New Delhi: "I ran like I've never run in my life!" Actor Manoj Bajpayee keels over with slightly rasping laughter that is typical of smokers as the consternation on my face triggers a fresh bout of chuckles. It was a languorous evening in Delhi and Bajpayee was describing being chased by the police as a young man staking out North Delhi's Batra cinema hall, known for its colourful crowd of students and unemployed hangers on.
As he prepares for another Friday in his career of nearly two decades, Bajpayee recalls the reasons why he chose years of frustration and disappointment as a trade off for the best job in the world. Even after a National Award and the satisfaction of being known as one of India's most prolific character actors, Bajpayee jokes that he's already being referred to in the media as a 'veteran' - a tag that worries him a bit.
Ever the level-headed pragmatic, Bajpayee says had 'Gangs of Wasseypur' tanked and 'Special 26' not done well, he would have faded into oblivion - a risk character actors like him and Nawazuddin Siddiqui always run in an industry of mega stars.
Bajpayee stars in 'Shootout At Wadala' being released on May 3.
In this two-part interview, he reminisces about a humble beginning in a village in Bihar, a farmer father who not only raised six children but also supported their individual dreams, a 'Hitler' mother no one dared argue with and the 10 roles that changed his career forever.
I was born to act
As a struggling film and theatre student in Delhi, Bajpayee shared a room with three other youths. The occasional money order from his father paid for the expenses as he scouted for odd jobs and hung out at the university campus, waiting for his big break in cinema.
"I'm from Bihar, from a village actually. My father is a farmer and mother is a housewife and we are three brothers and three sisters. I'm the second one," he says.
Bajpayee, who has a two-year-old daughter, says it never fails to amaze him that his father raised six children out of his limited means when parents struggle to raise one or two these days.
"It was amazing growing up, we've been blessed with that kind of childhood. I really feel unhappy when I see my daughter growing up in a city like Mumbai, with no places to play. Our children are not growing up in a healthy atmosphere and it becomes a big responsibility for us parents to give them a great childhood, the kind we had."
The film bug bit me fairly young
"Jab sheher jaate thay tab film dekhtey thay, mother father ko film dekhna achha lagta tha," Bajpayee says .
His parents always pampered his dream of becoming an actor. "Amitabh Bachchan movies finally did the trick. Everybody growing up was an Amitabh Bachchan fan, he would appear on screen and we would go berserk. The man had such long legs. But mujhe Amitabh Bachchan nahi banna thaa, mujhe screen par jaana tha"
How did he achieve this impossible dream as a boy growing up mesmerised by Amitabh Bachchan in a small town in Bihar? To go into that, he says, I needed to understand his background.
"My father was a very mild man, I've never seen a better human being than him, no deceit, no cunning, he managed to bring up six children and he was so mild mannered that he was often mistaken as meek. My mother was Hitler (laughs). She still is, we are all scared of her. If you say anything to her, you've had it. There's no scope of argument there. My father's biggest dream was that all his children would at least be graduates. Nothing else. When my youngest brother wanted to do environmental science, and mind you at that time it wasn't even known to most people, he wasn't stopped from doing it."
Those Mukherjee Nagar days
"There were three guys, one of them his batchmate, he was sharing a room with. Theatre kartay huye kabhi kuch mil jaata tha, very thin line we were walking on, my father used to send some money by money order sometimes. It must have been difficult from him. His income brought up six children. You don't realise it, but how difficult it must have been, he was taking loan from somewhere or the other," he says.
This grounding and mostly frustration during the darkest days of his career has given him the confidence to now choose work carefully. There is also a new and intense desire to go back to theatre.
Where's the discipline in work today?
Won't going back to theatre be a difficult and risky step to take at this stage in your career?
"No it will not be. It will be fantastic. I have a rooting in theatre and I have a right to get back to it. If you create a discipline around you, even if you are not from theatre you will be fantastic. Look at Dilip Kumar. He created a discipline around him, understood the art of acting and the craft of acting.
"With me, that's a habit now and something I don't have to make an effort for. Reading, watching, observing has become a part of my personality, this is a hard disk (points to his head). I've met so many people, had such a long journey and gone through so many circumstances," Bajpayee says.
"Now a person like me is considered a veteran and that word has started bothering me (bursts out laughing)."
So, what is success to you?
"Give me an amount which I require for life, sitting at home, that's it. I don't have too many expectations. I have always limited my work partly because I'm very lazy and partly because not everything excites me," he says.
I've tried selling myself out of frustration
It doesn't get easier for actors like him, Bajpayee says. And he has no illusions about his relevance in today's Hindi cinema.
"We are still character actors for most of the directors and now it's more difficult because my kind of actors are in abundance. We have to be in the realm of the directors. You will be relevant if you keep reinventing yourself and in our case that is never the question mark, actors like me we keep changing ourselves with every film," he says.
His darkest phase
"I've tried selling myself out of frustration, out of hopelessness, done three four films and then those films didn't work. My wife came out of the theatre and cursed me on the phone and suddenly I realised that that I feel bad. And films stay forever. There's pressure of earning money also, you have the future of your child to take care of and everything has to be taken care of. Now I make sure that I get paid well at least, I don't compromise on films, whatever I'm doing right now," he says.
"Twenty years, I'm still alive, I have survived the worst of it, I'm being loved by people. But '1971' is a place of hurt for me, it didn't work. I stopped getting work, despite Pinjar," he says.
"You have to understand, I would not have got a single interview or film offers had Wasseypur flopped or had Special 26 bombed. Neeraj Pandey's decision to cast me was much before Wasseypur, I will give it to Pandey, Anurag Kashyap and mostly Prakash Jha for giving me the breaks they did."
(to be continued... as Bajpayee lists the 10 roles that changed his fortune forever, his emotional attachment to each one of them, why he thinks some people in the industry owe a debt of gratitude to Ram Gopal Varma)