Nearly three decades after his first Hindi film role, 52-year-old Manoj Bajpayee is the king of the Indian streaming universe. Yet, it’s not a “status” he has pursued. The validation is welcome but long overdue. Watching him on the small screen now, one might never guess that his has been a filmography of big-screen perseverance and endurance, not readymade genius and midas touches – a journey whose crippling lows have often outnumbered its dizzying highs. From Bandit Queen to The Family Man 2, Bajpayee’s storied acting career has been a film of its own, complete with three acts and a happily-ever-after in sight: He came, he struggled, he conquered, he stayed, he faded, he fell and he rose again.
Even at the top today, Bajpayee’s prolificity in his comeback is such that he resembles the actor-equivalent of a batsman whose shot selection becomes an issue because he just has so much time at the crease. There’s always the feeling that he’s compensating for time lost – the roles he chooses invariably intercept the roles that choose him. As a result, for every Bhonsle there’s a Mrs. Serial Killer, for every Aligarh there is a Satyamev Jayate, and for every Family Man there’s a Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari. If anything, this only humanizes the belated legend of Manoj Bajpayee – a curious balance of actor and star, performer and celebrity. It merely provides a wider canvas for Bajpayee to display what is inarguably the best poker-face in Indian cinema. Not to mention that he’s also among the finest criers and diers on screen, and most importantly, his vast forehead is more expressive than entire bodies.
This time, he is hopefully here to stay. After all, a ‘second-innings specialist’ is infinitely more valuable than a flat-track bully. On that note, here are 10 of his best acting performances across mediums, ranked in ascending order:
10. Kaun? (1999)
One of the most original ‘horror’ films to emerge from the derivative shackles of Bollywood, Kaun? was conceived by a landscape-altering Ram Gopal Verma at his most daring and versatile. It was also his third consecutive collaboration with a young Manoj Bajpayee, who, after the blinding success of Satya, put on an entirely new mask to deceive and dazzle in this tense Urmila Matondkar-centered chamber thriller. As a morally ambiguous man who must absorb the suspicions of an audience as well as appease the paranoid female protagonist of the story, Bajpayee is suitably shady. His character has no business being in the frame, yet the actor makes a term of addressment as formal as “Ma’am?” seem both ominous and respectful at once. That Bajpayee would be known for playing striking antagonists in his career only subverts our reading of this role – he is so competent that he even distracts the camera from telling the truth.
9. Pinjar (2003)
Director Chandraprakash Dwivedi can be a divisive film-maker, but he has been a culturally astute storyteller. Never has this been more apparent in the period drama Pinjar, an uneven portrait of Partition that might have been labelled as a toxic Stockholm-syndrome-sympathizing love story by today’s woke brigade. It has Manoj Bajpayee – as an uneasy Muslim kidnapper of a Hindu woman – in one of the trickiest roles of his early career: again, playing second fiddle to a female protagonist played by Urmila, and again, stealing the show in a story about his environment. Bajpayee’s rendition of a villainous hero is loaded with angst, guilt, passion and pain at once – almost the exact antithesis of the one-note role he would go on to play in Veer-Zaara a year later – and all the more moving in hindsight, given that Pinjar was (unofficially) the beginning of his near-fatal lean phase.
8. Sonchiriya (2019)
Bajpayee’s character dies in the first act of Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya, but his spirit remains embedded in the ravines of the 1970s-set dacoit film. ‘Baaghi’ leader Maan Singh – a nice nod to his Bandit Queen debut – perishes in an early shootout, and his legacy becomes the cornerstone of the profound morality drama. The actor is hypnotic and haunted in his brief stint on screen, eschewing theatricality in favour of stoic majesty. Even though his gang splits into two after his death, his soul can be sensed in all their decisions and deviations. He leads one of the great uses of flashbacks in modern Hindi cinema – a device that reframes his bronzed body as the human embodiment of salvation. The story uses hindsight to piece together a broken character, slowly revealing that Bajpayee, not for the first time, plays – and immortalizes – a walking death sentence. Rarely has a ‘cameo’ driven an entire film with such eerie resilience.
7. Shool (1999)
In a role that can best be described as a hybrid of Sunny Deol’s Angry Young Man and Nana Patekar’s Angsty Young Man, Bajpayee taps his Bihari roots and infuses the honest-cop stereotype with tremendous grit and middle-class texture for the Ram Gopal Varma-written crime drama. Shool changed the game in terms of the righteous-wronged-hero arc, and on the back of his breakout turn in Satya, the actor did a gutsy 180 as Inspector Samar Pratap Singh to lay the founding bricks of mainstream Bollywood’s ‘parallel-acting’ revolution. His simmering performance allows the film to veer between slice-of-life domesticity and commercial corruption thriller – eschewing the caricatures of rage and righteousness to present a truly infectious face of everyman mutiny. The final 20 minutes – where Singh channels his grief to explode into a cultural statement – continue to symbolize one of Hindi cinema’s most primal and underrated cop dramas.
6. Bhonsle (2020)
Arguably the actor’s most physical performance comes in the form of a retired Maharashtrian police constable living in a Mumbai chawl. One of the most remarkable aspects of a Bajpayee ‘tragic’ is that the character (as in Sonchiriya and Rukh, and Aks at a more literal level) often has an afterlife: his face haunts the rest of the film like a lingering memory. In Bhonsle, however, the titular protagonist is so frail and lonely that his entire existence feels like an afterlife even while he’s alive. That the old man then decides to mean something – anything – before wasting away, defines the core of a stubbornly nihilistic film, without diluting the invisibility of his presence. One can almost touch a lifetime of regrets, unfulfilled desires and ambitions in the hollowness of his bent body.
