Friday, December 25, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Review

What must today’s youngsters make of Star Wars? The original 1977 film helped create the concept of the tent-pole release, an entity extending from theatres to toy stores. Now, there’s a tent-pole every fortnight. Will they come out of The Force Awakens ready to go back in again, like their parents did all those years ago? Or will they go home and set a date with the next X-Men movie? Is Star Wars just one franchise among many, or is there something that sets it apart?

Director J.J. Abrams seems anxious to impress upon movie-goers that Star Wars (the original trilogy, at least) was no ordinary series. Rarely have we been sold as hard on a myth as in the first act of The Force Awakens. Some 30 years have passed since the events of Return Of The Jedi. Our heroes have scattered: Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is off doing disreputable business deals; Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), now General Organa, is leading the Resistance; and Luke… well, no one knows where Luke is. For Rey (Daisy Ridley), a suspiciously gifted scavenger, and Finn (John Boyega), a Stormtrooper who has a change of heart, the Force and the Jedi are urban legends. Abrams makes them audience surrogates: they must be given a reason to believe.

The build-up is probably the most pleasurable part of the film. With every familiar sighting—the Millennium Falcon! Luke’s lightsaber!—the heart jumps, and, with it, John Williams’ score. Some things never change: The plot still turns on a little beeping droid (this one’s called BB-8) delivering a galaxy-saving message; sons are still avenging, or taking revenge on, their fathers; and best of all, they still insist on making ever more powerful Death Stars which can be destroyed with one well-aimed missile.

Abrams achieved something rare with his 2009 Star Trek reboot, which managed to satisfy picky older fans while bringing a new audience into the fold. I suspect the same will happen here; Abrams has a Spielbergian knack of making the narrative zip along, Oscar Isaac is surprisingly convincing as a square-jawed Resistance pilot, and Finn and Rey are extremely root-able characters. I was also a little moved to see Ford's normal grouchy heroics underlined with traces of hard-won wisdom and regret. What The Force Awakens could have done with, though, was a worthy villain. The antagonist here is Kylo Ren, a Jedi knight who’s gone over to the dark side and is now a Commander in the First Order, a spin-off of the evil Galactic Empire. He has in his possession the twisted, mangled mask that Darth Vader wore and wears a Vader-like mask himself, but his motives are unclear; his backstory is obviously being kept in reserve for the sequels. And when the mask is removed and Adam Driver’s petulant face is revealed, something is lost.

The Force Awakens is snappily written on a scene-to-scene basis, though it’s also true that Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan don’t manage anything near as clever as Kirk meeting the older Spock in the Star Trek reboot. By the time the third act comes around, I found myself wishing for a couple of new tricks instead of refashioned old ones. Abrams works well with actors and is, to my mind, a more naturally gifted film-maker than George Lucas, whose limitations were severely exposed when he decided to direct the dreadful prequels himself. But it’s one thing to riff smartly on past successes (which Abrams has done on Mission: Impossible 3, two Star Trek films and Super 8, which used every trick in the Spielberg playbook), quite another to suggest a daring new direction. The Force Awakens is fun while it lasts and a welcome opportunity to meet old friends, but the series might need something more radical if it doesn’t want to be lost in a sea of franchise films.

This review appeared in Mint.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Dilwale: Review

There are stupid films, and there are films that flaunt their stupidity. Rohit Shetty is a frequent purveyor of the latter sort. Such films nearly always have dialogue attributed to Farhad-Sajid. And, of late, they sometimes feature Shah Rukh Khan. Dilwale brings all of them together. It must have taken some doing, but they’ve managed to ensure that the sum is worse than the parts.

Khan plays Raj (not that Raj), owner of a garage in Goa, loving older brother to Veer (Varun Dhawan), and a seemingly well-adjusted guy, give or take memories of being shot in the chest at close range. Yet, when he dresses up like ET, closes the door behind him and doles out a beating to some local thugs like Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar, we realize that this is no ordinary mechanic. In the extended flashback that follows soon after, we learn that he used to be a mafia strongman named Kali, and that he was once in love with a sketch artist called Meera (Kajol)—though why a film this unsubtle would refrain from naming her Simran is beyond me.

