The last time I met Pankaj Tripathi was just after the release of Bareilly Ki Barfi. Newton was yet to hit the theatres then. We had a leisurely chat for close to two hours at his house in Malad. He had just hired a manager to handle his work appointments.
This time, there's more to talk about, from Stree, a surprise blockbuster in which he has a supporting but significant role to Amazon Prime Videos's Mirzapur, where he plays a don, Akhandanand Tripathi. Now, he also has a PR manager who keeps a close watch on his ever-expanding list of daily engagements. Most of all, time, Tripathi says, seems to be shrinking every day for him.
Still, Tripathi's excitement during The Man's photoshoot — to give him a never-before-seen suave, stylish makeover — is infectious. Tripathi admits he never knew some colours, that he never wore, could uplift his mood so much.
Over a break, he tells me with an air of nonchalance, "Life hasn't been the same since we met last. It has become really busy now. After Newton, I took a break for the first time for a whole week."
Newton, he continues, was a game-changer. In the film, Tripathi plays an assistant commandant, Aatma Singh, on duty in the naxal-hit belt of Chhattisgarh. The film, made on a shoe-string budget, with superlative performances by Tripathi and Rajkummar Rao, was India's official entry to the Academy Awards, and surprisingly, hit the jackpot at the box-office, too. It also won him a special mention at the National Awards in 2018.
Work started trickling in, too. Now he has more than 11 projects lined-up for 2019.
"All interesting," he says.
It has taken Tripathi a long time to reach here, a journey that started in 2004, when after getting his degree from the National School of Drama, he came to Mumbai with his wife "to struggle" — queuing up to audition for bit roles. Getting work was not easy and very infrequent. But what kept him sane was his unflinching belief in his craftsmanship.
Things changed for Tripathi when casting director Mukesh Chhabra suggested his name for Sultan's character in Anurag Kashyap's Gangs of Wasseypur (2013). Kashyap wasn't sure about him. But Chhabra was. And so were all the other assistant directors who saw his audition tape.
Now, more than half-a-decade later, if there is one thing that unites both the industry and film fanatics, it's this thought: that Tripathi is one of the best things to happen to Hindi films in recent times.
Chhabra would later help Tripathi get roles in films like Nil Battey Sannata, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Gurgaon, among others. Each of these characters was poles apart and helped cement his position in the industry.
Amar Kaushik, the director who debuted with Stree, raves about the depth Tripathi brings to his performances, and says it is because of the actor's heightened sense of awareness to all that's happening around him. Kaushik is yet to finalise the characters of his next film, but is sure Tripathi will definitely be one of them. "We are in the development stages of our next film and haven't really given a name to all our characters. But we know the part that Pankaj is going to play," he says with a laugh.
Born in Belsand, Gopalgunj in Bihar, in a pandit family making a livelihood through farming and sometimes panditaai, Tripathi got involved in acting during the Chhath celebrations. Amateur plays were put up as part of the revelry. His father wanted him to become a doctor, but didn't object to Tripathi taking up acting. "Seedhe saadhe log hain," he says.
That gave him the freedom to explore everything that kept him happy... From taking part in sports while studying in Patna's Magadh University to dabbling in campus politics as a right-wing student's union member (Tripathi spent a week in jail in 1993 for participating in a violent local agitation), he's tried his hands at everything. He took to literature in the seven days he spent in the lock up, and a stage adaptation of Andha Kuan only strengthened his desire to become an actor. But, it wasn't yet time to pursue acting seriously. With pressure from family, he had to pursue a course in Hotel Management in Patna. He even worked as a trainee chef.
With Tripathi, the conversation is never a simple answer to a question. It meanders to topics you would never imagine. He often compares acting to cooking. These days, he compares acting with magic tricks. "What else would you call it. It's like magic because it transports you to a different world. And it's like cooking because one ingredient less or more can spoil the flavour."
Karan Anshuman, show-runner and co-director of Mirzapur, says the philosophies Tripathi draws from life accentuate his performance. "He brings a lot to the table because of what he has experienced. He is rooted and understands characters well."
In Mirzapur, Tripathi has a few intimate scenes with Rasika Dugal, his wife in the show. It wasn't easy to do those scenes, he says. Earlier, in Anaarkali of Aarah, where he played Rangeela, the leader of a dance troupe, he had some playful scenes with Swara Bhaskar, which weren't intimate, but still Tripathi found them difficult to execute. "The place where I grew up, the male-female bonding, wasn't comfortable. That hesitation remains. I am very cautious while doing such scenes," he says, as he goes on to describe his childhood.
