"I have been in this industry for 26-27 years and have always felt that the talent of so many people has been wasted because we focus so much on box office collections," Bajpayee says.
At the e.Adda recently, actor Manoj Bajpayee spoke on how OTT has revolutionised the way we watch films, on writers being the new superstars and why actors need to be connected with the world outside
On whether the industry is finally acknowledging talent
I have been in this industry for 26-27 years and have always felt that the talent of so many people has been wasted because we focus so much on box office collections. But now, in the time of the pandemic, Zoom calls and OTT, it has become a level playing field. This is a democratic time for cinema and I just hope it lasts.
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On the king of Mumbai
Mumbai ka king kaun… main nahin hoon. The king of Mumbai in entertainment is OTT. It has completely changed the game. It is becoming difficult for people to attempt anything which is being made just in the name of entertainment. People want good performances, great writers, great directors, and writers who have great writing skills. These are the real kings of OTT.
On whether viewers will return to the old normal
I don’t know how long the pandemic will go on for but when we come back, there will be bruises and there will be after effects. Will cinema or community viewing be the same? No, it will not. What it will be is yet to be seen. The truth of the moment is that I’m talking to you on Zoom. Will we be doing the same thing after the pandemic is over? Yes, we will be doing it, but it will be divided — some interviews will be conducted physically and some digitally.
On who has lost out in this disruption
The whole system that prevailed earlier, which based the quality of cinema on a Friday release, has lost out. But they’re also trying to adjust and accommodate. They’re having to tweak themselves in order to be part of this level playing field. For us this was always the situation but they were doing well, they were the real kings of the box office, but at the end of the day they will also take time to come to terms with this situation and start reinventing themselves.
On how important is it for an actor to have a sense of the outside
If you are not trying to achieve the realism of life, you are going to fall flat. You have to try to get the real person in your performance, those nuances, those subtleties, those layers which people can relate to. If I am watching alone, how long can I sit there and just see a performance in the name of entertainment? Those are the things that did well because it was community viewing and you cheered, you laughed and you whistled. It was an experience that they went for and they got that experience. But when you are sitting alone in a room and watching content, my response to the story will not be the same as it was in the theatre.
On whether the days of the superstar are over
We have created a habit of calling someone a superstar, that’s why we give this tag. I am not a superstar, no one is. In a month we have two-three actors really hitting it out of the park. So how will you gauge? OTT has proved that writers are the superstars. It is a writer’s medium.
On whether self-censorship has become more of a concern
Freedom of expression comes with great responsibility. When we were shooting Season 1 of Family Man, we debated each cuss word, whether it should be there or should it go. If the cuss word is there for the heck of it, I don’t agree. If the cuss word is there to sum up the whole expression of mine — the intent of the character — then I am with it. Self regulation is fine. But when you are told that you can’t do it, then a problem arises. You have people on social media saying that Family Man has cuss words and they cannot show it to their children. Fantastic. I don’t show it to my daughter. Parents are the biggest censors.
On being an outsider
I don’t think Bihar will ever leave this boy. I went there a month back and there is a side of me that always tells me not to return to Bombay. If you come from that kind of a culture, those kinds of places, you are never comfortable in big towns. You always feel like an outsider. I feel like an outsider all the time.
On spotting his father on the sets
Once I had requested my father not to come for a shooting. Suddenly someone told me, ‘chachaji aaye huye hain’. I said ‘kaun chachaji’ and this person says, “tumhare pitaji and he is standing amongst the crowd’. He had told this person, ‘don’t tell Manoj, I have come here to see Raveena Tandon’. The big heroes and heroines have a big following in Bihar. In my childhood, I saw the frenzy whenever Mr Bachchan would appear on screen or even Mr Shatrughan Sinha. I remember watching Dostana, in which they play enemies. So when Amitji would say a
dialogue, one part of the theatre would do some hungama and when Shatruji would speak, the other section would shout. When I see the journey of cinema from that time to OTT, it’s amazing.
What are you reading?
Vivekananda Handbook for Everyday Living by Anshul Chaturvedi. Girish Karnad’s memoir will be my next.
What are you watching?
I just finished Malik, a Malayalam film. I am definitely going to watch one more South Indian film.
Destiny or free will, where on the scale do you find yourself?
