It is Pankaj Tripathi’s birthday. His Twitter feed is overflowing with birthday wishes. Articles like ‘50 Reasons Why We Should Be Grateful For Pankaj Tripathi’ are being mass produced. The actor is concerned about the attention. “It’s not like I’ve done anything great or impacted social change,” he explains. Also, it’s not really his birthday. “Is main bhi ek kahaani hain,” he says. When Tripathi’s brother took him to the nearest school in his village for admission, he was asked to mention his birthday in the form. He knew it was in September but didn’t know the date. The teacher suggested they go with 5th September – Teachers’ Day. “Achha din hai. Bada aadmi banega” is what Tripathi thinks she said. Two decades later, his wife discovered before their wedding that his birthday is actually on 29th September.
But the teacher was right. Tripathi is everywhere. We see him in a film or TV series almost every month, and there’s always a big announcement about what he’s going to star in next. I meet him at his recently-purchased home in Madh Island (It took me an Uber, ferry and auto to get there). He’s sitting on the floor surrounded by his family and friends. He has forgotten I was coming and spends the next few minutes confused about whether he should bathe and then do the interview or start right away.
We start right away. He looks tired but the view of the green cover from his room seems to have a soothing effect on him. Over the next hour we chat about how he fears he may burn out soon, his love for travel, and his fight for 8 hours of sleep every night.
Excerpts from the interview:
Why do you live in Madh Island? Is it a deliberate decision to be away from the city?
Yes. Here you’re surrounded by water and greenery. In the evening a group of parrots come and sit outside. In the morning I can see a few white storks. This place is close to nature and pollution is less because there are no factories. It reminds me of my village. Although my village didn’t have the sea, there was greenery and it was peaceful. A lot of people told me not to come this far because it’s way out of the city. But I thought look at where I’ve come from to be an actor – my village is 2000 kms away. So if I can come that far, what difference does another 10-12 kms make.
Do you remember your first house in Mumbai?
Yes. It was a rented house. With great difficulty I got a house in Ekta Nagar in Malad. It was a one room kitchen in a MHADA building. I remember it was building number 36 and flat number 607. Whatever capital I brought with me to Mumbai, I spent it all at once on this house. Between brokerage and other expenses, my bank account was zero.
This current flat is my 6th house in Mumbai in 14 years. It belonged to an NRI family. My wife came here one day in the evening and said we just have to buy it. The evenings here are magical. The colours in the sky keep changing. We somehow did jugaad, took a loan from the bank and bought the house.
This year we’ve seen you in Criminal Justice, Sacred Games 2, Luka Chhupi and Super 30. And there were so many announcements like 83 and Kargil Girl. That’s a lot of work. How are you pulling it off?
I also can’t understand how I’m doing this. I’m so overworked that I’m requesting a few producers to let me go. I’m just one person after all. Chaar din yahaan, dus din kahin aur, itna juggle karna… Main burnout waale stage main jaa raha hoon. Kuchh din baad pata nahin main kaisi acting karoonga. This has been happening for the past two years. I am never free.
Sometimes I feel if I’ve done it for so long, I can continue for a little longer. But then I also wonder, what if I start doing the same thing in every film. It’s time to stop. I’ll finish whatever I have committed to till next April and then take a bit of a break.
How many films do you do at a time?
I was doing 3 at a time – 83 in London, Mirzapur in Banaras, and Anurag Basu in Mumbai. I was spending 10 days in each place. Pichhle teen mahine se main in teenon shehron main bhatak raha hoon. It came to a point where I used to calculate that if I’m spending 17 hours in travel, and I spend one day resting to recover from jetlag, then my beard would grow just in time for the look of the next character.
I’m so overworked that I’m requesting a few producers to let me go. I’m just one person after all. Chaar din yahaan, dus din kahin aur, itna juggle karna… Main burnout waale stage main jaa raha hoon. Kuchh din baad pata nahin main kaisi acting karoonga.
How does this impact your creative process?
Kai baar nahi bhi karta hai. After working in theatre for so long I know how to manage. I’ve been thinking about acting for the last 20 years. I think about it constantly. Jaise ek premi, jab pyaar main hota hai, woh apni premika ke baare main 24 hours sochta hai. Where is she now? What is she doing? Why hasn’t she called? Will she leave me? Similarly, I have spent all these years thinking about acting…. (Takes a long pause and forgets what he was saying). Dekho ye nayi bimari hai. I think I’m going to get dementia soon.