5. The Family Man (2019-Present)
Raj & DK’s hit Amazon series straddles so many genres at once – action, social satire, espionage thriller, slice-of-life dramedy, morality drama – that it organically allows for a Greatest Hits Mixtape of Manoj Bajpayee. In that sense, it redefines the Hindi cinema potboiler by not just offering many faces at the price of one but also stringing them together through a refined sociopolitical prism. The actor taps into all his definitive career performances to reveal a multifaceted middle-class spy struggling to balance his professional and personal life. The tonal shifts are subtle, the humour is deadpan, the premise is perceptive – and a 52-year-old Bajpayee makes the most of a long-form role that affords him a canvas feature films have often failed to. That the predicament of Srikant Tiwari mirrors Bajpayee’s own – of a star having to act ordinary – is the meta-icing on a vegan cake.
4. Satya (1998)
Just as Satya isn’t a movie so much as a lexicon of the Mumbai gangster epic, Bhiku Mhatre isn’t a character so much as a time on the clock of the city’s cinematic language. The feral, nervy and warm-blooded authority of the iconic Marathi hustler is characterized by the ‘newcomer’ Manoj Bajpayee’s young and immeasurable hunger. Mhatre was an explosion to unassuming Bollywood-loving moviegoers, but the performance by Bajpayee felt like an accumulation of years of peripheral pursuit – a culmination of a Bandit-Queen-sized promise that was yet to find the right outfit. Satya was co-written by Anurag Kashyap, a film-maker who would make an industry out of weaponizing the ‘struggling’ rage of many a talented small-town actor (not least of them Vineet Kumar Singh in Mukkabaaz) – the origins of which could be sensed in the artistic anatomy of Ram Gopal Varma’s modern classic. I always envisioned Mhatre’s unkempt beard, curly hair and vivid shirts as Rangeela’s Munna-Gone-Bad alter-ego – and therefore, a telling ode to, and indictment of, Bollywood-Bambai’s rags-to-bullets fortunes.
3. Gali Guleiyan (2018)
In an ambitious meta-physical drama that draws parallels between the cramped geography of Old Delhi and the dusty insides of a protagonist’s head, Manoj Bajpayee delivers a masterclass as a crumbling character who is both a person and a place at once. Dipesh Jain’s wonderfully-shot film has an awkward narrative despite its inherent intrigue, but the actor remains riveting – and consistently immersive – in his exploration of psychological trauma and urban isolation. Given that the man he plays, Khuddoos, is obsessed with looking at cameras to keep an eye on the world outside his space, Bajpayee himself does a fantastic job of pushing the allegory beyond the confines of mental entrapment and memory prisons. He single-handedly humanizes a near-abstract palette, lending insanity a sense of unwavering identity. His “drunk” scenes in particular raise the bar, reframing an entire culture’s perception of inheritance and salvation.
2. Gangs of Wasseypur I (2012)
While Prakash Jha’s Rajneeti (2010) and Aarakshan (2011) are officially considered to be Bajpayee’s comeback after years in Bollywood’s neither-hero-nor-character-actor wilderness, it’s Anurag Kashyap’s two-part crime epic that actually marked the actor’s return to the upper echelons. Unlike Ram Gopal Verma’s similar spiral into artistic darkness, Bajpayee resurrected himself under the watchful tutelage of Satya writer Kashyap in a Godfather-like role so dense, multidimensional and tragicomical that his character, Sardar Khan, is now an inextricable part of Hindi film folklore. The amusing balance between his social inadequacy as a husband/father and his rising legend as a mafia warlord revealed a hidden dimension of Bajpayee so irresistible that it can be considered a spiritual predecessor to The Family Man. This is the role that revealed the actor’s penchant for sardonic wit and a near-satirical awareness of his environment – thereby empowering a new generation of film-makers to use him for who he can be, as opposed to what they need him to be.
1. Aligarh (2016)
There’s something about Manoj Bajpayee playing ageing, persecuted and defeated men – he lends disgrace the dignity of loss, and tragedy the gingerly grandeur of an underdog story. As a professor struggling to restore his right to live and love in Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, the actor is a lyrical portrait of disenchantment and loneliness. He seems to be grieving the death of his previous self, as though he were reconstructing the ability to listen, fight and trust again. Bajpayee, as Professor Siras, wears a wistful smile even as his face and spirit withers away – like a martyr trying to constantly forgive the world that condemned him to his fate. The famous long take of him drinking alone while humming along to an old song till his eyes spill over remains a remarkable example of an actor serenading the camera that his character is conditioned to be afraid of. It’s like watching music lure the soul out of a body, even as life is forced to adopt the defiance of a statement.
Taandav: Devashish Makhija’s wicked short about a system-beaten police constable features a ‘musical’ meltdown that ranks as one of Bajpayee’s most memorable on-screen moments.
Aks: The actor is gloriously hammy and oddly compelling as a ghostly killer in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s risque supernatural thriller.
Saat Uchakkey: Sandeep Sharma’s rip-roaring Delhi heist comedy is an ode to Bajpayee’s masterful art of cursing. His b’s and c’s are a sight for sore ears.
Rajneeti: Prakash Jha’s multi-starring political potboiler is elevated by the actor’s mercurial depiction of the film’s conniving and throne-thirsty antagonist.
Zubeidaa: The romantic tragedy centered on a radiant Karishma Kapoor, stars Bajpayee in an unlikely but disarming role as a wealthy blue-blooded lover.