THEY owe it to Manoj Bajpai. His sledgehammer performance as a garrulous, irascible ganglord in Ramgopal Verma's Satya has, in one fell swoop, demolished the high walls of prejudice that stood in the way of trained Delhi theatre actors trying to make inroads into mainstream Mumbai cinema. The result: a new crop of talented, young stage actors from the national Capital, condemned for several years to bit player status on the big screen, are emerging from the shadows of oblivion. The ovation is real. And the offers have begun to pile up.
Walk-on parts are a thing of the past for this phalanx of high-voltage performers. For Bajpai himself, who plays a pivotal role in Verma's next film, Kaun, a songless psychological thriller. For Ashutosh Rana, the slimeball rapist of Dushman who has quickly notched up a number of prestigious assignments in big-budget films. For Mukesh Tiwari, who is waiting for Rajkumar Santoshi's long-awaited China Gate to open on to an expanse of creative breathing space. For Sanjay Mishra, too, who figures in the cast of Mani Ratnam's Dil Se.. and is slated to play a key role in cinematographer Santosh Sivan's next directorial venture.
Says Mishra, the 1989 National School of Drama (NSD) graduate who was last sighted in a minuscule role in Satya and in the Mirinda ad featuring 'postman' Amitabh Bachchan: "After the success of Satya, 'new' faces—read Delhi theatre actors—are hot property in Mumbai. If directors of the calibre of Ramgopal Verma, Mani Ratnam and Shekhar Kapur can cast unknowns, others are bound to follow." Herd mentality is not always such a bad thing, after all! "A new breed of film-makers have narrowed down the gap between mainstream and non-formula films. This is working to the advantage of actors like us," says Bajpai. "Trained theatre actors are invariably a cut above the rest. Look at Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Anupam Kher and so many others," says Ram Gopal Bajaj, director, NSD.
Bajpai, Rana and Tiwari's ascent to stardom differs in one crucial respect from the forays that Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and their ilk made in the '70s. The latter cut their teeth on offbeat Shyam Benegal films, and it wasn't until much later in their careers that they found a foothold in mainstream cinema. More recently, Seema Biswas, Nirmal Pandey (both Bandit Queen) and Ashish Vidyarthi (Drohkaal) made their mark with films that were steadfastly non-for-mulaic. But the latest wave of actors from the Delhi stage have barged straight into the heart of commercially-oriented movies. And are none the worse for it.
"The applause has come at the end of a long, bitter struggle. So the sense of triumph is infinitely sweeter," says Bajpai, who spent 11 years on the Delhi theatre circuit before heading out to the city of dreams. Brief appearances in Bandit Queen, Tamanna and Govind Nihalani's Sansodhan and three tele-serials (Swabhimaan, Imtihaan and Badaltey Rishte) later, Bajpai has tasted the kind of high that allows him to look back on his days of struggle with equanimity. "I don't have a bank balance, a car or a mobile phone yet, but I do have these three films—Bandit Queen, Tamanna and Satya—to boast of," says the boy from Bettiah, north Bihar.
The History honours graduate from Ramjas College couldn't make it to the NSD. But his stints with Nishant Natya Manch, a street theatre group for which he did up to six shows a day, N.K. Sharma's Act One and Barry John's Theatre Action Group (TAG) came in handy. "I trained with Barry for four years," he recalls. "I assisted him in virtually every aspect of his theatre work." That meant, more than anything else, conducting workshops for spastics, slum children and little boys and girls who lived on railway platforms. "My work with children helped me hone my skills as an actor," says Bajpai.
INDEED, his commitment to his craft has always bordered on obsession. Says Barry John, who now runs an acting school in Noida's Film City: "Manoj's love for theatre was unwavering. He went to the Spastics Society of India twice a week to work with children on a monthly salary of Rs 400. He managed to survive." Shamsul Islam, the man behind Nishant Natya Manch, recalls Bajpai's spontaneity as an actor. "Manoj was extremely quick on the uptake," he says. "He came to Delhi ostensibly to acquire a degree. The real reason was his commitment to theatre. He, luggage and all, came straight to our Model Town garage from the Delhi railway station."
That decision is paying dividends today. And other Delhi actors, trained yet instinctive, are striking it rich in tinseltown. By dint of sheer talent. Owing to the uncanny ability to add that extra dimension to any on-screen character. Like Ashu-tosh Rana did to Gokul Pan-dit of Dushman. "He's the very antithesis of the Hindi film villain," says Rana, who passed out of NSD in 1994, the same year as Mukesh Tiwari. "Real, believable, a postman who rides a bicycle. And he doesn't even smile, let alone guffaw."
Unlike Bajpai, who is keen to try his hand at a wider palette of human shades, Rana wants to play Evil Incarnate on screen. "Negative characters have a streak of madness, a degree of commitment to whatever they zero in on. That is what makes them irresistible," says the young man who began his acting career in Gadarwara, a small town in Madhya Pradesh. "I was a Ramlila regular. I would have loved to play Ravan in those days, but my age went against me," he reminisces.
How did he land the Dushman role? Like Bajpai, Rana began with roles in Swabhimaan and Tamanna. He then did a single scene in Vikram Bhatt's Ghulam. Actress-producer Pooja Bhatt liked what she saw and immediately decided to cast Rana in the role of Gokul Pandit. The rest, as they say, is history. "I was always fond of Ashutosh," says Ram Gopal Bajaj. "I introduced him to as many people as I could. I often predicted that he would do well if given the right breaks." Indeed. Rana's on a roll, and more chances have come his way. He is playing a typical Hindi film bad guy in Suniel Raja Hindustani Darshan's Jaanwar and another powerful role in Tanuja Chandra's Andhera. "In comparison with the Andhera character, Gokul Pandit is an angel," he says.
Bajpai, too, has been flooded with offers in the wake of Satya, but he isn't biting indiscriminately. "I've turned down three or four offers from big banners already. They want me to repeat the Satya role and I'm not interested," he says. In fact, Bajpai is more enthused by some of the ideas that absolutely new film-makers have suggested to him. "I'm seriously considering one of the concepts: a gripping, dramatic, non-formula film." Bajpai is not into the numbers game. "I can't do on a regular basis what I don't believe in. I believe in living a role, in internalising a character completely," he declares. But isn't he being far too finicky? "That's the way I am. I am an obstinate sort of guy. I will stick it out till I get exactly what I want. "
One actor who got exactly what he was looking for, and perhaps with far greater ease, is Mukesh Tiwari. When Rajkumar Santoshi was scouting for an actor to play the main villain in China Gate, he flew in to Delhi and watched a few NSD plays. Tiwari, another actor Bajaj had pinned his hopes on, impressed the Mumbai filmmaker. China Gate is still under production, but Tiwari is already being talked off as an actor to watch out for.
As NSD becomes a happy hunting ground for Mumbai directors, many of the school's graduates are heading for the Hindi film industry. Like Dilip Pawle of the class of 1998. The 28-year-old from Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, is confident that his career will get going soon. "Training gives you confidence, the feeling that you can face any challenge as an actor, switch from stage to TV to cinema with ease," he says. Quite so. That is the kind of spunk that has catapulted Bajpai and Rana to the big league. There is no reason why it shouldn't do the same for Pawle and those who will follow him to Mumbai.