Bajpayee, winner of the National award for Best Actor for his role in Bhonsle (2020), speaks about why he was so keen that the film be made, how the character of the retired policeman evolved, and the politics of insider versus outsider.
I don't consider myself a talented actor, so I rely on intensive and extensive homework: Manoj Bajpayee
Kolkata - 31 Mar 2021 18:30 IST
Updated : 01 Apr 2021 12:27 IST
Shoma A Chatterji
Bhonsle (2020) is a different film, and not in the sense where every actor and director refers to his next project as “different”.
Bhonsle was premiered in the 'A Window on Asian Cinema' section of the 2018 Busan International Film Festival in South Korea. It was then screened in the non-competitive India Story section at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, the Dharamshala International Film Festival and the International Film Festival of Kerala the same year.
It went to the 2019 International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Bengaluru International Film Festival and the Singapore South Asian Film Festival, among many others. It won awards for Best Screenplay and Best Director at the Asian Film Festival Barcelona. It was released on SonyLIV on 26 June 2020. Now, the film has brought its 'hero' Manoj Bajpayee the National award for Best Actor.
Bajpayee's major winning point as an actor is that he looks and behaves not like a star but like an ordinary man you can identify with. He first won a National award for Best Supporting Actor for Satya (1998). That was many moons ago.
Awards are not new for Bajpayee, but roles are. So let us hear it directly from the actor who was refused admission to the National School of Drama four times and finally got in as a member of the faculty! At least, that is how the story goes. Excerpts from an interview:
What does it feel like, winning the National award for Best Actor finally?
The thrilling part is that the award comes like a crown on top of all the awards the film has been gathering for the last couple of years. I recently won the Critics' Choice award for Best Actor for the same film. And we did it in severely constricting financial circumstances.
But you have also produced the film, haven’t you?
I have not produced it all alone. There are others involved such as Piyush Singh, Abhayanand Singh, Saurabh Gupta and Sandip Kapoor. I was worried that a talented director like Devashish Makhija was struggling for four years to make this film. I felt it was a film that had to be made and so it did get made.
You have worked with every kind of director ranging from Ram Gopal Verma through Hansal Mehta, Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal. How much does the director decide your choice of taking on a film or a character?
It is the script that mainly decides my choice of taking or rejecting an assignment. I have great faith in new directors. Makhija started writing the script of Bhonsle in 2011 and completed it in 2015 but could not get a producer. I felt the script had many possibilities. I have worked with many different directors and learnt a lot from each of them. But the script remains the clinching point.
But before that, you did a short film by Makhija called Agli Baar (2015) in which you play an active police constable. How and why?
Since we all felt that Bhonsle may never get made, we decided to make a short film with Makhija as director. It was called Agli Baar and had a very unusual storyline, in no way comparable with Bhonsle. I loved doing that film, but as it was streamed on a noted OTT platform, the platform got into trouble as some self-styled guardians of morality felt that the policeman was shown in a bad light.
What kind of homework do you put in for your roles?
I do not consider myself a talented actor so I rely on intensive and extensive homework for each and every film that I take up. It happened almost organically for Bhonsle because we were working on it for four years and the script evolved and grew and I was so deeply involved, I internalized the character of Bhonsle so completely, as did most of the others, that the results are magical, you can say. For example, Bhonsle spoke much more in the original script. But as time passed, he spoke less and less till he became almost silent by the time we were ready to shoot. It was a character constantly changing not to something else but in terms of speech, behaviour, body language, and so on.
Let us hear about the character of Bhonsle.
Bhonsle is sixty, retiring on the very day the film opens. I knew this film did not seek to entertain but was intent on moving, questioning the status quo and disturbing the balance. That is why it was difficult getting a producer. I became the first person to come on board. I told Devashish that no matter what the circumstances and no matter when we make the film, I would be co-producer. That belief slowly attracted others to come join the fight.
Devashish says that he wanted to put forth the struggles and frustrations of an outsider. How do you look at it?
I agree with him on principle, though I am not an 'outsider' in the film if you take the word to have its limited, geography-bound meaning. Devashish explains that Bhonsle is a treatise on the ‘outsider’. The one who is made to feel he/she does not belong. Every nation in the world right now is fighting the same demons. Factions in each country — from Syria to America to India — have identified who they think are Outsiders (and hence do not belong) and are targeting them. The basis of difference may be culture, history, religion, caste, language or race. But the manner of violent exclusion seems to be a pattern repeating itself across the world.
Which was the biggest challenge for you in portraying the character of Bhonsle?
The biggest challenge was to try and think and feel like a Maharashtrian, but one who is not as feudal minded as the other Maharashtrians in the chawl he lives in. He is not against the Biharis, at that time considered 'outsiders' by certain political factions in the film and in Mumbai. Ironically, I am from Bihar myself and that became an extra challenge. In fact, Devashish once said of my work in the film, “Manoj internalized the character so well that I could use his body as my canvas. Every part of his body performs in this film.” And I cherish this as a compliment.
It took you a long journey of struggles and pitfalls and sidling to arrive where you have now. Can you mention your favourite films among those you have acted in till now?
I would love to remember Satya, Zubeidaa (2001), Pinjar (2003), Rajneeti (2010), Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012), Gali Guleiyan (2018), Aligarh (2016) and Bhonsle. There are more, but these are the ones that come to mind immediately.