Manoj Bajpayee has been an inveterate champion of meaningful cinema since making his debut in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen in 1994. With an enviable filmography boasting of power-packed performances in films such as Satya, Shool, Gangs of Wasseypur and Aligarh behind him, he has inspired a whole lot of actors who are giving a big push to content-driven cinema these days. Giridhar Jha speaks to the Bihar-born actor to understand if the perceptible change in the taste of audience portends doom for the age-old star system in Bollywood.
Many small movies are doing better at the box office than some of the big-budget projects backed by the corporates these days?
Small-budget cinema is certainly doing better if you look at the investment-profit ratio. The corporate formula has failed because it has singularly chosen to bank only on star power to ensure footfalls in the theatres. Content has been a secondary aspect for them, and it is doing no good to the film industry.
A whole new generation of actors inspired by you, from Nawazuddin Siddiqui to Rajkummar Rao, is having a whale of a time commercially with many content-driven movies springing a surprise at the ticket counters this year. This has coincided with the failure of much-talked-about ventures of a few big stars. Can we say that the star is system finally breaking in Bollywood?
The star system will never go away because the masses are always looking for somebody who can give them hope, someone they can look up to and somebody they all aspire to be like. That charm and charisma will definitely not fade away anytime soon. But yes, big stars like Akshay Kumar and Aamir Khan have completely changed the content of their own films. They have brought in a certain realism to the subject of their films within the same old formula. That is why their films keep doing very well. But if one takes away the believability of the content and tries to bank solely on the charisma and charm of stars for success, it will no longer work.
What do you think could be the reasons behind this changing trend?
In my opinion, one of the reasons behind the popularity of content-driven cinema could be the impact of world cinema on the Indian audience. The best work of great film-makers from around the globe is so easily available to movie lovers nowadays, especially to the younger generation. Besides, a new breed of mainstream film-makers, who tell their stories in a refreshing way, has also emerged. There are directors such as Neeraj Pandey, Imtiaz Ali, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra or Subhash Kapoor of the Jolly LLB fame who rely on the believability of the stories they are telling. They are, of course, sticking to the format of mainstream cinema but they are also changing its definition with their films.
Isn’t the success of small cinema also prompting big stars to change track and look for subjects with substance?
If you look at Aamir and Akshay, or for that matter, Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan, they are very smart and enterprising people. They look at cinema as a medium which can also get money in their kitty. If these stars realise that the audience is demanding content then they try to give it to them while, at the same time, staying within the formula model. That is why they choose the films that they do. But actors like me do not function in the same way. My mind is absolutely concentrated on the genre that I deal with, or the content that I want to explore or the movement that I am part of. I, for one, cannot call myself enterprising from that point of view. We are working in two different worlds in the same industry.
But you have been a much-sought-after actor even in the realm of commercial cinema. How do you manage to work in so many small movies made on shoestring budgets? Do they pay you remuneration on par with what you get for a big-banner project?
These (small) films have nothing to offer. Absolutely nothing! It is pure passion that it works on. These content-heavy films are not backed by any big studios. They are independently produced within a certain budget. We are all part of them because we want this movement of storytelling and content-driven cinema to go on. It is very important for actors who have some kind of experience and filmography to support these films. I have done many such films, like Bandit Queen, Satya and Shool, at the outset of my career when commercial cinema was in top gear. So it becomes extremely essential after so many years, when people respect me for the work that I have done, to be really standing for these kinds of films. I am, therefore, very much comfortable…completely at home being part of the meaningful cinema movement.
But there must be tempting offers from commercial film-makers every now and then? How do you resist that, the proverbial lure of lucre?
Thankfully, I am a person whose needs are extremely limited. Somewhere at the outset of my career, I knew it was very difficult for me to be part of hardcore commercial cinema. I do not feel comfortable doing it. I do it only for personal relationships or money. There cannot be a third reason. Since I do not do it very often, it becomes very easy for me to be part of and support the kind of movies I want to do. Had my needs been over the top, then it would have been very difficult for me and I would have ended up playing a villain or a big brother here and there in commercial films. However, as I said, I do succumb at times because of personal relations or when I am in dire need of really good money. Still, I never want to do films to buy a nice car, an expensive watch or a big house.
Beginning with Rukh, you have quite a few interesting small-budget films lined up for release in the next few weeks.
Yes, there is Rukh, directed by debutant Atanu Mukherjee, which is a dear film to me. In the Shadow is another favourite of mine, made by another newcomer, Dipesh Jain. It has been shot extensively in Old Delhi. Those who have seen it say it is my best-ever performance. Then, there is Aiyyary, an amazing movie by Neeraj Pandey, who never ceases to surprise me with his directorial and writing skills.
You must be a contented actor given the way your career has progressed so far?
I know I am not, actually. I am full of desperation and restlessness. I just want to do a hundred more meaningful films. I want to do at least four such films in a year so that the flow does not stop. I want to work with as many new directors as possible, with those who have great stories to tell to the audience. I want people to know me for such films. Films which explore my skill and craft give me immense satisfaction as an actor. I am proud of my filmography after having done films like Shool, Aligarh and many others which were made purely on conviction. But deep down inside, I remain the theatre actor that I was when I left home to pursue a career in acting in Mumbai. I have realised that I cannot change that so I have stopped struggling with it now. I have surrendered completely to the DNA of Manoj Bajpayee.