Manoj Bajpayee was thankful to the people who attended the screening of his latest film Bhonsle, at Hermann Gmeiner Auditorium at the 7th Dharamshala International Film Festival. But most of all, he was thankful that they didn't leave the auditorium despite the cold. He even said that he understood if some people had to leave the screening before it ended, because it was so cold.
Bajpayee might have been the most affected of them all. When I met him after the screening at his hotel room – warm and cosy and carpeted, with heaters installed – he is still reeling from it (at Dharamshala at this time of the year, the temperature is known to drop dramatically after the sun sets, but the unexpected rains had made it worse). The 49-year-old actor took his head scarf off and put it back on, took a couple of minutes of breather before settling into the interview. He was wearing a brown leather jacket and jeans. He said he might be getting a headache.
In Bhonsle, directed by Devashish Makhija, he plays Ganpat Bhonsle, a dour man in his mid-sixties, whose career as a police constable has come to an end. (It completes, as Makhija put it during the Q&A session after the screening, Bajpayee's "trilogy of lonely men" that include Aligarh, Gali Guleiyan.) Bhonsle applies for an extension, awaits a favourable decision, and begins to spend a lot more time in his chawl. As the Ganpati festival approaches, a hate campaign against the Biharis in the chawl by a group of fanatics rear its ugly head. Meanwhile, a new girl, a Bihari immigrant, moves in to become Bhonsle's next door neighbour. Will Bhonsle remain as stoic even as the world around him crumbles?
It was the third time—after Busan International and MAMI—that Bhonsle played in front of an audience. Bajpayee has given more to the film than just acting in it—he has co-produced it, and it is a film he has been living with for four-and-a-half years. In an interview, the 49-year old actor spoke about his knack for 'internal' acting, how his interest in political discussions comes naturally to him, and his 'miniscule' role in the Netflix film with Chris Hemsworth.
Your character in Bhonsle is an inexpressive person who has very few lines. It's the polar opposite of the Bhiku Mhatre character from Satya 20 years ago.
This is the kind of performances I was known for in my theatre days — Bhonsle, Gali Guleiyan, Aligarh. Even Pinjar, Zubeida. Or Shool for that matter, which was almost a silent character; he a lot of anger inside. People knew me as a very 'internal' actor. But I kept getting roles which were somewhat flamboyant, colourful. People started loving me; then all those grey-shade kind of roles happened. Lately, with the emergence of independent cinema, I've realised these are the kind of roles that the new filmmakers have started to offer me. And I have all the time in the world to go and do something very new with myself. So all the things I have learned in theatre have started coming handy.
Bhonsle has not more than 10 lines. He is a reluctant talker, he is content with himself. The only tool he had to express himself, which is his job, is going away from him. And now with the job gone, he doesn't know how to deal with the chawl people.
Apart from a slight pursing of your lips (half buried under a thick, grey moustache) you seem to be doing very little with your face. What's the mechanism for this kind of acting?
Purses his lips, shows it's done.
You have to feel it, you really have to internalise. The craft comes into play only in how much you want to show, the proportion. But to really get it in your eyes, you have to be in the moment. There is no other way. He is terminally ill, and as the movie progresses you can see the subtle changes in his health, in his walk, his face, his drooping eyes, the weakness in his walk. The change is not so big because the story is unfolding during the ten days of Ganpati.
What kind of preparation did it take for Bhonsle? You generally go through an intense process to get into a character. (In the workshop at DIFF, Bajpayee mentioned that while he was preparing to play a schizophrenic man in Gali Guleiyan, he would speak to himself for days, which began to worry his wife.)
Surprisingly I didn't do much with this one. In a sense, the preparation for Bhonsle had already started four-and-a-half years back ever since I read the script. All that me and Devashish were doing was talking about each and every aspect of the character. Because what do you do when the film is taking time to get made? So by the time you reach there, you are there. It was all worked out. I knew what my gait, my walk should be like. It was only the internal aspect for which I needed 3-4 days. I asked my co-producers to put me up in a hotel in Dadar, close to the chawl. I stayed in a small room, where I would just go through the script, say it loudly, try to perform, try to walk like him, go in the bathroom and sleep like him. By the time I was ready for the shot, the eyes had changed, I was in the zone.
What kept you interested in the film for four-and-a-half years?
There is a migrant and a local issue in the background, but in the forefront there is a very personal drama going on. This contrast was amazing. I kept telling Devashish, 'Devashish don't worry, even if we don't get a producer for another ten years… That only means, I will play a really old Bhonsle, because I will grow old.' I knew we have a winner in hand. People are going to think about the film.
Do you find yourself increasingly drawn toward roles that are more political?
See, I read a lot. Apart from books, I read articles, try to understand today's politics, and the different views on any incident. That's something I can't help because I was born in a family where people were only discussing politics. We were expected to read newspapers every morning and participate in the discussions with the elders. I am a pakka Bihari that way. But I am not into the party politics, I am a pure actor. I am drawn toward it if it goes beyond just the… prevalent politics, and talks about a bigger issue. To me the background of Bhonsle is not just local vs outsider in Mumbai, but also about Syria, the refugee problem, or Trump's America.
Bhonsle had difficulty in getting producers – till you pitched in. For an actor like you, who likes to work on the fringes of the mainstream, does the emergence of streaming sites like Netflix and Amazon come as a relief?
Initially, we all thought so, that this has come as a relief to the independent filmmakers. But looking at the current developments, somewhere digital platforms are turning their favours toward big budget mainstream films. Very soon, it's going to apparent to everyone.
You are doing a show with Amazon, and recently there was a news item that you are in a Netflix film that stars Hollywood actor Chris Hemsworth.
I am doing a show for Amazon which is directed by Raj-DK (Stree, Go Goa Gone, Shor in the City). It's called The Family Man, has 10 episodes and will release mid next year. I play a middle class government clerk torn between demands of family and job.
And I am playing a very minuscule role in the Netflix film. They have turned it into headlines, which is very unfair. I have just one or two scenes and I don't want to take any publicity out of it. Randeep Hooda is playing a very big part in it.