Satya to Aiyaary: How Manoj Bajpayee carved his way to becoming one of the finest actors in Bollywood
Manoj Bajpayee is one of India’s finest actors, and his journey makes for a classic film narrative – struggle, success, set backs and finally, recognition.
It’s been twenty years since Manoj Bajpayee shot to acclaim as Bhikhu Mhatre in Ram Gopal Verma’s Satya. Recalling the film’s shoot, Saurabh Shukla, the veteran actor who starred alongside Bajpayee as a typical Mumbai gangster, states that Bajpayee brought improvisation and quirky touches to the scenes effortlessly. With RGV having given his lesser-known actors’ freedom to interpret, Bajpayee, Shukla and the cast sunk their teeth into their roles, making a memorable, noir look at desi gangsters. Bajpayee was a natural, Shukla mused.
Manoj Bajpayee remains one of India’s finest actors till date. His journey in filmdom makes for classic film narrative – peaks and troughs of struggle, success, set backs and finally, recognition and acceptance.
Bajpayee shifted to New Delhi from Bihar with his heart set on making it to the elite National School of Drama; he was rejected four times over. Today, he teaches occasionally at the institute. Bajpayee’s journey in Hindi cinema mirrors the contradiction that fine actors like him often face in the industry- having to prove their worth and their ability each time over, even as the star system dominates.
He is the kind of performer that shines despite stars, circumstances and scripts. He stands out in Rajneeti amidst a bevy of stars, amuses in the terribly misled Aks, and holds his ground in Veer Zaara. It has taken him over 15 years to get equal footing in worthy films. Be it Anurag Kashyap’s indulgent, and irresistible Gangs Of Wasseypur, or his part of a naïve CBI officer in Specal 26 pitted against Akshay Kumar, he commands the screen with convincing, controlled performances. A recent flop, Rukh, again brought out his fine acting nuances to the fore. Of course, Aligarh, where he plays a gay professor condemned by people in a small town, he was at his best. Even in average content, he tends to stand out. A film that didn’t set the box office on fire, Tevar, featured Bajpayee’s character as a local goon who deals with rejection in love with a weird decision- not to wear long pants till he catches his runaway ladylove. Striding around commandingly in striped boxers, he makes you both laugh and wonder at his ability to easily swing a trait as random as this.
That Bajpayee remains, as relevant today as he did in 1998 is evident from the success his short films have had online. With Ouch! A film that Neeraj Pandey and he have collaborated on, he brings on the just the right amount of seediness. With Kriti, he plays a character contemporary audiences can connect with easily.
In an interview with the actor two years ago, I recall a tone of resignation to the peaks and throughs nature of his cinematic career. He was awaiting release of Saat Ucchakey, a quirky comedy with fabulous actors on board, but no stars. The Censor Board had gone snippity snip on the film and it’s producer, Neeraj Pandey, was trying to work out a way to still release the film with some humor intact. Bajpayee had learnt that waiting and watching, would always be his way forward.
So when the media had asked him about Aligarh, a performance that won him a Filmfare Best Actor Critics Award, but didn’t get any recognition at the National Film Awards, Bajpayee had tersely replied- awards don’t give you work. If nothing else, the statement reflects that even for a performer of his caliber, work isn’t always easy to find. It’s also a throwback to the downer years when the actor appeared in many forgettable films and also did some down South. Work is sparse, even for the finest.
Of course, the tide has somewhat turned presently. Rajkummar Rao proves to be a good example of changing trends for quality actors. Bajpayee too, has found a rhythm of sorts with filmmaker Neeraj Pandey. Pandey casts him in Aiyaari in a leading role, along with Sidharth Malhotra. Bajpayee has worked with Pandey in 6 films, a filmmaker with a distinct narrative style and a penchant for thrillers. Like Anurag Kashyap, Pandey places a substantial part on Bajpayee’s shoulders in his films. Together, they also have a suspense thriller with a romance coming up. Missing, co-starring Tabu, has long been in the making and should release some time this year. So will Love Sonia, a hard-hitting film on girl child trafficking by Tabrez Noorani, where Bajpayee plays a brothel owner. Calling it his most negative and deadliest role so far, long in the waiting for release, this film could once again shine the spotlight on his growing finesse. As his friend Anurag Kashyap often mentions, Bajpayee has achieved incredible range as an actor now.
Some from the film industry will tell you, that Bajpayee can be demanding and difficult to work with. He doesn’t agree to certain impromptu changes on shoot, and can have his demands when a film is on the floors. Ironically, the unreasonableness mentioned about Bajpayee wouldn’t be considered anything but a legitimate demand from a bona fide star. Despite the fact that a Manoj Bajpayee performance often stays with audiences much after watching a film, sometimes superseding that of a leading man or lady, his ‘demands’ as a veteran character actor raises eyebrows.
With the idiom of a successful Hindi film changing for the better today, Manoj Bajpayee might yet find his place in the sun. Aiyaary seems intriguing, and here’s hoping that more such mainstream films emerge from this brilliant actor in future.
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