Manoj Bajpai: Actor and forever rebel in search of the right audience

A powerhouse of talent, one of the most recognised actors in India, an individual anchored to his days of struggle despite his fame, and above all, a rebel and a bold risk-taker — that is Manoj Bajpai.

Manoj Bajpai in Joram
Manoj Bajpai as a tribal father in the award-winning film Joram. Image courtesy: Devashish Makhija

His film Joram, the story of a man fighting the system that threatens to crush him, received many awards last year, including the Best Actor Award at the Durban International Film Festival 2023 for Bajpai. But the film’s team felt let down by the audience response to the theatrical release in December 2023.

Bajpai clarifies that the release strategy was experimental: “We had purposely released Joram in very few theatres because we wanted to gauge if the audiences’ brains work the way [that] we think, or if they only want to watch other kinds of films.”

Widely recognised as “good cinema” even before its big screen release and shown strategically at only 350 screens, Joram still failed to sell many tickets. This could be because of the current audience tendency to wait for a film to “drop” on a streaming service instead of making the effort to watch it in the theatre.

“People who went to watch the film really liked it, as we have heard that they themselves are promoting it by word of mouth, telling others to watch it. But a major slice of the audience does not believe in films like Joram and even if they do, they prefer to watch them for free,” says the actor.

Manoj Bajpai and Tannishtha Chatterjee in Joram
Manoj Bajpai and Tannishtha Chatterjee in Joram. Image courtesy: Devashish Makhija

However, one setback has not dented his resolve to rebel against stereotypes and to bring different stories to life. “Our fight is about this. We want to see how interested [viewers] are in watching the kind of films we want to make,” says Bajpai, sounding determined to keep taking risks.

Part of any risk-taking venture is to calculate the costs of all the possible outcomes. The Joram team had managed to keep a tight leash on the budget and, therefore, could live with the limited theatrical business. Bajpai says, “If people had gone to watch the film at full capacity at these 350 screens, then we would have earned Rs 60 lakh. They did not. We were just taking a risk. However, for the limited [production] budget, the film earned around 15-19 lakh, which is okay, I guess.”

Always dynamic, always experimenting

Facing facts and talking straight is one of the most remarkable qualities of Bajpai. This also makes him an original — the characters he has played, from the early Satya (1998) and Zubeidaa (2001) to the groundbreaking Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), pop culture entertainer Special 26  (2013), visceral Aligarh (2015), inspiring Budhia Singh: Born to Run (2016) and more recent Bhonsle (2018) and Joram (2023), are almost never the same. There are Tamil and Telugu films, too, in his body of work.

Manoj Bajpai, the actor, is never static; he is always dynamic and always experimenting.

Asked how he fleshes out a role for any film, including a mainstream one, the actor says, “Preparation for any role is a very personal thing for every actor, as the director cannot be there all the time. I do my preparation entirely on my own for every role.”

He elaborates, “I read the script, make notes and keep reading the script again and again. If I need to shoot the next day, I discuss it with my director till we both come to an agreement completely in sync with the vision of the director. Actually, reading the script is a never-ending process, which goes on and on for me.

“Finally, it all boils down to how you are going to portray it in front of the camera. You cannot be a different character from one scene to the next, though the emotions may differ. You need to add and subtract from what you have prepared, and then do the blocking with the help of the director. Physical and mental preparation is a must for each and every role you do in each and every film.”

The rigorous preparation culminates in performances that have won him awards time and again, such as the National Award for Best Actor for Bhonsle in March 2021. The film’s release had faced the disruption of the pandemic, but the National Award came — yet again — as a validation of Bajpai’s art.

Manoj Bajpai in Bhonsle
Manoj Bajpai in Bhonsle, the role that won him the National Award for Best Actor in 2021. Image courtesy: Devashish Makhija

Recalling that feeling, the actor says, “The thrilling part is that the award came like a crown on top of all the awards the film had gathered for a couple of years. I [had] also won the Critics Award for Best Actor for the same film. And we did it under severely constricting financial circumstances.”

