Manoj Bajpayee is grieving. Stuck in Uttarakhand with his family for the bulk of the lockdown period, Bajpayee was coming to terms with the death of Irrfan Khan only to be dealt another blow—the death of his Sonchiriya co-star Sushant Singh Rajput. “I kept shouting at people to stop giving me fake news,” says Bajpayee. “I was just not ready to believe it. I still feel he may appear.” If Irrfan’s passing made him feel ‘alone’, Rajput’s left him confused and angry. Bajpayee and Rajput have more than one film in common. Both hail from Bihar and made their way into the Hindi film industry on the merit of their thespian skills. Like Bajpayee, Rajput also did theatre with Barry John in Delhi and then landed in Mumbai to pursue his ultimate dream—to act in films.
Rajput’s first film was a studio-backed venture, Kai Po Che!, followed by two films with Yash Raj Films; Bajpayee’s cinematic journey was more arduous. After making a splash as Bhiku Mhatre in Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998), for which he went on to win a National Award for best supporting actor, and a deranged turn in Kaun? (1999), he struggled to hold onto his newfound fame. “I have seen everyone up close—producers, directors, successful actors—and their behaviour patterns,” says Bajpayee. The lull would be broken in 2010 with a supporting turn in the Prakash Jha-directed drama Raajneeti which would be followed by a memorable act as Sardaar Singh in Gangs of Wasseypur Part I two years later. Bajpayee is a lone soldier, one who has toiled to be in the reckoning despite having a multitude of talent.
After 26 years in the industry, Bajpayee, 51, is now the actor who shuttles easily from small-budget independent films (Aligarh, Gali Guleiyan) to commercial potboilers (Baaghi 2, Satyamev Jayate). Rajput, on the other hand, had two Rs 100 crore plus films—the M.S. Dhoni biopic and Chhichhore—to his name within seven years. P.K., in which Rajput had a supporting part, would cross the Rs 300 crore mark. His eleventh and final feature is expected to release later this year.
It’s an impressive trajectory. More so if you consider Rajput’s outsider credentials. It’s why Bajpayee is struggling to make sense of why a 34-year-old actor would give it all away? “His going sets a bad and dangerous precedent,” says Bajpayee whose reaction thus far has been more measured compared to the salacious speculations and hollow regrets of industry folk. He adds, “I don’t want to be part of the chaos that’s not productive.” For Bajpayee the tragedy cannot be done and dusted with; it calls for a change in the code of conduct. “This is the time to look inward as an industry, as a film journalist and correct ourselves,” he says. “If you don’t take it as a lesson, then the future will not be that great. You have to take a bigger message otherwise you are ignorant, arrogant and reluctant.” And what’s that message? “Whenever a new talent is spotted, those who are successful or come from a film family should try to cut short their struggle or ease their journey to get work,” he says. “If you do just that much, it would mean a whole lot of things to the coming generation. You will feel good too.”
His latest release, Bhonsle, a film which he has also co-produced, looks at the loathing among locals for outsiders who migrate to Mumbai to earn a better livelihood. For Bajpayee, the “mistrust among two communities in a society is completely different from the insecurity of one group in the [film] industry. In our industry you don’t want to give an outsider his/ her deserving place because you think why should I when I can give it to my daughter or son?” His character Bhonsle, he notes, is neither the agitated local, nor the offended victim. Instead, he belongs to the group “who mind their own business and don’t want to be pulled into this ruckusand [rather] focus on work”. But when prejudice crosses a threshold, conscience awakens. Bajpayee’s has awakened to the unfair practises in his industry, and this time around he won’t stay quiet.
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