Pankaj Tripathi and his talent have suddenly both become apparent. Last year, his portrayal of CRPF commandant Atma Singh in Newton earned him a National Award special mention. In Gurgaon, the 42-year-old was cast as lead for the first time. Tripathi relied on the script and his imagination when playing real estate tycoon Kehri Singh. But when filming the protagonist's beginnings as a farmer, the actor had enough lived experience to bring to the camera: "I know the problems of a farmer, his pain, his desperation. I have seen my father live through that. I used to work in the fields till Class XI myself."
Tripathi has, it seems, made several journeys. He had left his village of Belsand in Bihar's Gopalganj district to study medicine in Patna. He then moved to Delhi and enrolled in the National School of Drama (NSD). Mumbai was never his intended destination, but a hope for stability brought him here. In his first film Run (2004), Tripathi's character wasn't important enough to be given a name. He hadn't even been able to dub for his character. Now working on three films simultaneously, he says, "I worked hard for 20 years. I can see all that effort culminate." So, does he feel this is finally his time in the sun?
"Samay to phaslon ka hota hai, phalon ka hota hai. Kalakar ka kaise koi samay ho sakta hai? (There is a time for harvest. There is a time for fruits to ripen. How can an artist have a time?)" Just as you are trying to decide whether Tripathi is being earnest or funny, the doorbell rings. It's the milkman. The actor bellows some instructions, but he eventually has to go open the door. "I'm giving an interview, but here I am, also thinking about milk in the house. My time, you are right, is surely here," he smiles.
"October 16, 2004."—Tripathi remembers the date he moved to Mumbai. "I was stubborn. From 2004 to 2006, I fought a hard battle. I don't think I have it in me to fight so hard today. But during all that struggle, I will say I was never too insecure, worried or depressed." Like the charpai in his Malad living room, Tripathi's wry sense of humour is never too far. It makes his resilience manifest. His effortlessly chaste Hindi often includes metaphors and one-liners. He'll make you laugh and take pause together.
"Samay to phaslon ka hota hai, phalon ka hota hai. Kalakar ka kaise koi samay ho sakta hai?" – Pankaj Tripathi
"Kabhi kabhi lagta hai, main madari hoon. (I sometimes feel I'm a wandering magician.) A madari first makes people gather around him. He gives them the sense that whatever has to unravel will only unravel around him. He says that in his black bag, there aren't one but two snakes. I'm a bit like that. I first get people to surrender their worries and I then entertain them." Unlike Gurgaon and Newton, Tripathi doesn't always enjoy the luxury of substantial screen time. In Masaan (2015), for instance, his Sadhya Ji found relevance only in a couple of scenes. "Even if the role is small, the audience must pay attention to you," explains Tripathi. "They must feel you can change things with only your little finger."
The actor agrees that filmmakers these days invariably have just the one instruction for him: "Do what you think is best." In one of Sacred Games' (2018) many climaxes, Tripathi delivers a sermon where he invokes Freud and Hindu scripture with equal persuasiveness. "After the first take, I looked toward Vikramaditya Motwane, asking how I could improve. He said he was happy. We didn't need another take. Directors put more faith in me today." Severely critical of his own performances, Tripathi takes heart in what the country's film critics have said about him and his performances. He reads them all. "No one has yet said anything negative. Even when the film is bad, they say my talent was wasted." Though he will not admit this is his time, Pankaj Tripathi does seem to be aware he has finally arrived.
In the recently released trailer for Stree, Tripathi gets the biggest share of laughs. When asked how the ghost Stree knows the name of all her victims, he says, "Sabka Aadhar link hai uske paas. (She has the Aadhar numbers of everyone.)" The joke, both funny and contemporary, was not in the film's script. Tripathi improvised it. "All mobile users get at least two messages about linking their Aadhar numbers every day. The line just came to me. Also, when you think a ghost can have access to your Aadhar information, the line is satirical too." These value-adds are something of a habit for the actor.
Playing the affable Pandit in Fukrey (2013) and Fukrey Returns (2017), Tripathi decided to pepper his dialogues with English words like "disgusting", "vulgar" and "cheating". The sudden dissonance only amplified the humour. "When I was given the script of Newton, Atma Singh was a very cynical, rude and arrogant officer. I wanted to make him a human being, and that's why I decided to add some satirical humour to his scenes," he says. Tripathi adds that it helps being socially and politically aware. "I know what's happening in my surroundings, and so I try and make my work relevant to our times."
For Tripathi, his craft is a 24/7 obsession. He thinks about it all the time. "There is a thehrav (measure) in my performances that wasn't there earlier. Because I self-assess, I can be patient. I need to know if I have the appropriate spices. I'm a cook, so I understand the importance of right ingredients." Tripathi does know his way around the kitchen. He recently replaced his plastic spice jars with ones made of glass. "At least they are all different now," he smiles contentedly. Even in his performances, he enjoys a similar variety. Acting, he says, is also spiritual. "It's a yogic exercise. When you're making three films together, you must stay focussed. I don't want to give one character a tone I've reserved for another."
"When I was given the script of Newton, Atma Singh was a very cynical, rude and arrogant officer. I wanted to make him a human being, and that's why I decided to add some satirical humour to his scenes."
Tripathi calls himself a "jagruk (mindful)" performer. While he has much respect for the writers of scripts and screenplays, he does find it hard to forget that they have written his scenes in closed rooms, on their laptops. "They cannot see the setting they have imagined, but I can. The same person has written the dialogue for three people, but on the set, we are three individuals, each trying to negotiate our distinct characters. Things obviously change." Tripathi, for instance, is impacted by colours. If he ever sees tarpaulin on the walls or roof of his set, he wants to know how much water seeps in during the monsoons. "My character would know these things. So, I think I need to as well."