This flashback is probably the most watchable part of the film. The sight of Khan and Kajol walking around in a European town—and the sheer history that crackles when they’re on screen together—neutralizes the banal lines and stock situations they’re given. The one scenario that’s novel has been lifted from How I Met Your Mother: Raj taking Meera on a 5-minute date. Still, it at least feels like Shetty and screenwriter Yunus Sajawal have expended some effort in conceptualizing this and executing it as a one-take. Which is way more than you can say for the rest of the film.

(Spoilers ahead.) The big twist—which you can see looming at least 15 minutes before it arrives—is that the crime syndicate Kali’s family is battling is headed by Malik (Kabir Bedi), whose daughter is… Meera. It turns out that she’s a criminal as well, and that it was she who shot Raj 15 years ago. Why does that matter now? Well, Veer is in love with Ishita (Kriti Sanon), who may or may not be related to you know who. Imagine finding yourself living in the same town as an old lover who shot you and discovering your brother is in love with her sister. Of all the exceedingly specific gin joints…

Shetty is the Michael Bay of Indian cinema, attracted to fast cars, gleaming surfaces and crude humour. Does he ever have moments of doubt that aren’t related to box-office collections? Does he sometimes feel that his action sequences lack coherence—that they’re just a collection of fast cuts and flying bodies that leave the viewer bewildered as to the spatial geometry of the scene? Does he worry that his comedy tracks seem like they should be accompanied by a sign that says “comedy track, please laugh”? If he does, these doubts must be fleeting. When five of your films have grossed over Rs 100 crore, there’s no real reason to fret about craft.

And yet, and yet. I watched the film this morning, an 8.15 show on a workday. The hall was packed. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. They laughed when Sanjay Mishra said things like “Bahut kaam hai, total Haldiram hai”. They cheered each time Khan did a slow walk towards the camera. They really seemed to like it when Varun Sharma, playing Veer’s friend, blamed his girlfriend for his financial troubles. Perhaps we get the kind of cinema we deserve.

This review appeared in Mint.

Bajirao Mastani: Review

It’s surprising how Sanjay Leela Bhansali only just got around to making a historical epic. His is a cinema of grand gestures and raised voices, weeping string sections and poetic destruction. When he applies this aesthetic to modern-day stories, the results can seem a bit overwrought, as they did in his last film, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela. But when you’re telling tales of warriors and princesses (and warrior princesses), the setting encourages, even demands, high drama. And no one does drama like Bhansali.

Bhansali had wanted to make a film about the 18th century Maratha peshwa, Bajirao I, and his second wife Mastani, as early as 2003, with Salman Khan in the lead. Over the years, the project kept resurfacing, only to be sent back into the purgatory of development. Finally, the Ram-Leela pair of Ranveer Singh and Deepika Padukone was cast, and production started. In July, a trailer appeared, suggesting similarities to the recently released, already very popular Baahubali.

It turns out Bajirao Mastani is quite different from the Telugu megahit. But you wouldn’t know that from the first 30 minutes, which build up to an extended battle that will be compared—unfavourably—to Baahubali’s crunching action sequences. After the soldier princess Mastani (Padukone) tracks him down and requests his help, Bajirao (Singh) and his army come to the defence of Bundelkhand, which is under siege from the Mughals. The pre-war scenes are beautiful, with one establishing shot that’s a version of the Monument Valley shot in John Ford films, and the stirring visual of an army charging downhill at dusk carrying lit torches (which turns out to be a decoy). But the battle itself is disappointing, and no match for the superior VFX and epic sweep of Baahubali.

Once Bundelkhand has been defended successfully, Bajirao and Mastani waste no time falling dramatically, violently in love (he cauterizes the wound she sustained in battle with his sword, which is a very Bhansali way of telling us they’re made for each other). When he departs soon after on a military campaign, he leaves behind his dagger. In 18th century Bundelkhand, such an action is tantamount to marriage. It’s all the encouragement Mastani needs to leave home and land up at the peshwa’s palace.

This is a problem, because we already know that the peshwa has a wife, Kashibai (Priyanka Chopra). To add insult to injury, Mastani, the illegitimate daughter of the ruler of Bundelkhand and a Persian woman, is Muslim. The film soon becomes a royal triangle, with Bajirao unwilling to listen to his advisers—and his formidable mother, Radhabai (Tanvi Azmi)—who are telling him to keep his new love under wraps as his mistress, and Kashibai and Mastani out-sacrificing each other for his well-being.

