with ‘mardaangi’?

No, because I would not be convinced myself. Or if I do, I’d make him slightly sanki, slightly abnormal, because I don’t think such a man can be normal.

You know, our society has changed quite a bit and is turning its back on many conventions. For instance, earlier when I used to visit Bihar, I would perhaps spot one girl in every five villages who would ride a bicycle and she would be a subject of much discussion, but when I visited my village a few months back I saw dozens of girls riding cycles to schools. So certainly our society’s mentality towards women is changing, that whole notion of mardaangi would have been acceptable to most people but now in a small way it is being questioned. The male mindset is changing in a small way, largely because young people who have been exposed to the outside world and to world cinema through the Internet are questioning everything. They are much more aware than us, the older generation.

You mentioned the dramatic change in your village. Do you think the marginal changes we are seeing in the attitude towards this so-called ‘mardaangi’ is a result of society influencing Hindi cinema, or are our films being influenced by society?

This is always a tough question. In India I feel society is influenced by cinema, everyone is aping films. However, young people who are responsible for filling up halls on opening weekends, these youngsters are refusing to be constrained by society’s rules at least in our big cities. If they’re gay they want to be open about it, they don’t want to hide their sexual preferences. Urban Indian society has become more open-minded and since urban audiences contribute greatly to our film collections, we are seeing more characters who are not the routine macho type.

After Gangs of Wasseypur I kept getting offers to play raw characters who were goondas. I got sick of it. In Bihar there is a term, mahua, which is the complete opposite of macho. I decided I wanted to play a role like that. I’d had enough of the macho stuff.

Earlier actors had a great hunger for roles that were described as powerful, you hear actors giving interviews saying they want powerful roles, when what they’re talking about is the traditional macho role where the hero would beat up people, everyone would be scared of him and they would bow before him. These characters emerge from a feudal mindset. Most of our heroes were people with this mentality, but that old feudal system is gone and many of today’s real life heroes are people who would definitely not be seen as macho.

For instance?

Arvind Kejriwal becoming the chief minister of Delhi is a good example. He doesn’t look macho, he doesn’t fit the traditional image of a politician, he exemplifies the common man.

But we live in an era of a prime minister who speaks of his 56-inch chest. Is it not his time too?

Yes, it is the time of the chhappan inch too. That’s because a vast section of our society still retains the old traditional mindset. Actually, our prime minister is the traditional Hindustani hero.

So you are saying society has changed but not so much either that people are not impressed with talk of a 56-inch chest?

Absolutely yes. Such far-reaching change will require more time and will only come with education, correct education.

Which brings me back to my question, are the changes we’re seeing in Hindi cinema the impact of society on cinema, or is cinema influencing society?

The change we are discussing with regard to the qualities that make a hero, this is a result of society influencing cinema. But keep in mind that this is not happening routinely. The kind of roles we are discussing here are still very uncommon.

Our films show men harassing women as a form of courtship, Salman lifting Jacqueline’s skirt with his teeth, Akshay chasing Sonakshi and kissing her against her will, and these women fall in love with such men. When I’ve asked film producers, directors, writers and actors about such misbehaviour being romanticised, they say: but it’s only entertainment. Is this entertainment or irresponsible entertainment?

It’s irresponsible entertainment. Because you can entertain viewers without lifting a heroine’s skirt with your teeth, without harassing her. When you show these things in your film, you are playing to the gallery, your goal is to appeal to the first bencher. It is possible to entertain the audience aesthetically, without vulgarity. I’m not indulging in moral policing here. When you show the hero lifting the heroine’s skirt with his teeth, you might whip up your audience’s enthusiasm, but not in a positive way. Who knows, they may try the same thing with their girlfriend tomorrow. There is a line that you should not cross in the name of entertainment.

You know there were a couple of sex comedies released this year including the one with Sunny Leone. They had all the usual double meaning dialogues, all the punches, but they failed. People say, this is what the audience wants. I ask, did the audience write a letter to the producer or director telling them so? Aren’t they basing their assumptions on what worked in the past? If you make the same thing again, maybe it will work or maybe it will flop, so I’d say filmmakers should make the cinema they want to make, the audience that wants to see it will see it.

If you are offered a role where you have to harass the heroine and your character is not portrayed as a negative character in the film, you are being portrayed as a hero, your actions are being legitimised and romanticised, would you accept such a role?

I will not be able to do it. You know the Raj Kapoor-Waheeda Rahman film Teesri Kasam is based on a story by a writer from Bihar, Phanishwarnath Renu. There is a line in the story that is not in the film. Hiraman gets food for Hirabai. When she takes a mouthful of food, there is dahi on her lips. Hiraman sees that and there is a line there, Laal laal hotthon pe gau-ras ka paras,  Pahaadi tote ko dood bhaat khaate hue dekhe ho kabhi? (The curd has touched her red lips. Have you ever seen a parrot eat curd rice?) Just as a grain of rice may get stuck on its red peak, that is how Hirabai is looking right now.

There is so much beauty in that line, so much aesthetics. As an actor I am particular that whatever I do should be aesthetically done, and everyone in the audience watches, not just those seated in the first row. So it’s very difficult for me to do a role that lacks ethics, lacks aesthetics and is headed in the direction of vulgarity, ashleelta. It depends on the character, of course.

Would you like to illustrate your point with any of your coming films?

Newton is a film that fits into our discussion here. I play a menacing guy in the film, a CRPF commandant who is very macho and all his subordinates hate him. Aatma Singh is arrogant and wants everything done according to his wishes. The character was written as a hero who is aggressive and macho. I feel that if you play a menacing, mardaangi-waala role then even that machismo will make more sense if at some point the character reveals his vulnerability. All men are at least in some moments of their lives a little feminine. That role of a mard becomes layered only if at least occasionally he is like a woman, like a child. There is no one in the world who lives forever in one dimension or is uniformly strong at all times. That’s how I would like to play every role.

Next in this series: Part 4: Interview with actor Arjun Kapoor

 Also read Part 1: “The changing face of ‘mardaangi’ in Bollywood: men may now be gentle, gorgeous and/or gay”

 Click here for Part 2: Interview with Fawad Khan: “When you come to watch a film, come for a film, not porn”


Published Date: Jun 02, 2016 03:16 pm | Updated Date: Jun 02, 2016 03:46 pm


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