Om Puri was very open about his life, says Manoj Bajpayee

Om Puri and Manoj Bajpayee

Om Puri and Manoj Bajpayee

At this point in time, awards don’t add or subtract anything from your career,” he announces, fanning our curiosity a tad bit. After all, the actor is fresh from two back-to-back Filmfare wins not just for his film, Aligarh, but also his short, Taandav. Manoj Bajpayee, posterboy of good cinema, lets us in on why award ceremonies are losing credibility, how he has never been to LA and the transitions he noticed in Bengali cinema. In town to promote Naam Shabana, he opens up on Om Puri’s final words to him. Excerpts:

You’ve lost quite a bit of weight. Is it for Naam Shabana?
I am trying to get into some kind of shape for a film that I’m doing next. I can’t talk about it right now; the makers are keeping it a secret…

It’s been debated if Naam Shabana is a prequel to Neeraj Pandey’s Baby…
It’s a spin-off. A prequel is about all the characters and what they had done earlier. Here, it’s about Shabana (Taapsee Pannu), who we see in a bit role in Baby. The film is about how she was spotted by the intelligence department and what they saw in her and her relationship with the department. It’s a very nice back story that writer-producer Neeraj Pandey discovered. It’s an extraordinary journey of an extraordinary girl.

So, you play the chief of the intelligence department. A lot has already been written about how it comes close to your character in Special 26. How similar/dissimilar are the two?
They are diametrically opposite to each other. The only similarity is the moustache and it stops right there. My character in Special 26, Wasim, a CBI officer, is a very conservative husband and a doting father; he is always full of himself, who thinks he is way ahead of others in terms of intelligence. Then, he is proven wrong. Wasim laughs at himself for being proven a fool. Here, the intelligence officer is a sharp guy, he thinks 10 steps ahead. His only interest is the national security. He is the one who spots Shabana. There’s not an iota of emotion in him. The challenge was that I had to deliver more than 150 lines without showing any emotion. I had to use my craft to a considerable extent.

Casey Affleck got the Best Actor award at the Oscars this year for his subdued performance in Manchester by the Sea. Are you hinting at his style of acting?
You can see so many things going on in Casey Affleck’s mind. His character is not unemotional; he comes across as
disturbed. The chaos that is there in his mind is visible. With Ranveer, my character, there’s no chaos but complete clarity. He has no personal agenda; it’s always the nation.

You must have liked Baby a lot…
I loved it; I missed being there. The reason for doing this film is also Neeraj Pandey, he is such a unique writer-filmmaker. He is one of the most successful directors of our country. Whatever he touches turns into gold. Here, he is the writer and also looked after the entire project. His mind intrigues me — how he can choose such unconventional ideas and turn them into mainstream subjects. It’s no small task and he always comes out with flying colours. Who wouldn’t want to work with him!

You also did a short film with him, Ouch, and a few more with a couple of other filmmakers. Do you see a short-film revolution taking shape
in Bollywood?

Last year, I did three short films — Taandav, Kriti and Ouch. It was my wife’s (Neha) idea that I do a short film. I still keep thanking her for that. She said if you do that, everyone will take this medium seriously. We were talking; we talk a lot on quite a few aspects. Today, everyone is making a short film. Every famous actor/director wants to delve into it. When I gave the idea to Shirish Kunder, he started thinking. He thought if Manoj is ready to do it, let’s go ahead and make a short film. He was surprised by his own ability. Debashish Makhija, who directed Taandav, is also a great talent; he will soon be directing me in a film. When I discovered his talent, I wanted to explore it. He is from Kolkata. Neeraj Pandey is also from Kolkata. Now see, I have a great Kolkata connect!
After a gap of a few years, when you won a Filmfare Award for Aligarh, the whole country was rooting for you…
It was humbling for an actor. Eventually, if you listen to the audience carefully, you will know that they want the award functions to be credible. I am happy that Filmfare took a step in that direction —by not just giving me the Best Actor award but also including the short film category, where too I got an award for Taandav. I hope others follow suit. At this point in time, no awards in this country add or subtract anything from your career. They don’t add value to it.
What about the National Film Awards?
They give you respect. National Film Awards are prestigious, as you are being honoured by the president himself. But even those awards have been questioned. The Indian awards need to meet the expectations of the public and they can do that only by being transparent and credible. You need to add great jury members. I am not saying that they favour anyone. The awards today have become events. Now one has to take the event bit out of the awards and make them more of an award function. Only then will the public start respecting the awards.

