Manoj Bajpayee, along with director Devashish Makhija, was once desperately looking for co-producers to finance their most passionate project ‘Bhonsle’ at the 2016 NFDC Film Bazaar, but little did they know that their hard work would pay off in the form of Best Actor honour for the movie at the 67th National Film Awards. Bajpayee won the National Film Award for his role as a terminally-ill Maharashtrian constable in Makhija’s politically inflected drama, which has sharp commentary about the ill-treatment of Bihari migrants in the western state.
Bajpayee won a National Film Award last time around for a supporting role in Ram Gopal Varma’s 1998 crime drama Satya, in which he played gangster Bhiku Mhatre. The actor, who is the recipient of several prestigious awards including Padma Shri, describes this win to us as “a special one” because “bringing Bhonsle to life was our mission,” he says.
In this interaction, the actor speaks at length about what this win means to the entire team of Bhonsle, his upcoming digital film ‘Silence… Can You Hear It?,’ how he is recovering from Covid, and whether anything has changed in Bollywood after the much-debated nepotism, favouritism, and insider versus outsider last year. ‘Silence… Can You Hear It?’ is directed by Aban Bharucha Deohans and is set to release on March 26 on ZEE5. It stars Bajpayee as the hot-headed ACP Avinash who is assigned the murder case of a retired Justice’s daughter.
How do you feel about this win?
I’m extremely happy that finally Bhonsle has completed its journey with a National Award. We began our journey five years back. We kept on looking for producers but people came in and went away like that. Nobody was there to show any kind of confidence. It took us a lot many years to find small producers to put in the money.
I really want to thank my producers– mainly Sandiip Kapoor and Piyush Singh– for really standing by me. I’m so thankful to Devashish Makhija for his belief in the project and the way he directed the film with so much conviction. It finally paid off for him. I’m only feeling thankful to all my co-actors and all those people who have been a part of the project. They have given everything that they had for this project. I have seen the entire unit working day in and out on the project. It was a mission, not just a project for us. Finally, with this national award, everything else seems justified.
Is there anything that Manoj Bajpayee can’t do or afraid of doing?
I can’t say that I can’t do anything because I believe in hard work. I also believe that no matter how talented you are, you really have to put in all your energy and 100 per cent that you have to achieve anything. And, if I feel that I can’t do a certain thing, it gives me all the more motivation to really accomplish it. So, if there’s any role that I think will be difficult to do, I will always take it up and really work very hard on it to achieve the purpose and try to do it justice to it. I’m never afraid and this is the beauty of being an actor.
You have been somebody who has never shied away from taking up projects with fresh talent despite being one of the most established actors in Hindi cinema. Does it come from the place of not taking oneself too seriously?
It definitely comes from not taking myself so seriously. But it also comes from the fact that cinema always starts with the script and if the script is written well and the director has a clear-cut understanding of what he or she wants from that script or actors or cameraman then there is no stopping. Nowadays, directors are so much clear and if they have not directed a feature film, they have worked on short films. Aban has directed short films. So, they are experienced already. They have already dealt with the cameras and the angles. So, the question of doubting their ability is not there. I only want my directors to have complete clarity as to in which direction they want the team to go.
You are first time working with a female director in ‘Silence… Can You Hear It?’. Did you spot any difference between the sensibility of a female director and a male director?
Aban is fascinated with murder mysteries. All the scripts that she has and wants to direct are murder mysteries and they are brilliant ones. So, I’m working with a director who happens to be a female and is interested in murder mysteries and their treatment script-wise and that was quite fascinating to observe about her. I have always maintained one thing that there is nothing like a female director or a male director. A director is a director who has a vision that everyone has to follow. So, when I was working with Aban it was no different from my working with a male director. She was the captain of the ship and my duty was just to go ahead and fulfill her orders to the best of my abilities. What is different about Aban is that her storyboarding is impeccable. I have never seen anybody so prepared on the set. Also, her way of directing those intimate moments was completely different from how a male director would approach it.
How do you make sure that your every cop role is different from your previous one? What was your first reaction when you were offered the role of ACP Avinash?
I never play a cop, a gangster, or an advocate. I play the character who is wearing a uniform. I never play the profession of the character. I play their elements. I focus on where they come from. I try to focus on characterisation. I try to focus on the person I’m playing rather than the profession he is in and maybe that is why those roles are different from one another.
Do you feel that streaming platforms have given a whole new boost to your prolific and eclectic career?
I have got a lot from cinema. I have only made my web debut with The Family Man just a year-and-a-half ago. All the acclaim, awards, and popularity that I have got is because of cinema. But yes, OTT is definitely adding a lot to my filmography and giving me a lot more space to explore and really try my hands on different kinds of stories. I feel that each and every medium will only give me opportunities to really challenge and reinvent myself again and again and I’m quite happy about it.
Does it worry you that now there is a regulation of content on OTT platforms?
I don’t think it worries me because the regulation is in the hands of OTT platforms. I just hope that they don’t regulate it randomly. If they want to regulated they should regulate without touching the creative flow of the director. They should not regulate it just on a mere assumption that it might offend somebody. They have to have concrete reasons behind any kind of regulation. But at the end of the day, I’d say that it’s a good decision that it is left to the platforms to regulate their own content and platforms will always do it in consultation with the directors.
In your recent interviews, you have mentioned that you think like “a migrant”. Why would you say that and does it also influence your career choices?
It doesn’t influence my career choices. I feel like a migrant because I’m not born and brought up in big cities. I have left my village and that’s the house I have known since my childhood and that’s the area I have been exposed to since the time I have opened my eyes. All my upbringing and learning come from there. Everything else that I have learned after coming to cities is an acquired knowledge or taste. These are not something that I have brought upon. That is why I don’t feel that I belong to these big cities—be it Delhi or Mumbai. I always feel that I’m in transit. It’s not the same with my daughter because she’s born and brought up in Mumbai. For her, this is her truth and going to be her home but not for me ever.
Last year, we saw a series of debates on favouritism, nepotism, and lobbying culture raging in the film industry. Are you seeing any impact of those conversations today?
I always say that debates are fantastic. Debates always change things and make you introspect and think about perspectives seriously. They also give you a chance to improve yourself. I just hope that these debates will eventually do some good to the industry. I hope we will introspect and try to improve our workplace. This industry has given us so much, so it is very important for all of us to contribute to making this industry far more democratic and a place that only focuses on talent and nothing else.
How have you been recovering from coronavirus?
I’m almost at the lag end of my quarantine. I’ll go for the test on the 15th day (27th March) and I just hope and pray that it comes negative. But yes, a lot of weakness is there. It will take time for us to really come back on our own. It’s been tough days of recovering. I really thank all the people who prayed for us and have sent me all the best wishes for recovery. I’d also like to thank all my friends in the industry who kept on calling me to check on the progress in the recovery.
In the past few weeks, a number of celebs have tested Covid positive and the cases are also rising rapidly. Do you feel that this surge might once again impede the overall functioning of the entertainment industry?
The cases have been rising all over and people have been very casual and reckless about the protocols and the restrictions. They must follow the Covid-19 norms otherwise the surge is going to be massive. How long you want the country to be in lockdown or the police to be really monitoring you? All of us should behave like responsible citizens, not just for ourselves but also for others. When we are shooting, there are so many other people whose livelihoods depend on that particular shoot so we all should be responsible towards each other if we really want to work and keep on working.