Bhansali obviously hasn’t had his fill of star-crossed lovers: Having the leader of a state looking to establish Hindu rule across India fall in love with a Muslim warrior was probably the only way he could have upped the ante on the Romeo and Juliet hijinks of Ram-Leela. While the palace intrigue storyline may not be particularly novel, his flair for colour, movement and visual opulence remains intact, and the writing (story by Bhansali; screenplay by Prakash Kapadia) is significantly better than in his last couple of films. There are moments when the dialogue could be from a less Urdu-heavy Mughal-e-Azam, particularly the charged banter between Radhabai and Mastani—this film’s equivalent of Akbar talking to Anarkali.

Though Bajirao Mastani is more heart than head, there’s one moment when both are equally balanced. Early in the film, we’re shown how the image of Bajirao standing in a glass palace is transmitted via a complex system of mirrors on to a screen in Kashibai’s room. In other words, she can see a film of her husband, an idea perfectly attuned to the historical reality of Maharashtrians being the originators of cinema in India. In a later scene, Kashibai hears her husband in the palace and rushes to look at his image, only to see him embracing Mastani. Though Chopra’s face registers little, it’s a heartbreaking scene, more so for the intricate way in which it’s set up.

Bhansali might be one of the last exponents of the grand old Bollywood style. Melodrama is not only something he’s comfortable with, it’s the air his characters breathe. His songs don’t move the story forward, as the modern style dictates; instead, they are invitations to stop, sit back and gawk at costumes, jewellery, glittery sets and gorgeous people moving in unison. He’s unafraid of placing a tiger in a scene for no reason at all—though the effect is spoilt somewhat by a ridiculous Censor Board-mandated disclaimer that states “Tiger scene shot abroad”.

Singh’s sensual, almost cruel swagger, though familiar by now, is perfectly matched to the brazen character he’s playing. Padukone adds another wilful rebel to her burgeoning roster; though she ends up in chains (cue Anarkali references), it’s her single-minded pursuit of her love that propels the plot. Chopra is a little blank early on, but warms up once her character decides to acknowledge the other woman in her husband’s life. Azmi plays the scary matriarch with as much verve as Supriya Pathak Kapur did in Ram-Leela. Yet, even at their most compelling, there’s one person who’s writ larger than any of them on screen, and that’s Bhansali.

This review appeared in Mint.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Listen To Me Marlon: Review

Listen To Me Marlon has one of the most surreal openings of any film this year. Against a black backdrop, a bright blue digital capture of Marlon Brando’s face flickers into view. The edges of the face are fraying, wispy, like it’s only just being held together by the force of his personality. “Actors are not going to be real, they’re going to be inside a computer,” that unmistakable voice intones. “So maybe this is the swansong for all of us.”

It may well be. For although the voice and face are Brando’s, you’re not watching him—not exactly, anyway. Special effects man Scott Billups made digital captures of Brando’s face in the 1980s for a movie that never materialized. Listen To Me Marlon’s director Stevan Riley had these captures fixed on the face of an actor lip-syncing Brando’s lines, and then worked with animators to render this so that it would seem like Brando was speaking. It’s disturbing, impossibly daring and a little bit deceitful, all at the same time—much like the subject of this documentary.

Listen To Me Marlon took shape when Riley, whose previous work includes the very entertaining West Indian cricket documentary Fire In Babylon, was approached by producer John Battsek to make a film on Brando. Because the film had the blessings of Brando’s estate, Riley was given access to around 300 hours of unreleased audio recordings, ranging from the audio diaries the actor kept to “self-hypnosis” tapes. It allowed him to envision his documentary as an autobiography: a sort of Brando on Brando.

After a brief reference to the shooting his son was involved in in 1990, the film goes back in time to tell the story of Brando in a more or less chronological order. His mumbled commentary (at times difficult to decipher, as it was in his later films) is overlaid with still photographs, scenes from his films, appearances on talk shows and the news, and home movies. Like some extended therapy session—or an out-take from Last Tango In Paris—he talks about his alcoholic mother (he loved the way liquor smelt on her breath) and abusive father. We learn about his conquest of Hollywood and his rapid disenchantment with it, see him marching for civil rights and joining an armed Native American protest.