You did a one-minute role in Drohkaal and later on, worked with Om Puri in a few other films like Chakravyuh and Ghaath. His untimely demise must have come as a huge shock…
It’s a huge loss not just for the film industry, but also his family and friends like me. It’s very rare that a great actor is a great human being and he was a combination of this rarity. He always sat with me. He was very open about his life and never shied away from telling us what he felt on a personal level. He gave us the liberty to ask him to lose weight or to give us more films like Ardh Satya and Aakrosh. He was trying hard to get hold of a DVD of Aligarh till the time he died. He told me he would buy one. He tried to watch the film while he was travelling, but could not, as he had a busy schedule. He would call me at midnight and say sorry that he couldn’t watch the film.

You said that should there be a film on him, you will be best-suited to play his character…
I said that in a very humorous way. The journalists were asking who I think would be best-suited to play the role
and I said no one can play it better than me. It was a joke. I didn’t mean it. I felt bad that the harmless statement made headlines everywhere. Right now,
we are finding it hard to cope with the loss. To talk about a film on him is talking too soon. But yes, his life deserves to be documented as it’s quite an inspiration. I am inspired by his life and films.

Om Puri made it to the West and others followed suit. Do you have any such ambition of acting in international projects?
This year, I did a film called Love Sonia, which was shot in India. A film on trafficking, it’s an American production. I play a negative role in the film. Beyond that, I have not made any effort to get into that industry. I have never been to LA… Tomorrow if any good role comes my way, I will definitely be part of it.

Who are the GenNext actors that you look forward to?
I am very fond of Kangana Ranaut’s acting. I have been following her graph since Gangster and she is only growing as an actor. Everyone knows Tabu is a great actor and I have been part of a film with her called Missing, produced by Neeraj. I am waiting for its release. These are the two actors that I am really fond of. Rajkummar Rao, who is a dear friend, has a great lineup this
year and Nawaz is balancing both the worlds very well. There are too many people to learn from and look up to. I have not seen The Waiting yet. It stars Naseeruddin Shah and I really look up to him.

You have been to Kolkata many times. Are you clued into the films churned out by the Bengali film industry?
Yes, as an actor and a film personality, I am always updated on regional cinema and look out for cutting-edge stuff. The Bengali film industry has gone through many transitions — from parallel and niche to completely commercial. Now again, some very serious minds are coming into Bengali cinema. The only way an industry can move forward is
by encouraging all kinds of films; let them co-exist. The commercial cinema brings in money and the experimental movies put sense into every department. The balance should be there. This is what the Indian film industry has achieved recently and it’s a boon for actors like me.

Talking about Shah Rukh Khan, you recently said some actors are born with stardom…
You can’t inculcate charisma; some are lucky to have it. When I was in Kolkata to promote Aks with Mr Bachchan, my mind was completely blown. I saw thousands of people lining up on both sides of the road, waving at him. I was in his car and such incidents only humble you. It makes you think others have qualities you don’t have…

While on stardom, one last question. When did you sign your first autograph?

I had done a play, Suno Re Kissa, for Barry John, which was televised. It came on Doordarshan. I was in Mumbai to conduct a workshop with children and was crossing a narrow lane. A few kids came running to me and asked if I was the same guy.

I said yes and two of them promptly asked for my autograph. It was some 23 years back…

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