While the actor does think a film's content and its script is sacrosanct, he does try hard to ensure that he can make the dialogue come alive. "Conversations happen in a room, not on the pages of a script, so I sometimes play around with the formulation of sentences. My only job is to communicate what someone else has thought, but I can have my own interpretation, of course. That's why you need actors, or robots would have sufficed." The goal, Tripathi says, is to make dialogue rochak (interesting). "If conversations are not interesting, no one will watch my films, and no one will read this interview."
Having played bit roles in films such as Omkara (2006) and Raavan (2010), Tripathi was ultimately given a meatier stab at Bollywood in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). He played the menacing butcher Sultan Qureshi in the two-part film, and even in a cast of reputed performers, his proficiency was easy to notice. The actor agrees that Wasseypur was a turning point. "There were a lot of people who watched my performance and appreciated my acting, but I didn't know how to translate that success."
The filmmakers who came to Tripathi after the film all wanted him to play a character who was just as cruel as Sultan. "It felt like they'd come with a butcher's knife. It's like they were saying, 'Here is the script and here is the prop.' The Hindi cinema industry sometimes has a weak mindset. It slots you quickly." Tripathi didn't take any of the roles he was being offered. An education in theatre had left him wary of repetition. For a few months, he worked in a television serial, Sarojini (2015-2016). "I had to pay the bills, but I was frustrated. I was looking for someone who'd come change my Sultan image."
Wasseypur, says Tripathi, impacted his career more when he started being given roles that were antithetical to that of Sultan Qureshi. It was with some intent that he signed films like Masaan and Nil Battey Sannata (2016) in a hurry. "Masaan gave me only two scenes, but I felt my portrayal of a simple, sweet railway booking clerk would possibly force people to see me in a new light. Similarly, I felt the character of Principal Srivastava in Nil Battey Sannata could have been staid, even boring. What makes him memorable are his mannerisms and his idiosyncrasies. That's what I wanted to bring to the table."
There is now a collective anticipation about what Tripathi will do next. The first season of Sacred Games, for instance, sets up a significant part for him in coming episodes. Tripathi, though, remains circumspect. He talks about Powder, a television series that was broadcast in 2010. For those who have watched the show, the character of Naved Ansari can be recalled instantly. Tripathi played the taciturn and loyal drug baron with a captivating restraint. "Powder was certainly ahead of its time. We had no TRP pressures, and I really enjoyed working in it. If more people had seen the show, my career would have taken off sooner. Sadly, that did not happen." Now on Netflix, Powder is seeing a resurrection of sorts. Tripathi does like the web format. "I'm even filming the Criminal Justice remake."
Tripathi then rattles off the names of soon-to-be-released films he has a part in—Stree, Mirzapur, Super 30, Luka Chuppi, Shakeela. He is seemingly everywhere. Isn't he worried that one or more of these films will prove to be a dud? "I do feel apprehensive at times. People have started believing in me. I don't want to do something that will disappoint them." Given Tripathi's obvious respect for his craft, his performance in Rajinikanth's Kaala (2018) was a touch forgettable, even unnecessary. "I never got to exploit my skills in that film," Tripathi admits. "It's just that I am fascinated by Rajinikanth. I wanted to see him from up close. The remuneration I got was also decent. But I will say I can do much better work than what I have done in Kaala. Also, what'd life be without regret, love and a little hate?"
"In independent films, you have fun on the sets. In big commercial films, you have fun in your hotel. When we were making Dilwale, I spent a month in Bulgaria's capital, Sofia. I went to its library. I watched plays. I heard music. I ate new food."
For Tripathi, the lines between commercial and independent cinema often blur. The problem with Kaala, for instance, was not that it was mainstream. "I feel there are two kinds of films—good and bad." Even though the actor of films such as Wasseypur, Masaan and Nil Battey owes much of his popularity to films that were decidedly not mainstream, he says, "We also make bad films in the name of independent cinema. Getting a whole lot of theatre actors does not guarantee a good film." After a few minutes, though, Tripathi does draw a distinction. "In independent films, you have fun on the sets. In big commercial films, you have fun in your hotel. When we were making Dilwale, I spent a month in Bulgaria's capital, Sofia. I went to its library. I watched plays. I heard music. I ate new food."
Working on tight budgets, independent films offer fewer amenities, but as Tripathi says, "The joy is in working with like-minded people. While in commercial films, the stature of a star is determined by the size of his/her vanity van, in independent films, sometimes a few chairs under a tree are enough." Tripathi remembers just such a scene play out on the Wasseypur sets. "People like Tigmanshu Dhulia would just gather around. There was no hierarchy. Everyone was cracking a joke, everyone was having fun. When someone came to say our shot was ready, we'd say, 'Tum log chalu rakho, hum aa rahe hain. (You all keep this going. I will be back.)' I'd forget if I was on set to work or to have a good time."
As Tripathi talks, his 12-year-old daughter Aashi is lying on the couch beside him. When he says he met his wife Mridula on a train, she quips in and exclaims, "How stereotypical!" The father is quick to clarify, "No, no. We met at a wedding first." In the days that Tripathi would roam around Mumbai, giving two, sometimes four auditions a day, Mridula worked as a teacher in a school, guaranteeing food on the table. "When my daughter was born in 2006, I hadn't seen a camera for a year. An astrologer then told me that my fate will take an upturn after July 16, and it strangely did." It's been 12 years, and Tripathi no longer needs an astrologer or interviewer to tell him his stars are on the rise.