Anyway, what I was saying is that my love for acting allows me to play so many characters at the same time. Jis premika se aap pyaar karte ho, aur woh premika boli ki ab main tumhari ho gayi hoon, shaadi kar lete hain aur ghar main shift kar jaaye. So to get tired of your lover, it will take a couple of years. I’m not there yet. I’m still in love with acting.
Sorry, your question was very simple. I gave a roundabout answer.
But I’m sure some roles need more preparation than others. Does the lack of time then become a problem?
Yes, that’s true. But some roles also don’t require any preparation. Some directors tell me not to prepare. Bas aa jao set pe.
You don’t have a problem with that?
No, not at all. In fact, I prefer this. I’ve read the script, I know the graph of the character, the emotional journey, backstory… and the rest I prefer not to prepare for. When I get a new film, I take one or two days to understand the character. After that the character itself begins to guide me and tells me what to do.
Earlier we used to hear legendary singers like Ghulam Ali and Mehdi Hasan say ‘iss raag ki demand yeh hai’. I never understood it. But now after so many years of acting I feel the character has started demanding things from me and I just follow.
But that would require thinking about your characters and engaging with them every waking minute…
Yes, 24 hours. Sometimes I meet people, read about current affairs, and against my will, I end up thinking about how these events will impact acting in the long run. Nowadays because we’re always on our mobiles, all of us are constantly hunching. I’m sure 15 years from now there will be many illnesses connected to our necks and postures. I keep thinking maybe I should make my characters slightly hunched from now itself because four generations later we would have accepted that this is how people look. So what if I started incorporating these nuances from now? These things are constantly playing in my head.
Can’t this get tiring?
Yes, of course. I’ve requested my PR team to excuse me from interviews. I’m bored of hearing myself. Sometimes I feel that I’m always saying humble, inspirational and insightful things… ab nonsense baatein bhi karni chahiye.
Because I’m human. Mere taraf se nonsense baatein bhi toh aayen. How can it be that I’m always saying sensible things and doing sensible acting. No one is so perfect. I’m also exploring myself. I wonder ki yaar mera nonsense wala side kyu nahi bahaar aa raha hai.
I really thought I’d become arrogant. For the past few months I’ve been making good money, I’m getting good roles, everyone loves my suggestions on set, every director calls me brilliant – I thought these are all the ingredients that make a man arrogant. Then I had an accident and fractured my rib. That led to muscle spasms and many other complicated illnesses that again made me so grounded and humble. So I had the chance to become arrogant, but this injury took away that chance from me. Waapis se mujhe laga ki sab bhram hai.
Going back to what you just said, isn’t it scary that you barely get criticism? I don’t remember you ever getting a terrible review.
No, I really have not. People say the director has wasted him but no one says that he didn’t try. So yes, that’s also a problem. Wherever I see one or two lines of criticism I read it very intently. Sometimes some random people on Twitter give me advice. They’ll say things like I’m giving the same performance everywhere. Then I realised they were just trying to get a reaction out of me. I had no idea this is how trolls think. I learnt this only recently. The only criticism I get is from my wife and she’s brutal.
Mere taraf se nonsense baatein bhi toh aayen. How can it be that I’m always saying sensible things and doing sensible acting. No one is so perfect. I’m also exploring myself. I wonder ki yaar mera nonsense wala side kyu nahi bahaar aa raha hai.
Clearly there’s no dearth of work for you. But are you happy with the quality of roles you’re getting?
See, we should be critical towards our own industry also. Yahaan kamaal ki script bahut kam likhi jaati hain. If I become choosy and do only those films that I completely love, then I’ll probably be sitting at home for 6 months. Mujhe woh script kam milti hai jise padhke lage ki boss yeh toh kuchh alag hain. It’s not like the scripts are totally bogus. But if I find at least two elements that work for me I say, ‘Okay, chalo kar lete hain’. Sometimes I feel I can add something of my own to this and flesh it out.
Every writer feels they’ve written a great script. When you print this, I’m sure people will read it and tell me on Twitter that we have a great script that we wrote with just you in mind and you’ve not read it. There are many writers who are following up with me for a year and I’ve not been able to listen to their stories because I don’t have the time. Main akela aadmi hoon, kitna sunoonga, kya kya karoonga. But what I’m trying to say is that if I go looking for quality, maybe I’ll end up doing only three films a year.
Would that be so bad?
