A fiercely ambitious young man from a village chases a fantastic dream of becoming a successful actor. Like his idols Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri, he aspires to join the National School of Drama (NSD). At the outset, his hopes are dashed when the school rejects him multiple times.
In the decades to follow, this man went on to shatter all preconceived notions of what an actor can and can’t do. Despite playing every kind of cop imaginable from police office to RAW agent, he never managed to get typecast. And recently, he managed to surprise fans in the role of intelligence agent Srikant Tiwari in Amazon Prime Video's hugely popular series, The Family Man.
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In sharp contrast to the slick, almost superhuman intelligence agents with their muscles and their stoic demeanour, Srikant’s desperation at failure and his flawed approach to dealing with his demanding life are evident. Unlike other agents we've seen, he is as human as they come. But, he packs that extra drive to go above and beyond because he knows many lives are at stake. Manoj did the same in real life when his career did not take off as expected.
“First and foremost, you need to understand that rejection is something that is going to be constant. So when you start pampering any big ambition for yourself, you should only think about rejection. To think that I am going to step out of my home and people are going to cheer for me is a fantasy. That happens only in animation movies my daughter watches! The real world is brutal.”
Manoj realised early on that the question is not whether you will fall, of course you will, but it is about how soon you pick yourself up and start running.
When he was studying at Delhi University's Ramjas College, a close friend told him that if he wanted to chase his dream, then he needed the eye of the tiger. He was referring to the song Eye of the Tiger by the band Survivor, which song plays in the Sylvester Stallone movie Rocky 3. Though the lyrics were about boxing, the song left an impression on Manoj. It fuelled his passion and drove him to hone his craft in readiness for an opportunity.
His resilience not only helped him stay on course despite rough knocks but also paved the way for talents like Rajkummar Rao and Pankaj Tripathi.
For someone who acknowledged that acceptance from people is not easy and getting them to give you a second look, or in some cases a first look, is an uphill task, Manoj had his work cut out for him. He was not an overnight sensation like many other actors who got a break in Shekhar Kapoor’s much acclaimed Bandit Queen. And like a unique plot twist, years later he played the character of the dacoit Maan Singh again in the movie Sonchiriya. Though this time it was an award-winning actor playing the role and not the struggling actor trying to establish a foothold in the industry.
What sustained him through the years and gave him the confidence to stick to his guns is tremendous self-belief. And that belief, he maintains, comes only from learning. “You should focus on learning — learning about people, learning about life and learning the craft, which is related to your ambition.”
It is this dedication to the craft that saw Manoj become a household name with Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya. The character of Bhiku Mhatre put him on the map and gave him the much-deserved recognition but his rise was not meteoric. Each superlative performance thereafter won him rave reviews, accolades and meme worthy performances like Sardar Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur.
It is one thing to have the audience rooting for a hero or a good guy, but, what happens when he makes the bad guy so relatable? Manoj is very clear that there is no way he can judge these characters. “I find the reasons for their behaviour for their actions. I try to make the audience look at the reason for his being and his actions. When the audience sees that, they also stop judging him. Perhaps that is why they are able to relate to him. But, Bhiku Mhatre died like a dog. So in the end it is justified. However, when I am playing the character, I can’t think he is a bad guy, mafia guy or that he killed so many people.”
Being non-judgmental also helps him view Srikant as a real person who is dealing with a demanding career in the only way he knows — some white lies, a lot of hard work and a stubborn will to do right by everybody. And no matter what, Srikant never comes across as a superhero while he handles one crisis after the other in the course of the day. Whether it is trying to prevent a terrorist attack while being chastised by his doctor for not looking after his health or heading to his daughter’s school in the middle of work to prevent a suspension, Srikant is being tested all the time.
The makers Raj and DK have been keeping it so real that you feel like a fly on the wall when Srikant talks to his wife, kids, doctor and even his boss! Both Suchi, played by Priyamani, and Srikant feel like the old, married couple they are supposed to be. There is a sense of familiarity in their routines and conversations.
Manoj attributes this to his own experience as a married man with an understanding of the nuances of married life.
And it is an absolute delight to watch Manoj stay relevant and push the envelope further with this role. The 50-plus actor is fit in the chase sequences and totally believable when he throws a punch at a younger guy who takes his parking spot. According to Manoj, the sequences in The Family Man 2 are even more physically demanding, so much so that his co-actors thought he would crash after the shoot or not be able to wake up the next day.