Tripathi often veers from the question put to him, and apologises for it. But that's the beauty of having a conversation with someone like him. In an industry cluttered with opinions with a limited purview, and mostly scripted answers, Tripathi's philosophical yet light-hearted and uninhibited conversation, is like a lease of fresh air. He thinks before speaking. That's not to be politically correct like others, but mostly to add depth to what he says.
Tripathi says he's always kept that reality of life close to himself. "I am not chasing anything any more," he says.
Probably because today he's established his versatility with his craft and there's enough work coming his way. "I hope it gets better. But at the end of the day, I am a good father, a good husband and a good son."
His wife often tells him that he is very diplomatic. "Because I manage to keep both her and my parents happy. Every three months, I go to my village to spend time with my parents. I love travelling with my wife and daughter."
These simple pleasures of life are what matter to him the most.
What is fashion for you?
The first would be comfort. The second, the feel-good factor. If you look in the mirror and feel good about yourself, that's fashion for me. It could even be a dhoti-kurta. In fact, when I wear one, I think I carry it really well. I like it too, a lot.
Any fashion faux pas that you remember?
I won't really call it fashion, but yes, a faux pas for sure. Artistes are usually lost. I am no different. Usually, there's an extra pair of footwear in my car. I was wearing one pair of chappals, while the other was under the seat. I got down from my car, walked only a bit when I realised that everyone's looking at me. I was wearing a rubber slipper in one foot and leather in another. But other than that, even if I wear torn or worn-out clothes, I don't really care. My identity is through my art and not my attire. My wife, though, is very fashionable.
When did you discover your style statement?
I have discovered many things in today's photoshoot. When I wore the light-brown suit, I felt a certain difference in my mood. I realised the effect that colours can have on you. I feel very comfortable in my tee and pyjamas. But now, I think I can afford fashionable stuff. Earlier, I remember, I used to go to a store, look at the price tag and keep it away.
So, what's the most expensive garment you've bought?
A few weeks back while shooting in Lucknow, I felt really cold. I went to a store and bought a jacket worth Rs 15,000. I have never bought anything that goes beyond that. Once, someone gifted me a coat that was worth a lakh-and-a-half. When I was told the price, I wanted to return it. Dedh lakh ka coat hota hai bhala?
Do you shop for your wife?
That's the only reason I work. Half my earnings go on her shopping (laughs). I really like saris. Wherever I go in India, I buy the traditional, hand-woven saris. There's no replacement for hand-crafted stuff.
Something that nobody knows about you?
These days I have started talking a lot and reveal a lot about myself. People have started thinking that I am a very rooted, humble guy. That's a misconception. I am kind of arrogant. That is what people don't know. That arrogance is subtle, but it's there. It's not ego, but self-respect.
A role you want to do, but think you can't pull it off
I come from a village, a Hindi-medium background. I have done an English film, Mango Dreams. But I think I will never be cast in the role of a corporate head honcho.
High point of your life...
When I see my family happy. Also, when I see people happy with my achievements.
Seeing my family in pain. Professionally, the success or failure of a film doesn't impact me.
The first film you watched?
Jai Santoshi Maa, when I was about 10. My father had gone to perform a puja at the opening of a theatre, Vasant Talkies, in the village where the film was played as part of the rituals.
Your first break as an actor in films?
The common perception is that it's Run (2004), but my first break was with a Kannada film, Chigurida Kanasu, starring Shiva Rajkumar: I played the hero's friend. It was a small role. That was the first time I saw a film camera operating.
The first acting stint?
My first stage stint was in Class 6 or 7 in my village. A lady (we referred to her as bhabhi), would have babies every year. A few older boys, as a prank, sent me on the stage and asked me to say, “din par din ek go bachhe hota hai”. I did that. But I was very young and unaware. Later, when I was around 14 or 15, I played a woman in a village skit and danced to a naagin song.
Your first day in Mumbai?
October 16, 2004. I took the Golden Temple Express and reached Mumbai Central railway station at 7am. That was when I had come looking for work. I come to Mumbai for the first time to study Maharashtra's folk theatre as a sophomore student in NSD. We stayed at Andheri Sports Complex. I remember one day we went to the Lokhandwala market: For us, it was nothing less than New York at that time.
Any literary line that defines you or your life?
If it had not been for literature — Indian or European — I wouldn't have been the artiste I am today.
What would you be found doing alone at home?
Chopping onions. Or, making a paste of garlic-chilli. Tweeting, too. I have been doing that a lot lately. I am now tired of that, too.