Actor Manoj Bajpayee talks about the Netflix anthology series ‘Ray’, the chemistry he shares with long-time colleague Gajraj Rao, and of course the success of the second season of ‘The Family Man’.

Over the last two-and-a-half decades, Manoj Bajpayee has managed to redefine himself again and again as a performer, constantly pushing the boundaries of acting for the screen. While his entire body of work is formidable with titles like Bandit Queen, Satya, Shool, Zebeidaa, Aks, Pinjar, and Raajneeti, among others, it is only during the last decade that he has completely unleashed himself. When everyone was thinking that his portrayal of the gangster Sardar Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) is the definitive Manoj Bajpayee performance, he surprised everyone with his deeply nuanced portrayal of a gay professor in Aligarh (2015). He took things to the next level in the psychological drama Gali Guleiyan (2018). And he backed it with a visceral and transformative performance in Bhonsle (2018). Many of Bajpayee’s contemporaries have for the lack of a better word got washed up but he continues to take up new challenges. Over the last few years, his work on the web has catapulted him to new heights of stardom.
In this interview, he talks about the ‘Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa’ segment of the Netflix anthology series Ray and the chemistry he shares with long-time colleague Gajraj Rao, his collaboration with Raj & DK on the Amazon Prime Video series The Family Man, rise of OTT during Covid-19 and his upcoming projects.
Excerpts
Q. Your poet character Musafir Ali in the ‘Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa’ segment of the Netflix anthology series ‘Ray’ has been creating a lot of buzz. How was the project realized? What made you say ‘Yes’ to it?
A. Well, to begin with, all of us are great admirers of Mr. Satyajit Ray. We have seen his films and read his stories. What made it even more tempting to me is the fact that the part was offered to me by Abhishek Chaubey. I feel that he is one of the best directors in the country. Fortunately, I had already read the Satyajit Ray’s short story on which it is based. So when Abhishek sent me the complete adaptation, I was blown by the manner in which he had set up the world of Musafir Ali. With Abhishek I am always sure that he is going to challenge me and push me to deliver my level my best and I think this is exactly what he has achieved with ‘Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa’. Even though it’s just a 50 minute long segment, it feels as if it’s a full-fledged film that we all are a part of. The credit, of course, goes to Abhishek and his writer.
Q. What’s the secret behind your fluency at Urdu?
A. Well, it’s actually to do with my theatre background. The medium requires an actor to have a basic understanding of Urdu. Your diction and speech is something that you constantly work on as an actor. Now, my teachers were totally non-compromising when it came to language, diction, and speech. Over the years one keeps learning and all the learning comes handy. The actor’s work is always on. That’s how you evolve.
Q. What was it like to share the screen with Gajraj Rao? Also, how much of what unfolds on the screen was improvised?
A. Gajraj and I were in the same theatre group during our early years and so we have known each other for a very long time. He is an actor who was quite feared in our theater days because of his great ability to improvise. But for some reason he moved away from acting and got into directing. Now that he has come back he is showing the skill that he has always possessed. Working with him on ‘Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa’ was like walking down the memory lane. So, just like our theatre days, we learned from each other, helped each other, held each other’s hands and tried to walk through the challenge that was thrown at us, together.
Now, a lot of the things were already present in the script and many things evolved during the shoot. Abhishek’s scripts are always very detailed. He likes to do extensive rehearsals with his actors and so together we sort it out. Every good director has a process and once that process is complete the actors do have some room to add or subtract a little. So, it’s a collaborative task but under the guidance of the director.
Q. With the kind of success that you have consistently tasted on OTT in recent years, it wouldn’t be wrong to call you the King of OTT. Given your long struggle in your initial years, how does it feel like to be at the top of the mountain?
A. Frankly, I don’t know how to answer this. I have been working in the industry for the last 26 years and so it’s really heartening to see the kind of appreciation that my work has received in the recent years. I am truly grateful that the people are talking about my work and the youth has started taking keen interest in my old work as well. The excitement certainly would have been different had I been 25 or 26 (chuckles). Having said that, it is important to not let success or failure get to your head. So, I always try to keep myself focused on my work. The idea is to keep on honing my craft and continue to take new challenges.
Q. The Family Man series has become a staple as far as the Indian OTT space is concerned. Both seasons feature several action sequences set in different locations. How hectic is the schedule? What it’s like to work with Raj & DK?
A. I would really love to have people from the media someday come and see it for themselves how we work. Now, the three of us have very similar working styles. We are all workaholics who like to stay away from glamor. I really love Raj and DK. And the third director on the series is Suparn S. Varma whom I have known for a long time. He is a dear friend of mine. I think he has very bright prospects ahead.
So, the whole team is full of individuals who like to work together. Every morning we start rolling at 7:30 am sharp and we shoot for 12-14 hours with the mission to accomplish what’s in the schedule for that day. And we don’t hold back; we give it all to the shoot on a given day. And, by the time pack up is announced, I am completely exhausted. So is everyone. And before that do so many readings and rehearsals to ensure that we are all on the same page. If I have some suggestions and inputs then I share with the creative team and then we start with the rehearsals all over again. So the space is buzzing with energy all the time. At the same time we pull each other’s legs and have a great time together. And whenever I have some free time before lunch I even cook for them.
Q. How do you see OTT as a medium vis-à-vis cinema?
A. What’s important is that your product should be great whether it’s cinema or OTT. Now, I have always dealt with all kinds of medium and so the medium doesn’t really affect me that way. Moreover very few of my films were releasing in theatres as most of my work over the years has been in the indie space which anyway find it really hard to get the screens. But at the same time I would say that the community viewing is a different experience altogether. So like everyone else I am also hoping for theatres to open and go back to normalcy. However, looking at the present situation, I would say that we must continue to make the best use of OTT.
Q. Tell us about your upcoming projects.
A. My next film is Dial 100 with Neena Gupta Ji and Sakshi Tanwar. Rensil D’Silva has directed it for Sony Pictures. It’s an emotional thriller. I am very happy with the product that I have seen. It will also be out on OTT. I have also finished Raam Reddy’s upcoming film. Now, I am also on the verge of finishing Kanu Bahl’s work. It had got stopped after some of us got infected with Coronavirus. Then there is my next project with Abhishek Chaubey but right now I am not in a position to talk about it.

Murtaza Ali Khan is an Indian critic/journalist who has been covering entertainment for the last 10 years.