Birthday special: Manoj Bajpai is a ‘pathological actor’

Actor Manoj Bajpai is not celebrating his birthday this year. In this extraordinary time of suffering due to the pandemic, my birthday at this moment means nothing, he said

Manoj Bajpai (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)
Manoj Bajpai (Photo Courtesy: Social Media)

Subhash K Jha

My friend Manoj Bajpai is not celebrating his birthday this year. When I wished him on his birthday he replied, “In this extraordinary time of suffering due to the pandemic my birthday at this moment means nothing. I decided not to celebrate at all. Heart is heavy because of all the tragedy that’s happening all around us .never felt so helpless and anxious.”

I have known Manoj for 22 years, or maybe more. He is the first Bollywood actor I invited home. Satya had already released. Shool was on release. Manoj was in Patna with Raveena Tandon to promote the film. He came home without Raveena, citing her security issues as the reason for her absence. The Shool performance had just been praised by Mr Bachchan. He had extolled Manoj as the Next Big Thing in Bollywood. Manoj was naturally over the moon.

Coincidentally the last time Manoj came home it was with Mr Bachchan. He generously offered to step back for that evening. “It’s okay. Bachchan Saab has come home for the first time. I’ve come so many times. Main toh ghar ke sadasya hoon.” That was sweet of him. But my sister-in-law spent the evening chatting with Manoj. She adores Mr B. But loves Manoj even more.

Having seen him from such close quarters it is hard to think of Manoj as a star. But star he is for sure. The number of contemporary actors who hero-worship him is legion. Actors like Pankaj Tripathi and Sharib Hashmi swear by his name. “If it was not for Manoj Bhai I wouldn’t be here. He showed me that it is possible for a dreamer from a village in Bihar to make it big in Mumbai,” Pankaj once told me emotionally.

Manoj has never romanticized his struggle in Bollywood. There never was a struggle to begin with. For an unknown actor who was trained under Barry John in Delhi stardom seemed like an unbelievable leap into the unknown. Providentially Manoj didn’t slip and fall in taking that leap.

Since Satya was his seventh film Manoj wasn’t pushed into stardom overnight. Satya gave his adrift career a sense of direction. "Now I know what to do and how to go about it. When I was goin g through my initial struggle I sometimes began to doubt my own abilities," Manoj whispered softly recalling his early years in Mumbai.

In his star-making vehicle Satya Manoj Bajpai never looks into the eye of his gang lord Bhau (Govind Namdeo). "How can I? He picked me up from the streets gave me food and home. In our culture we talk to elders with our eyes lowered."

That’s Manoj Bajpai. Still a small-town boy from Bettiah in Bihar disbelieving about his suddenly-found stardom. But determined to hold it in his hands, nurture and nourish it until it (stardom) becomes substantial and self-perpetuating. He could have signed hordes of films after Satya, made precious millions to give his parents and siblings a comfortable life. Instead Manoj chose to reject most of the roles that were offered to him after Satya. "They were all variations on my character as Bhiku Mhatre. If there’s one thing that I won’t do, it’s repeat myself."

Verma virtually gave Manoj a new lease of life. Mahesh Bhatt who introduced Manoj through television and then a small role as Paresh Rawal’s friend and confidante in the feature film Tamanna would never have allowed him to grow beyond a peripheral point. During the shooting of Verma’s ill-fated Daud the director kept staring at Manoj. Naturally the manly gaze made the small town boy uncomfortable.

One day Ramu asked Manoj to come for a long walk with him. The ambitious actor complied suspiciously. Ramu told him about a film on the human side of gangsters that he wanted to make. Initially Ramu wanted Manoj to play the title role of Satya (which the Telugu star Chekravarthy eventually played). Later they both felt he could imbue a kinetic vigour to the role of Satya’s buddy Bhiku Mhatre. The rest was history and hysteria.

The important thing was to treat the character of Bhiku Mhatre as a human being who represented all the anti-social characters in our society. "I had to avoid making him a caricature. At the same time I had to make Bhiku Mhatre a prototype of the gangster. While trying to feel think and act like Bhiku Mhatre I couldn’t help being affected. Some part of Bhiku is now inside me permanently."

Every role that Manoj plays alters him radically. Manoj describes himself as a pathological actor. "I can’t survive without acting. If I don’t act for a week I become edgy, restless and moody." During his childhood days in Bettiah, Manoj would enact scenes from his favourite films in his mind. Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjeev Kumar and later after Ek Duje Ke Liye, Kamal Haasan were his favourite actors.

Little Manoj’s parents worried constantly about their son who seemed to be lost in his own world all the time. Today they are proud and happy about Manoj’s success.. Another highly memorable moment occurred recently when Manoj came face to face with his idol Amitabh Bachchan.

That moment when Bachchan congratulated Manoj for Satya is frozen in the young actor’s mind. "I didn’t know what to do. The actor who had inspired me was standing in front of me and paying me compliments. I asked him if I could hug him. He agreed. We hugged each other."

Manoj is happy being a celebrity. But he hates the trappings of stardom and the unreal world that actors are forced to inhabit. Fortunately he hasn’t changed as a person even though he has been changing persona swiftly. With every film, Manoj Bajpai is pushing the frontiers of mainstream stardom a little further into the grey zone.

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Published: 23 Apr 2021, 7:13 PM