The quasi-first-person documentary has been a major fixture on the non-fiction film-making landscape in 2015. Amy, about the late singer Amy Winehouse, was constructed out of video and audio fragments culled from hundreds of sources. Cobain: Montage Of Heck had a similar genesis to Riley’s film, built as it was around the unreleased tapes and drawings provided by Kurt Cobain’s estate. Like these two narrator-less films, the only talking head in Listen To Me Marlon is the blue digital one at the start—though viewers would be advised not to take anything the famously unreliable actor says as holy writ.

One of the great pleasures of this film is the glimpses it affords of a young, enthusiastic Brando who just wants to be “as good an actor as (he) can”. The rare moments when he discusses his craft are revelatory: like when he says that you knew what you were going to get with the actors of the 1940s, and that he tried to be like boxer Jersey Joe Walcott, whose punches would come out of nowhere. He pays tribute to his coach Stella Adler, stating that all modern acting stemmed from her. It might not be inaccurate to say that it all stemmed from him; that young actors took to memory-based acting not because Adler taught it but because Brando made it look so vital.

My favourite moment in the film comes some 20 minutes in. Brando is being tested for a Warner Bros. film. He’s asked to stand in profile, turn around. He looks more than a little amused. The camera moves in, as if it can’t resist a closer look at features this radiant. We hear Brando’s voice on the soundtrack. “When the camera is close on you, your face becomes the stage... And it sees all the little movements of the face and the eye and the mouth.” As these words are being spoken, Brando’s expression goes through half a dozen changes. It’s just a screen test, but he can’t stop performing.

Listen To Me Marlon makes for fascinating viewing, even as it struggles to try and make sense of its contradictory and conflicted subject. But the moments when Brando the legend dissolves, and we’re simply watching Marlon the actor, are pure gold.

This review appeared in Mint. 

The Peanuts Movie: Review

It saddens me to say this, for I love Peanuts and would like anything associated to it to succeed, but The Peanuts Movie doesn’t understand what it was that made Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip special. I was wary of seeing characters I had always pictured in 2D rendered in three-dimensional space, but the film does a good job of finding the right physicality and facial qualities for Schulz’s creations. No, the problem lies in the film’s attitude. It’s too well-adjusted. It’s too damn happy.

Peanuts is the most melancholy comic strip that a six-year-old might be allowed to read. It’s built around Charlie Brown—one of the greatest sad sacks of the 20th century—and his inability to do anything right: fly a kite, kick a football without Lucy pulling it away. Nothing else is more integral to Peanuts—not Snoopy’s ceaselessly fertile imagination or Lucy’s crabbiness or Linus’ wisdom—than Charlie Brown’s essential loser-dom. The Peanuts Movie seems to recognize this initially. But then, to my growing horror, director Steve Martino allows things to become warm and fuzzy until it’s just another bland commercial animation up there on screen.

Charles Schulz knew well enough not to mess with tradition. “Charlie Brown can never be a winner,” he once wrote. “He can never win a baseball game because it would destroy the foundation of the strip.” But The Peanuts Movie has him successfully flying a kite (the kite-eating tree actually helps!) and conducting a conversation with the Little Red-Haired Girl. These may seem like small things to a lay viewer, but to a Peanuts fan, it’s the equivalent of letting the Coyote catch the Road Runner.

The makers are clearly in love with the strip, however. The big hits are all there—Snoopy and the Red Baron, the exclamations of “Good grief” and “Aaugh!”, Lucy’s five-cent psychiatric help service—as are the more specific references, like Peppermint Patty mistaking Snoopy for a “funny-looking kid with a big nose”. The animation, though unremarkable, has a bright fluency to it. I will grant that it’s admirable to try and adapt a creation as singular as Peanuts—in 3D—for the screen. Perhaps the early TV specials were greeted with the same scepticism I’m displaying now. Still, when I heard the sad strains of "Christmas Time Is Here", it made me want to get up, go home and watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, which packed more feeling into 25 minutes than this film can muster in an hour and a half.

This review appeared in Mint.