He believes that it is all thanks to his disciplined lifestyle and not any specific training for the role. He has been an early riser for many years now and is up and about at 4.30 am. His day begins with yoga and meditation and it is something he practices throughout the day at specific intervals. He also goes for a 45-minute run in the morning and performs freehand exercises.
But, the most interesting aspect of his fitness routine is his approach to food. He eats most everything but in limited portions and nothing after 6 pm. When we spoke it was already over 9.00 pm and he mentioned that he would go on to do some yoga after our conversation.
Despite a prolific career decorated with prestigious awards for his stupendous performances and being the recipient of the Padma Shri, Manoj does not come with the “burden of greatness”
While being a part of stories which talk about socially relevant issues and sensitive portrayals of delicate characters in movies like Aligarh, he doesn’t believe that cinema can bring about social change. “I don’t believe that I am a crusader who is going to change anyone with my films or through my performances. I am part of storytelling and that’s my job. Having said that, I must say that cinema can be part of a movement. It cannot create a movement. It can be part of a change. A film of mine may be quoted in the future that it signifies a change at a point in time. It can’t be the whole thing.”
One can understand where he is coming from, but he does seem to be following the maxim: Be the change you wish to see in the world. Or, in his case, the world of cinema, of OTT and any other mediums that are yet to come.
MANOJ BAJPAYEE THE FAMILY MAN
How did you manage to keep the dynamic between Srikant and Suchi so real?
Over the years I have realised that there are certain nuances of a marital life which is very difficult for actors to get if they have not experienced them. Had I been a bachelor, it wouldn’t have been possible. It is all fantastic when you are in love, but when you live together for many years, the cultural differences which didn't matter earlier start becoming bigger. That is why they say marriage has to be worked upon every day. Both the sides have to work on it. You have to be on your toes. You can’t really relax and take each other for granted.
What is your take on the life and lies of Srikant Tiwari?
You have to look at the context of the lies. The love is there and the concern is there. In trying to balance between a demanding duty and a demanding family, the effort is very genuine but the process that he follows may not always fit into the ethical category.
Is Srikant more romantic with his Shayari or Manoj?
Definitely not Srikant! My wife Shabana is an intellectual and a voracious reader. Our idea of romance is having our morning cup of tea together and talking about the politics of the world.
Does Ava think you are a cool dad or do you also struggle with words like Me Me or meme?
I don’t think she thinks I am a cool dad. All the struggle that you see with Srikant is very similar to mine. When I work with these young actors, I keep asking them about those memes and those acronyms. People from my generation are always trying to catch up with this changing world and the changing generation.
Srikant gets to go to all kinds of exotic locations. which is the one place you are drawn to?
I was assisting Mahesh Bhatt on a film called Dastak and I went to Seychelles. I don’t think there is any island better than Seychelles in this world. One place I would like to settle down is Australia because of the outback. It was mesmerising.
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"You are your priority. In my family, my wife’s priority is her then her child. You have to look at it that way. If I do well, then my family will be taken care of. If my wife feels that she is alright mentally and physically, then she will be in a position to take care of the child"
"A couple of lines by the great Hindi poet Ramdhari Singh Dinkar kept me going when I was down and thought it would be impossible to break into the industry"
Yachna nahi ab rann hoga,
Jeevan jai ya ki maran hoga!
(Now I will not plead, now there will be war.Either life will win or I’ll die!) And what a glorious win it continues to be!
AMAZING WOMEN IN THE FAMILY MAN
"I don’t look at people and categorise them according to gender. That’s what I have learnt since my childhood. In my household, my mother called the shots and my father took a backseat because that’s the kind of person he was. So I have never known patriarchy that way. When I meet Gul or Priyamani or Samantha, for me they are people. Gul is a strong person with strong views. And that is how I view her"
ON WORKING WITH PRIYAMANI
"Priyamani surprises me all the time. She is familiar with Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, Tamil and Hindi, and has equal command over all those languages. And she is always learning about the culture of the language. Not only is she a fantastic actor, she is also a great learner and very open-minded. It has been great working with her because whatever I give to her she always gives it back in abundance for me to really feed on"