Bhonsle is a unique example of Bajpai’s risk appetite as a cinema stakeholder. “It was a crowdfunded film that I co-produced along with Piyush Singh, Abyanand Singh, Saurabh Gupta, and Sandip Kapoor. I was worried that a talented director like Devashish Makhija (who later also directed Joram) was struggling for four years to make this film. I am happy that a film like Bhonsle got to be made in a country like India, which also brought me another award (Filmfare) for Aligarh. What else can an actor wish for?”

As for how an award impacts his life, Bajpai says, “You decide to celebrate and work harder on your next film. At the same time, an award does not change your life but it pushes you to do better. It comes after a long wait.”

He adds, “I was really sad when the awards ignored me for Gangs of Wasseypur, Aligarh, and Budhia Singh at the National Awards, but even if it comes late, it’s worth no less for an actor like me.”

Nine web series episodes is like three films

Cinema today means not only the big screen but also the TV screen, thanks to original films and shows created by streaming services.

Bajpai has become a force to reckon with in this medium, with tremendous audience response to his web series, such as The Family Man, Silence… Can You Hear It? and Sirf Ek Bandaa Kafi Hai.

Analysing the difference between a conventional film and a limited series or a series with seasons, the actor says, “For a series, you know that it does not end, it does not wrap up and it just goes on and on. This is very challenging, because as an actor, you cannot afford to forget what your character was in the first series. When you come back to [another season], it is also long.

“Working in nine episodes is like working in three films — the preparation you do at home is the same as you do for a play or a photo session or a film; but for an OTT series, the difference is that it demands you to explore every dimension of the character you are playing.”

To Bajpai, that demand of a web series gives him “a big high”. He says, “I love inventing and experimenting and exploring the character I am portraying over a given span of time.”

Script remains the deciding factor in doing a film

Bajpai has worked with directors in every genre of Indian cinema, from Govind Nihalani and Shyam Benegal to Ram Gopal Varma, Hansal Mehta, and Tigmanshu Dhulia.

Asked about whether the director is a deciding factor in his choice of taking on a film, he says, “It is the script that mainly decides my choice of taking or rejecting an assignment. I have great faith in new directors. I must state that Bhonsle and Joram have both been turning points in my career. Devashish Makhija started writing the script of Bhonsle in 2011 and completed it in 2015, but could not get a producer. I felt the script had many possibilities.

“I have worked with many different genres of directors and learnt a lot from each one of them. But the script remains the clinching point.”

Talking more about Joram, the actor says, “The first attraction was the director, Devashish Makhija, with whom I have worked in three films [by now]. Broadly, the film is a political thriller that deals with the politics of development and displacement in a brutal landscape.

“Since Devashish Makhija’s films are quintessentially character-driven, ‘Joram’ also takes its title from the name of an adivasi (tribal) girl — the infant daughter of Dasru and Vaano. Dasru, the adivasi character I play, is on the run with the infant Joram right through the film.”

Explaining what the story represents, Bajpai says, “It is filled with action that underlines the cost of development using metaphors, wherein Joram, the character, stands for the legacy of this earth, of Nature under threat, raising some very pertinent questions about man destroying Nature by design or circumstantially.” 

Experiencing hardships like the characters in Joram

Hard as life is for Joram and Dasru in the story, the cast and crew had a taste of those difficulties during the making of the film. “One cannot imagine the amount of hardship the entire crew has gone through just to make the film. We shot mainly in Jharkhand at 50 degrees heat, from Ranchi all the way down to the south, and almost spilling over across the border into the northern reaches of Odisha. We shot in the midst of terrible weather conditions,” says Bajpai.

He continues, “I am not talking only about myself. I am talking about the entire cast and crew — from the director to the spot boy to the sound man to the smallest member of the team. In Mumbai also, we shot in the most challenging of situations. The shooting took 28 days; but we prepped for almost 6 months before that, to be able to achieve the shooting in such a few days.

“We also shot in the iron mines and the ambience was terrible. Yet, (director) Devashish managed to bring out a winner.”

The toughest challenge, Bajpai recalls, “was the shooting of my character carrying the infant, being chased by Mumbai Police within a moving live train running along live railway tracks. It was a touch-and-go situation but we did it. The credit goes to the entire team, not [to] me alone.”