Legend: Review

In the 1950s and 1960s, the London crime scene was ruled by the Kray twins. As Eastenders who ended up rubbing shoulders with Judy Garland and Joe Louis but were also convicted of murder, Ronnie and Reggie Kray have held their own fascination for film-makers over the years. James Fox met Ronnie Kray while preparing to play a gangster in Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s 1970 classic Performance. In 1990, there was The Krays, starring two members of the band Spandau Ballet, a film that must have inspired its own unique terror. Now comes the studio version, directed by Brian Helgeland and starring Tom Hardy as both the bespectacled, awkward Ronnie and the smoother Reggie.

Helgeland has written one of the best cops-and-wise-guys movies of the past 20 years in LA Confidential. He also adapted Mystic River, a more sobering look at the effects of gang violence. Legend—his fifth film as director—operates largely in Goodfellas mode: a glamorous gang tale with a voice-over and a period pop soundtrack. Ronnie, with his neurosis and hair-trigger temper, is Joe Pesci, while the suave Reggie is De Niro. There’s even a variation on the Copacabana one-take when Reggie takes his girlfriend, Frances (Emily Browning), to a club, gets interrupted, doles out a beating and returns to his table.

The film follows the twins as they finesse (mostly Reggie) and bludgeon (both) their way across London’s crime scene and into society’s upper echelons just as the cultural explosion of the 1960s is starting to take off. While it does tempt us to think of Reggie as “good” and Ronnie as “bad”, the film never really stops reminding us that both brothers are ruthless; Reggie is simply able to hide his brutality better. Though Helgeland’s writing is frequently funny and the period detail immersive, the film suffers for lack of someone to root for. The only sympathetic character is Frances, who—in an uncharacteristic move—is entrusted the voice-over.

The foregrounding of Frances and Reggie’s relationship is the closest that Helgeland comes to putting his own spin on the gangster movie. But we never get any real perspective from Frances, just the sad realization that her faith in Reggie’s essential good nature was misplaced. Hardy, to his credit, doesn’t try to elicit more sympathy from the audience than his characters deserve. His openly homosexual Reggie—ugly of speech and countenance—is a more interesting creation than Ronnie, though I more enjoyed the work done on the sidelines by David Thewlis (as the Krays’ accountant) and Christopher Eccleston (as the cop chasing them). In the end, Legend is violent, polished, darkly funny—and empty.

This review appeared in Mint.

Angry Indian Goddesses: Review

Angry Indian Goddesses has no intention of letting the audience ease into the film. Ten minutes in, Pammy (Pavleen Gujral) has dropped her gym weights on an eve teaser’s foot; photographer Frieda (Sarah-Jane Dias) has quit a fairness cream shoot; singer Mad (Anushka Manchanda) has attacked hecklers at a show; company head Su (Sandhya Mridul) has chewed out her employees at a meeting; Jo (Amrit Maghera) has spectacularly failed at being a damsel in distress; and Lakshmi (Rajshri Deshpande) has a man, quite literally, by the balls—all this while "In the Hall of the Mountain King" builds to a crescendo in the background. Then, accompanied by the supremely aggressive strains of Bhanvari Devi hollering "Kattey", we crash into the opening credits.

When the film resumes, we’re in Goa. All the women are friends of Frieda’s, who’s invited them over to her house so she can make an announcement. After some prodding, she reveals that she’s getting married, though she’d oddly reluctant to reveal the identity of the groom.

After an opening that operatic, one might have expected things to calm down. But this isn’t that kind of film. Part of Angry Indian Goddesses’ charm (and perhaps its undoing) is its almost unceasing energy. Director Pan Nalin (Samsara, Faith Connections) keeps the screen buzzing with overlapping dialogue and loudly voiced opinions, jumpy camerawork and even jumpier editing. Secrets keep spilling out: Mad has attempted suicide; Pammy is in an unhappy marriage. My favourite might be Su’s unfortunate reaction to the arrival of another of Frieda’s friends, Nargis (Tannishtha Chatterjee). It turns out she’s an activist protesting Su’s company’s land acquisition plans.

At times, it’s all a bit much. Forcing Nargis and her ideological opposite to live under the same roof is contrived enough, but having Su’s child bring them together is just too sentimental. The scenes with Jo daydreaming about the shirtless car-washer next door seem like a cross between a condom ad and a bad Terrence Malick imitation. The hugs-per-scene ratio is dangerously high. There’s an unfortunate tendency to lecture the audience on everything from land-grabbing to Section 377. And though it’s perfectly fine to want to keep the film free of men, it makes little sense to have Mad’s boyfriend travel 600 km to see if she’s all right and shunt him out of the story immediately after.

