At an e-Adda held recently, actor Pankaj Tripathi spoke on his journey, keeping calm, why OTT platforms should duck formula, and Bollywood being a democratic space
Pankaj Tripathi was in conversation with National Features Editor Devyani Onial and The Indian Express film critic Shubhra Gupta. (Photo source: IE)
On his roots
I come from Gopalganj, a district in Bihar, in the very interiors. In my village, there was a tradition of theatre, which at present is dormant. We used to do theatre right after the Chhath festival. There I did a couple of plays. My father is a priest, he conducts religious rituals. I remember, about 10-12 km from my house there’s a bazaar called Barauli and once there was an inaugural puja for the opening of a cinema hall called Basant Talkies. My father took me along, and said, ‘Today’s the inauguration of the cinema hall, so you, too, enter the theatre and watch a film.’ Before that day, I had seen a cinema hall only from the outside. At that time, how would I have known that one day, I’ll become a part of the cinema industry. From my village, I then went to Patna to pursue theatre, and after doing a fair bit of theatre, I learnt that acting needs to be learnt. Then I got to know that the government runs the institution National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi, and there, acting is taught for free; in fact, people receive money (stipends) to learn acting. But to apply there, one had to clear graduation, and I had dropped out of college. So, I went back and rejoined my graduation course in Hindi literature, while preparing for NSD on the side. Eventually I ended up at NSD. After that, I came to Mumbai in 2004, because it’s very difficult for an actor to survive in Hindi theatre.
I first did television. Earlier, one didn’t get a direct chance to act in films. For eight years, I had no clue about where films are made in Mumbai, and now the situation is such that every eighth day, I’m offered a new film. In the initial days, I had no idea where and how films were made, so I started with TV. I did about three daily soaps: Bahubali, Gulaal and Sarojini. I’ve done a fair amount, about 500-600 episodes, but luckily, none of my shows became popular, and that’s why people hadn’t really seen me before films! When I was doing the last show, I was very frustrated because TV felt very repetitive — everyday going to the same set, meeting the same set of people, almost the same storylines. I was fed up with it. In the meanwhile, I received Newton’s script, Amit Masurkar sent it over and I read it. Once the script arrived, I left television. But yes, TV is also a very powerful medium. I know its power. But I did my share.
On his days of struggle
I don’t have very many unhappy stories in Mumbai because I had fallen in love with and married an accomplished and beautiful woman, Mridula, who used to work as a teacher in Mumbai and earned enough salary to sustain the two of us. But yes, more than the outer fight is the inner struggle, the uncertainty that comes with this profession. You don’t know when you will get an opportunity, how long will it take, and you are absolutely uncertain about what will happen. Everyday, I used to go to casting offices for auditions, wherever they were held, and returned unsuccessful. For me, that free time was not just free time, I was actually working on my craft. I was practising.
On whether he ever felt dejected in his early days
I never felt that way, perhaps, because I hadn’t come to Mumbai thinking that I’ll become a hero, or to launch myself. The money and survival in Hindi theatre was difficult for me, so I came to Mumbai for survival. I thought acting is my passion, and perhaps, I can run the house on it. Where I come from, our struggle is to become a doctor or get a railway job. My needs were very less. And, perhaps, that’s why, I never feel dejected. I knew, the day I get a chance, I’ll somehow manage. And, neither did I want to become some huge personality. Just yesterday, someone asked me about my lead role in the forthcoming film Kaagaz, that whether I didn’t want to play the lead all along. I said, of course, it (playing the lead) was a desire but I was never desperate for it. There was chaahat (desire) not bechaini (restlessness) that my tomorrow should be better than my today.
On maintaining his composure in a frenetic city
I somehow manage. Raftaar (speed) is an external process, which basically comes from within. For the wheels to move, the work is done by the engine. Though we see the wheels, but it is the engine which runs. So, I keep my engine under control. Yes, sometimes I feel drained, and if this year-long lockdown hadn’t happened, I would have fallen sick, because overnight, I was taking flights from one place to another, one shooting to another. This lockdown break made me realise that I should pause for a while. It’s again about controlling my own engine.
On being involved with student politics
Bihar is a very politically aware state. I, too, was very active in politics during my student days. I had come to Patna from a village, so I wanted to do something out of the routine, but what that I didn’t know. I used to read a small newspaper column called ‘Nagar Mein Aaj (Today in Town)’, and got to know about a SPIC MACAY programme in Patna, where Bismillah Khan sahib was to come to play the shehnai. I, a simple 21-year-old village boy, in a cotton pant, bush shirt and gamchha, who has no knowledge of classical music, cycled to the event at Magadh Mahila College in Patna, because entry was free. All around me sat a well-dressed, discerning audience, they were also looking at me, happy that a young chap loves music so much. But, what love? I just read the column and wanted to do something different and so, I ended up going to the show. That time, when the young wanted to do something different, they engaged in student politics, attended classical music and dance concerts in Patna. Just that way, I ended up doing a lot of things. I took hotel-training and worked at a hotel, and sold shoes, too, for some days, even a broker got me to sell a patch of land — I tried but couldn’t sell it. So, you want to do a lot of things. Students’ union was one such thing I pursued for a year-and-a-half. And then, I saw a lot of theatre. I set my mind on pursuing it as a career. I left everything else, students’ politics and hotel job, and did theatre 24×7.
On whether artists should voice their opinion
Of course. Many artists are fully aware of what’s happening around them and they share their opinions. The tools, the medium at my disposal is cinema, my films. I say whatever I want to say, through my films. A poet says what he wants to say through his poetry, a painter through his art, a sculptor through his creations. Without thought and thinking, no story or narrative can be created. All our art forms — dance, drama and poetry — stem from deep thought.
On his nuanced performances
Over the years, I have dealt with a lot of people, and those interactions have left an everlasting impression on me. I have met a whole range of people, right from my village, to the people in Mumbai, and I consider all of them my teachers. I’m a very receptive person, I believe in listening more. I had a teacher in NSD, BV Karanth, who used to say, ‘Kansen bano, Tansen mat bano; through minimum, create maximum.’ As for the economical gestures and the nuanced bits, it is a very deliberate and a very conscious decision on my part. A part of my soul and a huge amount of my life experience goes into making that nuanced, subtle performance possible.
On the importance of research to play a character
Many people still don’t understand the importance of a backstory or the research needed for a character, especially in mainstream cinema. It’s important for me, as a performer. I cannot construct a building without a foundation. A foundation is never visible, but without a foundation, nothing of importance can ever be built. Characters cannot exist without a backstory, or a background. For me, a character just doesn’t materialise in thin air and starts reciting dialogues wearing the costume. He has to come from somewhere, from some context — he’s coming from someplace and he’s going somewhere.
On a formula and a set narrative with expletives emerging on OTT platforms
We should be aware of this trap. We see that in the entertainment industry, if you have one hit story, there is a tendency to replicate it. We do something once, it is a novelty, but when we do it too often, it loses impact. I self-censor, I only use expletives when it’s absolutely necessary. When we are sharing a story of a gangster drama, it becomes necessary as people who inhabit those worlds in real life, don’t really use a nuanced, respectful dialect. Yes, people get bored (if it gets repetitive). But as actors, we also get swayed.
On his plans to direct films
I get visual of landscapes of various places in my mind — right from Naugachia in Bihar, to the full moon night of Rann of Kutch, to the desolate Nubra Valley, or an evening on the banks of Sarayu river. I can only share them with the world when I direct, not through speaking or narrating alone. After some years, hopefully.