Nahi. Not at all. Maybe from next year that’s what I’ll do. Maybe I’ll only do films that I feel are extremely exciting. Woh maine kahaan na, premika ab shaadi karke ghar aa chuki hai. Ab kuchh hafte baad mujhe uski buri aadatein pata chal rahi hain. But you think, ‘I’ve loved her for 20 years. I can put up with her flaws’. Then after 4-5 years you feel you need to tell her – nahi dost, tum main yeh kami hain. So it’s like that with me and scripts.
People in Vidharbha or Telangana face a crisis when there’s no rain, and they also suffer when there’s a flood. There was a time where I was suffering from a dry spell, now I’m dealing with the impact of the flood.
I’ve done many films for the money in the past. Now, too, there are times when the person offering the film is an old friend but the script is not great. He’ll say ‘come to set, give your ideas and we’ll work around it’.
Are you bad at saying no?
I have a huge problem saying no. Why do you think I’m doing so much work? I just can’t say no to anyone. Yesterday a journalist messaged asking me for 5 minutes of my time to talk about a teacher in my life. It was for Teachers’ Day. But I really had no time so I didn’t say yes or no, but it’s still playing on my mind. Maybe I’ll message him back now and say sorry I was busy.
When was the last time a character scared you because you weren’t sure if you could pull it off?
Sacred Games. Guruji was beyond my life experiences. I’ve never met a man like him. There’s something in acting called Magic If – it’s basically you thinking what if I was this man. So I was thinking what if I was devising a big plan to end the world. I could either make him appear a little off or I could play him as a calm and smiling man – someone you wouldn’t believe is evil. I thought people like Guruji always appear normal. Sirf kahin kahin appko unka sanak dikhega.
You’ve said you have many interests outside acting too. What are they?
Cooking and traveling. Main acting mein aaya hoon ghoomne ke chakkar main. I was shooting for 83 in London and after 2 days I ran away to Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival. It was wonderful. I saw some lovely street performances, watched theatre, drank beer, clicked photos with some Indians I met there. I go to all the festivals in India – from the one in Kutch, Hemis Festival in Ladakh, Bharat Rang Maha utsav in Delhi… Whenever I go somewhere to shoot, I first see what is interesting about that area and what new folk forms I can check out.
There is so much more travelling I want to do. I’ve gone to Leh thrice but I still feel like going again. I want to see the Northern Lights. I want to see Arunachal, Bhutan.
I read a lot about travel. A writer called Rahul Sankrityayan did travel writing in Hindi. He was from UP and he spent 45 years travelling. He lived by the Ganges in Azamgarh and he walked from there to the banks of the Volga river in Moscow. It took him 23 years to reach. He wrote a book about it and I was very inspired by him. Dekho na, Hindi main travel ke baare main kam hi baatein hoti hain.
Do you watch films as well?
I have no interest. I see some independent films like Court, Killa… But other than that I have no idea what’s going on. Sometimes when I’m called to a trial I go see a movie. Recently when I was returning from London a co-actor from 83 told me about an actress called Meryl Streep. I didn’t know who she was. Yeh galat hai. Mujhe janna chahiye tha. I then saw Bridges of Madison County.
Meryl Streep ko dekh ke main paagal ho gaya. I want to see everything she’s done. I saw different videos of her, some of her scenes, and I related to her quite a bit. When you see another actor’s performance you can tell their approach and process. When I saw hers, I felt I also do some of these things. I was so inspired.
I’ve never seen any TV series, not even my own, and I’ve done three. Firstly, I don’t have time. When I do, I feel I’d rather cook. I think about acting all the time anyway. Now in my free time I don’t want to be watching acting. I rather sit by the window and watch these birds.
A few years ago you said in an interview that your 8 hours of sleep is most precious to you and that if someone offered you the chance to be a big star with less sleep, you’d choose more sleep. Do you still get 8 hours?
Milta hai, lekin in dino thoda hila hua hai. I’m not being able to sleep for more than 6 hours and I’m constantly thinking about how I can improve this and bring it back to 8 hours. Saari ladaai toh isi ki hai na – ki hum khush ho paaye. I tell all the assistant directors on my films that I take only 10 minutes to get ready so don’t keep one hour for my wardrobe and make-up. Just tell me when you’re rolling and I’ll arrive. Don’t worry about what I do before that. I like to get up a little late and finish my sleep. Yahi toh ladaai hain.