He had been around for several years in the Hindi film industry before he played the bloodthirsty Sultan Qureshi in the film that became his calling card, Anurag Kashyap’s violence-ridden Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012.
Variety is clearly Pankaj Tripathi’s glucose as an artiste.
Last year in the internationally lauded and awarded Masaan, he played a hesitant suitor to a feisty female colleague, his manner towards her a marked contrast to the aggressive wooing of women by so many commercial Hindi film heroes even today. He is currently basking in the universal praise he has received for his performance as an eccentric school principal with questionable though well-intentioned teaching methods in the sleeper hit Nil Battey Sannata, in which Swara Bhaskar plays the lead. Nil Battey is now entering its seventh week in theatres, which is unprecedented for such a low-key, low-budget venture.
In a conversation with contributing editor Anna M.M. Vetticad, Pankaj Tripathi discusses the meaning of ‘mardaangi’ in Bollywood’s dictionary and heroes who molest heroines in the guise of courtship. He also explains why the success of small Hindi films these days telling stories of Everywoman and Everyman are a sign of changing audience tastes and an evolving society. These are excerpts from the English translation of an interview that was conducted in Hindi:
There is a line you did not cross with your character’s quirks in Nil Battey Sannata. Did you deliberately control yourself? Were you aware that if you crossed a certain line, you would have made Srivastava Sir effeminate?
Yes I was absolutely aware of it.
A caricatured effeminate man is a character we are used to seeing in Hindi cinema. Why did you stop yourself?
When I first read the role, he was quite flat. What you see on screen is not entirely what the character was in the script. I felt that since this film makes such a serious and important point, since it is a serious story of a mother and daughter, and there is humour in only that one scene where the mother comes to get admission for herself in school, my task was to make my character interesting. But there was a line in my mind that I was very clear I would not cross.
Generally, when actors are trying to make their characters entertaining, they end up crossing the very thin line that divides entertainment and buffoonery. I wanted him to be believable as a serious guy. He is a Maths teacher, the kind I would have been if I had become a teacher: he is serious but he makes sure he starts off by livening up the class, catching the attention of students whose minds are wandering, so that everyone is alert when he teaches his subject. While doing so, I was determined that none of this should come across as a caricature, buffoonery or mimicry.
Most actors in such roles end up mimicking an old actor, either consciously or sub-consciously. They’ll play the teacher as, say, Prem Chopra, Pran or Jeevan might have played him. My references don’t come from cinema. Most actors who join films are very inspired by cinema. I’m not. I’ve perhaps seen 40 films in my life, perhaps two or three films from Hollywood or world cinema. So my performances are drawn from reality, from the life I’ve lived, the people I’ve met.
There’s nothing wrong with a man being what people consider effeminate. Why does Hindi cinema choose to caricature such men?
You should watch my next film Anarkali Arawali which stars Swara Bhaskar. I play a dancer from a small town called Ara in Bihar who runs a song and dance troupe and performs with them on stage. He has some very feminine moves when he dances,
You will see that this performance too is one I’ve given with great care to ensure that it does not cross over into buffoonery and a caricature of the kind actors do when they’re playing gay men on screen. Actors usually play gay to draw laughs and they end up misrepresenting gay people.
There is such a thing as maatra, amount. An actor shoud be aware of the economics of his gestures and emotions. Is this too much or too little, if I go beyond this will it be a waste? I learnt this from my guru, Baba B.V. Karanth at the National School of Drama. He said, Pankaj, you should not waste your gestures, they should be measured with care. Many actors get carried away, they start enjoying their own performance on set especially when the crew starts reacting with laughter during the shoot. They begin to think they’re doing a great job.
I begin to get worried if people on set enjoy my performance too much, because we forget that what they are seeing in real life and what I can then re-watch on our 16-17 inch monitor will be watched by the audience on a screen of 30 feet. What may seem less while shooting could be too much on the big screen.
Besides, I’ve worked as a cook so I know the exact texture, thickness, look and smell of a dish even before I make it. My process while acting too is similar.
Would you like to play a conventional macho Hindi film hero like the guy in Singham who flies through the air and beats up 50 people single-handedly? You know the kind of hero who exemplifies the Hindi film fixation with ‘mardaangi’?
No, because I would not be convinced myself. Or if I do, I’d make him slightly sanki, slightly abnormal, because I don’t think such a man can be normal.
You know, our society has changed quite a bit and is turning its back on many conventions. For instance, earlier when I used to visit Bihar, I would perhaps spot one girl in every five villages who would ride a bicycle and she would be a subject of much discussion, but when I visited my village a few months back I saw dozens of girls riding cycles to schools. So certainly our society’s mentality towards women is changing, that whole notion of mardaangi would have been acceptable to most people but now in a small way it is being questioned. The male mindset is changing in a small way, largely because young people who have been exposed to the outside world and to world cinema through the Internet are questioning everything. They are much more aware than us, the older generation.
You mentioned the dramatic change in your village. Do you think the marginal changes we are seeing in the attitude towards this so-called ‘mardaangi’ is a result of society influencing Hindi cinema, or are our films being influenced by society?
This is always a tough question. In India I feel society is influenced by cinema, everyone is aping films. However, young people who are responsible for filling up halls on opening weekends, these youngsters are refusing to be constrained by society’s rules at least in our big cities. If they’re gay they want to be open about it, they don’t want to hide their sexual preferences. Urban Indian society has become more open-minded and since urban audiences contribute greatly to our film collections, we are seeing more characters who are not the routine macho type.
After Gangs of Wasseypur I kept getting offers to play raw characters who were goondas. I got sick of it. In Bihar there is a term, mahua, which is the complete opposite of macho. I decided I wanted to play a role like that. I’d had enough of the macho stuff.
Earlier actors had a great hunger for roles that were described as powerful, you hear actors giving interviews saying they want powerful roles, when what they’re talking about is the traditional macho role where the hero would beat up people, everyone would be scared of him and they would bow before him. These characters emerge from a feudal mindset. Most of our heroes were people with this mentality, but that old feudal system is gone and many of today’s real life heroes are people who would definitely not be seen as macho.