In 2004, Pankaj Tripathi got his first part in a feature film. Taking the day off from classes at NSD, he took a train from Delhi to Mumbai to play a character 'who robs Vijay Raaz.' The character was too inconsequential to even have a name. Tripathi was paid Rs. 5000 for it. He's since acted in 40-odd films. Many of which were blink-and-miss roles, but you may remember him as the revenge-hungry butcher in Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012), the railway clerk in Masaan (2015) or the school principal in Nil Battey Sannata (2015).
This year, he has as many as 4 releases – Munna Michael, Gurgaon, Bareilly Ki Barfi and Newton. His film Gurgaon, directed by Shankar Raman is playing in theatres right now. He gives a chilling performance as Kehri Singh, a farmer-turned-real-estate-tycoon. At the same time, we saw him just a few weeks back in a grossly underwritten part in the Tiger Shroff-starrer Munna Michael.
Here, we speak to the phenomenal actor on playing bit parts, making the most of underwritten roles, and suddenly dealing with more volume of work. As he explains it – ab faaltu ka kaam karoonga toh kharch ho jaaoonga.
After Gangs Of Wasseypur, I got a lot of offers to play a butcher. Everyone would come to me with powerful, seemingly brutal characters. Along with that came a lot of Bihari roles; all my characters would be eating paan. The writers themselves would start talking in a Bihari accent during the narration! Since this was something I had done too many times, I refused. These were roles I could easily do. I craved for roles that would challenge me and keep me up at night with jitters about going on set the next day. Ussi mein toh maza hai!
I try to break the perception people have of me because if I keep working within that confine, people will get bored of me within three films! In Masaan (2015), my character Sadhyaji is sweet and innocent who wants to win over Devi (Richa Chadha) but the lingering feeling is of something ominous about to happen stays because the previous roles I've played have had grey shades.
When I read the script, I discard the first interpretation that comes to mind and keep trying to think how else I can play the role. With all the experiences I have had in life, I try to be open and perceptive about the world and the people around me. This definitely adds to my performance as an actor.
What usually happens is that not too much effort is put into writing the supporting characters. There may be a fear among the writers that the spotlight could shift from the lead actors if the supporting cast has a strong presence. But it so happens that sometimes the subplots that emerge in a film, enhance the main plot. In Nil Battey Sannata, Principal Shrivastava's character isn't what it is due to the writing, it's because of the mannerisms, the kind of things he says and does – that make him interesting and colourful.
The writer and the director must also have faith in the actor to make these subtle changes to the character they have written. In Newton, the character I play – Aatma Singh – was the villain of the film. When the shooting began I asked Amit (Masurkar, writer-director) whether my performance was as per his vision and he told me that it wasn't but he liked what I had done with the character more. Hence, he let me go ahead with my interpretation. Aatma Singh is still the villain of the film but his character is very relatable.
I signed Munna Michael because of three reasons – one, I got the opportunity to play a character younger than my real age; two, wearing those fancy clothes was a definite high and three, most importantly, was the money I was being paid for it. It was a win-win for me because even if the film didn't do as well, its reach is much larger than many of my films and the audience can understand my range as an actor. Its in Drive (Dharma Productions' upcoming film) that I have combed my hair for the first time! That's when I felt for the first time that actors, along with being talented, should look smart. It's a visual medium, after all!
There's very little money in independent films and Mumbai is an expensive city! If I don't have the money to pay the rent, then how will I be able to do artistic films? First we need to be able to live, then comes art. Commercial cinema is important for an actor but it's also important for independent cinema because if cinema halls don't make money with big commercial films, smaller films won't get those few shows. Jaise ek halwaai ko har tarah ki mithai banani aani chahiye, waise humein bhi har tarah ke cinema ka hissa banna hi hai!
Acting cannot be a hobby. You have to study it. It is the art of imitating life – emotions and relationships and we sell those emotions to people. To recreate that, training is necessary, be it in theatre, film school or acting classes. Many aspiring actors who come to Mumbai have a notion of themselves as a 'hero,' which makes them want only big roles. Leave that baggage behind and work hard on your craft. If a gaon ka ladka like me can become an actor, nothing is impossible!