I am a huge believer in destiny.
Do you believe in life or a physical presence outside earth?
There is a life that we are not capable of seeing and that is why we think that this is the only thing that exists on this earth. We are not trained enough, not powerful enough to see
Your favourite few lines from your favourite poem?
Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s Yachna has really strong lines. Whenever I was depressed or frustrated, I used to tell myself, ‘Yachna nahi ab ran hoga, jeevan jay ya maran hoga’. The poet is saying, ‘I am not going to request now, there will be a battle. Either I will be victorious or I will die’.
Your first love.
Acting, nothing else.
The last piece of content that you consumed that made you cry.
I cry very easily. Most of the time I try to skip that portion. Most recently, I cried when I saw a young boy singing in a clip that was viral on Instagram. He was helpless and was being made to sing for the camera.
Megha Tata, Managing Director, Discovery Communications India
We saw you in a new avatar as a host in Secrets of Sinauli. You were outstanding. Will we see more of you in that avatar? How do you choose your projects?
I did two shows during the pandemic. One was on Covid and the other is Secrets of Sinauli. I did Secrets… for two reasons. One, it is made by one of my favourite directors and friend Neeraj Pandey. He does not leave any stone unturned. I still remember reading that the villagers ran away with so many artefacts. They saw that these were very valuable but did not know that this was a civilisation which was 4,000 years old. And this is a remarkable discovery and it’s going to help people who are going to work on it. Many of the artefacts have still not been recovered. I wanted to know more. This was the second reason. I have done this show as a very curious student of history. I graduated in history, so there is that side of me which is curious about what happened, how it must have happened.
There are two kinds of content I associate myself with. One side of me is from theatre. It is influenced by Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray. It educated me about cinema and this one side is really strong. At the same time, there is another side of Manoj Bajpayee, who comes from a village, who wanted to become an actor by watching the commercial cinema of Mr Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha. These are the two sides that I try to balance. I want to expand my audience base and that will give me the strength to do the kind of cinema that I want to do, like Bhonsle and Aligarh. When I am reading scripts, they have to engage me, I look at the dynamics of the character and how is it placed, who’s the director, producer and the entire project.
Some years ago, even if there was an argument on the road, your eyes would turn red. Things have changed now. How did you control your temper?
Gajraj, Piyush Mishra and Ashish Vidyarthi, all of us were in the same theatre group. I was a very angry person. I did not come from a very comfortable background and was on a journey where the anger was mostly with my own self, as I was always falling short whenever I looked at Piyush, Ashish or Gajraj. They were privileged in my eyes because they came from a certain background. I wanted to learn as much as possible.The barometer in my eyes for an actor was very high and there was this desperation to reach there. The anger came from not achieving enough. There was so much to learn — you have to learn Hindi, English, read books, watch films, listen to music, gain as much as possible to call yourself an actor. The entire day used to be filled with activities. I was never free. The passion to learn the craft and skill was too much and that took the shape of anger. Now I feel that was a different person.
I have been blessed with some spiritual guidance and that’s how it started changing. I am not indulgent now, I am more open to people, to experience. I collaborate with people.
Pankaj Chadha, CEO, Jyoti steel Industries
At the end of the pandemic, many would go back to the big screen, so would you be doing less OTT? Did not working during the lockdowns impact your mental health?
For me, mental health was at stake when I was doing theatre and did not get into NSD. I was in a very vulnerable state. What saved me was my friends, talking to them about what I was feeling, and remembering that I left my village for a purpose and was not willing to go back. One thing that I always do is exercise, take a shower and wear trousers and a shirt as if I am going out, even if I am home. I have done that during the pandemic too. I read poetry, new books, watched films in Malayalam, Tamil and Assamese, did things required from actors.
Rashmi Malik, Chairperson, SPIC MACAY Foundation
We want to take Indian classical traditions to every child. Is there scope for promotion of classical music through OTT platforms?
I was in Delhi University and educated myself about classical music through SPIC MACAY concerts. I feel children resist listening to classical music but if every morning Kumar Gandharva and Bhimsen Joshi is playing in their house, they might crib that time but when they grow up they go back to it. Me and my wife listen to Abida Khanam in the evening and in the morning we play all kinds of ragas. My daughter hates it, but I know that it will be a major part of her life. It should be part of schools and colleges, let them play in the background.
