The Manoj I know.
I met him on a warm winter afternoon at a rusty hotel no one cared for, about an hour from Mumbai. A man with droopy shoulders and tired eyes answered my anxious knock on the door of the room he was resting in. “Hi sir!” I squealed with excitement. I was meeting my first and only co-actor till then, Manoj Bajpayee, after almost a year of working on my debut film with him. He looked at me, smiled faintly, unbuttoned his grubby old coat and asked me how I was with his back towards me.
Was this the same man I was shooting with a little less than a year ago? He had aged 20 years in that time, and yet it seemed like time had stood still around him. He sat down the side of the bed, looked back up at me and asked me to join him for lunch.
I couldn’t. I avoided entering his space that afternoon and excused myself soon enough. Truth is that I was intimidated. I was expecting the Manoj Sir who’d always tap you on the back of your shoulder with “Kya haal hai Divya? Sab badhiya?” which followed soon after. This fragile man sitting in front of me however was anything but him.
Later that evening we were supposed to shoot a scene together in a film named Aligarh. This was my first glimpse into the life and the person who then became Prof. Siras, one of Bajpayee’s biggest achievements as an actor. I learnt a lesson that day, one any novice actor would give her left limb for. Some create the characters they play, others let the characters create them.
Manoj had been living with Siras for months on end. A recluse professor who happened to be homosexual and paid a huge price for it, had taken over Manoj’s very being. Anyone who knew him knew that this was his most difficult journey since that of the impulsive and gritty Bhiku Mhatre. There was no question of anybody playing the part the way he did, and that was a unanimous sentiment once the film was out.
Perhaps why when I heard that Manoj Sir had lost out on the country’s most prestigious film award this year, my heart sank a little. “Love you loads and always. You’re the best,” I immediately sent him a message, letting him know my loyalties were with him, even at the risk of sounding like an immature fan girl. But I couldn’t help it.
Me and Manoj on the sets of Traffic
I shot for Aligarh for less than a day, but I’ve known Manoj Bajpayee ever since the time I first faced a movie camera. I was a film journalist who almost overnight found herself on a movie set and was expected to play the modest, Maharashtrian wife of an actor I’d grown up watching. I was 14 when Satya released. And 15 years later I was making rotis for Manoj in our very believable little kitchen in a film named Traffic. He was playing a traffic hawaldar, troubled by our teenage daughter’s rebellious behaviour that morning. All I had to do was take the bag of vegetables from him, and make him feel like he was doing fine as a dad.
Take one happened. Take two happened. Before take three, Manoj leans in and says to me, “Just be yourself. Talk like you would talk at home.” Take three happened… and it was locked. Everyone on set clapped and I had my first ever movie scene in the can. I ran into my vanity van and cried my eyes out after that shot. Not because I was nervous, but because I was grateful for a giving co-actor.
It’s not easy to be a selfless actor, and god knows there are only a handful of them in Bollywood. I’ve heard of superstars standing in front of a life-size mirror till the last second of a director calling action. They are not the ones that can be included in this lot. Battling insecurities, failures and countless moments of doubt, one builds oneself up into the pure craft of living the character one was meant to play, and that is what I saw in Manoj. It comes with years of practice and knowing exactly what you are capable of.
He would get into a scene, but never dominate it. He would improvise, but never intimidate the actor with him. I remember being clueless in a montage sequence for a song, where Manoj and I were drying clothes in our little verandah. “What am I supposed to do?” I asked my director. “You don’t worry, he’ll lead,” my director said. We both held two ends of a sari during the shot, and in a split second he pulled me towards him making it the perfect moment a husband and wife would steal before their daughter sees them. I wasn’t expecting it, and he beautifully made my weakness the strength of the scene.
Me playing a reporter and Manoj Bajpayee as Prof. Siras in Aligarh
A night before I began to shoot for Traffic, I got a call from the editor of the magazine I was working for then. The magazine had shut down and 17 of us had lost our jobs. I had landed a movie, but no way in hell was I ready to let go of my 8-year-long career in journalism. I was distraught. With the phone in one hand, a few pages of my script in the other, I knocked on Manoj’s door. “I’ve lost my job sir,” I said to him. “You have found one, Divya. You have a film you are working in already. Do the other 16 have this? No. Consider yourself blessed,” he said to me. We spent the rest of the evening talking about how every experience in an actor’s life is one that can be used for performance.
He would share his knowledge as graciously as his dabba with the crew. Always the one to reach set before time, he was the favourite of the assistant directors. Here was a man who even as a kid never chose to attract attention. He preferred staying silent, until provoked, and that’s true to date. Here’s a man who barely got his due as an actor in this country, and yet is never going to have an overreaction to it.
He does not have a big PR team building up an image for him. He’s not gunning for international agents to pitch him to Hollywood. It would be rare to see him on social media. But he will speak when he needs to and play his part the way he needs to. He will play the part of a homosexual and defend their rights, despite those in power being against him. It may take many moons to acknowledge a character like Prof. Siras and he knows that.
A few months ago we exchanged a routine, “How’s it going?” on text. “I’m looking for work, sir.” I told him. “So am I” he responded with a smile. That’s Manoj for you. Never making you feel like he’s the achiever, and always making it seem like we are all in it together. A few nights ago, I suggested he write an open letter expressing himself on being excluded from the national awards. His response was “Nahi yaar, ab straight autobiography!” Can’t wait sir. Can’t wait.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Divya Unny
Photographs: Aligarh film stills