It’s good to see you being nominated for the Best Actor popular awards alongside Ranbir Kapoor, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan.
Good, na? I haven’t been nominated for Best Actor since ‘Shool’, not for ‘Pinjar’ not for any of my recent performances. I don’t go to these awards functions in the hope of winning. I go as part of a team. This time I’m just happy to be there at the awards with the ‘Gangs Of Wasseypur’ gang. I don’t want to offend anyone by staying away. But the Indian popular awards are not something I am kicked about. What I found exhilarating was when I was at the Brisbane Film Festival sharing the stage with all four nomiees for best actor from Asian and Pacific countries. That gave me a high. I told Anurag Kashyap who was sitting with me on stage that this was the moment I’d cherish all my life.
Because there I was sitting with the best Asia-Pacific talent for merit and not for my glamour quotient or popularity and not because I can dance at the awards. To me popular awards do not have relevance beyond the celebration of the team spirit. One enjoys the thought of getting a popular award. But popularity is not a measure of merit. It’s about showing numbers at the box office. I go to the popular awards to celebrate my friendship with the film fraternity. And to wear the new suit that I get stitched for every awards function.
Yeah, your roles hardly give you occasion to dress up?
My directors locate me in Chandni Chowk or a village near Varanasi where they’ve probably never heard of Saville Row. Neeraj Pandey, my director of ‘Special Chabbis’, is producing a film that’s to be shot in London. I cribbed to him that when he cast me he takes me to the gullis and bylanes of Indian cities. But when he produces a film located in London I’m no part of it. No one shoots with me in foreign locales wearing trendy chic clothes. I am hoping that would change soon.
Nowadays you are very picky about your roles?
Actually I am not that picky any more. Each actor looks for roles that would satisfy that hunger within him. Earlier I was the first and only choice for a certain kind of roles. But now this industry has many actors like me: Irrfan Khan, K K Menon, Nawazuddin Siddiqui….and if a filmmaker wants to make a big realistic film he can go to Aamir Khan. There are so many options. Nowadays when a good script is being written it doesn’t necessarily mean he will sign Manoj Bajpayee. But if we go back in time the contemporary hunger for neo-realistic cinema was started with films like ‘Bandit Queen’ and ‘Satya’. I was part of both. When ‘Satya’ became a blockbuster it gave a tremendous boost to realistic actors and films. Big stars began to change their marketing strategy just to be part of such films.
Ram Gopal Varma is doing a sequel to ‘Satya’. Any craving to encore your role of Bhiku Mhatre?
It’s over and done with, and even Ramu knows it. He is dead and gone. I’ve done it and moved on. It’s been 14 years since I started acting. I think the Manoj Bajpayee of Wasseypur is very different from the actor in ‘Satya’. At the risk of sounding immodest I’d say the graph I’ve created for myself in ‘Wasseypur’ and the risk I took with my acting craft could’ve landed me flat on my face. But it worked. Thanks to my co-stars. I took Nawazuddin and all my co-stars into confidence. I sat them down and very honestly told them I was trying something that may backfire. Nawazuddin and Vineet Singh who were sitting in my van said, ‘Today you’re in a position where you can take this risk with your craft. We can’t.’ They nailed it. After 19 years of acting I have no fear of falling or failing. I have seen it all, done it all. If not all, then most of it. I know myself as an actor in and out.
What did you attempt in Wasseypur?
I was trying to be as real as possible and still create a distinct personality out of this character. There was nothing in this guy to endear him to the audience. Yet I made him likeable because of the honesty with which I played the character. I’d credit this success to the director Anurag Kashyap and the actor Manoj Bajpayee
In ‘Special Chabbis’, you and Akshay Kumar share a lot of screen space. How easy was for you to adjust his style of acting?
This would be one of Akshay’s most realistic performances. Akshay has unquestionably flown with the director Neeraj Pandey’s instructions. I saw it with my own eyes. For me Akshay being in the film means a much larger audience. I’ve never scoffed at stardom. I know for a fact that when someone like Akshay Kumar occupies a certain space they make the work accessible to a lot of people. When Raveena Tandon came into my ‘Shool’ she brought a very large audience with herself. ‘Special Chabbis’ is a lighthearted thriller but made in a style you’d expect from the director from ‘A Wednesday’.
Do you enjoy being part of ensemble cast?
I’ve never been insecure about my own space in any film. It’s a pleasure to work in an ensemble cast with like minded actors. I did it in ‘Raajneeti’. Now I’ve again done it in ‘Special Chabbis’ and would be doing so in Prakash Jha’s ‘Satyagrah’. It’s a blessing to have good actors with you in a film. Every actor today wants to excel. Everyone wants to do his best. At the end of the film there’s the added camaraderie shared while promoting the film. All the actors feel like part of one family.
Speaking of ‘Satyagrah’, you and Prakash Jha have become as inseparable as V Shantaram and Sandhya.
(laughs) Fortunately we aren’t married to one another. If Prakash says he can’t think of a project without me it’s a great compliment for me. Whether it’s Prakash, Anurag Kashyap or Neeraj Pandey, directors seem to trust me. I trust them completely and I never question them.
Satyagrah gives you another chance to share screen with Mr Amitabh Bachchan.
He and his family have always been extremely encouraging and supportive. After watching ‘Wasseypur’ the message he sent me reminded me of the praise he lavished on me after ‘Shool’. The Bachchan family has always accepted me as their own.
Then there is Sanjay Gupta’s Shootout At Wadala?
I am very happy for Sanjay Gupta. He’s making a huge comeback after six years. I’ve seen my scenes. Audiences are in for a stunner. I am very happy with my role and film and all the co-stars Tusshar Kapoor, John Abraham and Anil Kapoor. We’re all like brothers. I’ve always been very lucky with my co-stars.
Whom do you share the best rapport with?
Ajay Devgn! Such a huge star and so secure in his space. In ‘Raajneeti’ he never tried to out-perform me. One needs supportive co-stars like Ajay to work effectively. I am looking forward to working with Ajay again in ‘Satyagrah’.
Looking back on the 14 years of your acting experience is there a sense of satisfaction?
There is still a hunger. A very major hunger. I am proud of many films including ‘Pinjar’, ‘1971’ and ‘Gangs Of Wasseypur’. Most of my roles are very close to my heart because I choose my roles very carefully.
There are reports of you turning producer?
Highly premature ones! Production will be my next step. But I don’t know when I will produce a film. It depends on my getting a good script. I am open to making films in all genres, if and when it happens.
None of the roles that I turned down have ever become cult successes.