Kaushik Roy, President, Brand Strategy and Marketing Communication, Reliance
You play every character with sincerity, but I am curious to understand what is it that you do in terms of preparation when you do a Aligarh or Bhonsle?
I have been in theatre for long and have my own experiences as an actor. There is a method that I keep tweaking, looking at the genre, character that I am playing. Sometimes I don’t prepare at all. When I am doing Satyameva Jayate, which is a commercial potboiler, I don’t prepare. I am open to what my director asks me to do, but for films like Bhonsle, Aligarh, Gali Guleiyan, the preparation depends on the back story that I create, the mental or physical notes that I work on.
For Aligarh, there was a chief assistant director who was well-versed in Marathi literature. I asked him to introduce me to Marathi poetry, recitation. If I achieved the atmosphere around Siras, I will be Siras. The atmosphere that he lived in, his love for Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle’s music, his love for whiskey. There are so many aspects of the character you work on but all fails when you go and act in the space set by the production designer. You have to be innovative. When ten days are gone into shooting, I start relaxing. Till then, I am wired up.
Jitender Dabas, Chief Operating Officer, McCann WorldGroup India
Earlier the audience looked up to the big 70 mm screen. The hero was bigger than them. Now the screen is 5 1/2 inches and in their palms. The power relationship is changing. Does that change the idea of screen presence? When we were growing up, we used to go to cinema theatres and find our heroes. Society needs relatable heroes but society also needs inspirational heroes. Big cinema used to give us that. Going forward, as the screen becomes smaller, do you think it would be difficult to create those larger than life heroes who we used to be a fan of?
Screen presence is very important. The camera has to like you, but you can’t plan that. For example, Zanjeer onwards the camera started liking Mr Amitabh Bachchan. He understood the camera, the space in front of the camera. When you understand that, the camera also starts respecting you. If you are into the character, the camera would love your truthfulness and that is screen presence.
For stars to happen, people will always be attached to who they like in that particular work. I went to Delhi and saw people standing in huge numbers outside the place I was staying, not to look at me but because they felt I was one of them. That will be the nature of stardom now. There will be relatability. They will not be in awe of actors like they used to be after watching a film. You are already looking up when you are watching it; it was always somebody I wish I could be like. On OTT, you are watching it very closely, so they treat you as if you are one of them, with that kind of love.
Eminent guests who participated in the e.Adda include Atul Choksey, Chairman, Apcotex Industries Limited; Manas Mohanty, Managing Director, Bharatiya Reserve Bank Note Mudran Private Limited; Dr Suman Bhandari, Director — Cardiology, Fortis Escorts Heart Institute; OP Mishra, Joint Commissioner, Delhi Police; Sivakumar Sundaram, Chairman — Executive Committee, Bennett Coleman & Company; Paroma Chowdhury, Chief Communications Officer, Dream Sports; Kirit Shantilal Parikh, Chairman, Integrated Research and Action for Development; Deven Bharti, Additional DG, Maharashtra Police; Anu Aga, Former Chairperson, Thermax; Raj Dutta, Executive Director, Quatrro; Paresh Parasnis, CEO, Piramal Foundation; Anil Saberwal, Executive Director, Powergrid Corporation of India; Nandini Chatterjee, Chief Communications Officer, PricewaterhouseCoopers; Vidya Basarkod, Country Director – India, Ramboll; Abha Dalmia, Director, Dalmia Holdings; Veena Patil, Founder and Managing Director, Veena World; Dharmakirti Joshi, Chief Economist, CRISIL; Vishal Kapoor, CEO, IDFC Asset Management Company; Ankit Saxena, Media Director, Dentsu; Lt Gen Arun Sahni, Former Army Commander; Pradyumna Dalmia, Partner, Triton Investment Advisors LLP; Malini Shankar, Vice Chancellor, Indian Maritime University; Janak Mehta, Chairman, FRR Shares & Immigration; Ayaz Memon, Columnist; Chandrakant Salunkhe, Founder and President, SME Chamber of India; Meenakshi Gopinath, Chairperson, Centre for Policy Research; Nalini Singh, Managing Director, TV Live India
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