It’s difficult to predict what the audience will make of the events of the last 20 minutes. One can argue that something of this nature has been simmering through the whole film. While this is true, I feel the film would have been just as hard-hitting – and a bit more convincing—if it had kept its characters’ problems life-size. Then again, it’s tough to imagine a film like this not going out with an especially loud bang.

Had the ensemble been flat or awkward or unconvincing with each other, Angry Indian Goddesses would have fallen flat. But the performers, many of them only a film or two old, are all visibly comfortable in their skin and with one another. Dias is beautifully poised as the quiet Frieda; Gujral, playing the Punjabi ditz, is very funny; and Deshpande shoots off sparks as the house help Lakshmi. The film juggles the characters around, pairs them up in different scenes, and though not all the combinations work, we do get a sense of what they’re like as individuals.

Angry Indian Goddesses has been promoted as India’s first female buddy film, and its best moments are the ones with the six women sitting around, cussing (there’s a lot of that – muted at random by the censors), getting drunk, and talking about everything that comes into their minds, with Lakshmi hovering somewhere in the background. When’s the last time you saw a female character in a Hindi film have a wet dream, or come out to her friends? If the answer is ‘never’, Angry Indian Goddesses might make for instructive viewing.

This review appeared in Mint. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The many resurrections of Manoj Bajpayee

A man sits alone in a dark room listening to a cassette player. He’s drinking whisky, humming along to "Aap Ki Nazron Ne Samjha" from the 1962 film Anpadh, occasionally murmuring the words. He’s transported by the music, but he also looks, to borrow a line from "Heartbreak Hotel", so lonely he could die.

This is Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, the tragic centre of Aligarh, Hansal Mehta’s film on the Marathi literature professor at Aligarh Muslim University whose sexual encounter with another man was caught on camera and leaked to the press. It resulted in his suspension by the university, which he challenged in court. He won the case and was reinstated, but died shortly afterwards under mysterious circumstances.

Siras is played in the film by Manoj Bajpayee. Those who know him only through his barnstorming roles in Satya, Shool and Gangs Of Wasseypur might be surprised at the ease with which the 46-year-old actor slips under the skin of the quiet, self-effacing Siras. Out of little tics and hesitations he builds a tender performance, one that makes possible a deep empathy with a character far removed from most viewers’ experience: a middle-class gay intellectual in small-town India.

“Even the finest actors will have great difficulty showing somebody’s loneliness. To put an actor on a chair and ask him to do nothing and yet tell the viewer everything about the character, it’s a difficult task,” says Bajpayee. We are in his Lokhandwala apartment. He’s been keeping one eye on his spark plug of a four-year-old, but she’s leaving now with her mother, the actor Shabana Raza, whom Bajpayee married in 2003. He goes back to talking about the singing in the dark scene. “Hansal’s an easygoing guy, but he just enjoys thinking up these bizarre shots and throwing them at the actors.”

This is the second time Bajpayee and Mehta have collaborated. Their first film together was a fascinating, largely forgotten 2000 comedy-drama called Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!, though they’d been friends since Mehta directed the actor in a TV series called Kalakaar back in 1994. Despite their long friendship, Mehta hadn’t considered Bajpayee for the role of Siras until casting director Mukesh Chhabra suggested his name. Bajpayee remembers Chhabra calling him up and telling him not to pass on the role. “I said, I don’t even know about this movie. I asked him to tell Hansal to give me a call. When Hansal called, I started abusing him.”

Aligarh premiered at the Busan Film Festival in South Korea in October, travelled to the BFI London Film Festival and was the opening film at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival in November. Its India release is set for February, by which time Bajpayee would have completed 22 years in the industry. It’s been anything but a smooth run. Several times, the man whom Mehta calls “India’s most versatile actor” has had to claw his way back into the public’s consciousness after fallow periods brought on by limited options and bad choices.

Comebacks are for cricketers; Manoj Bajpayee is a resurrection specialist.


Bajpayee was born in Belwa, a small village in Champaran, Bihar, not far from the Nepal border. He was the second of six children. His father, a farmer, never achieved his dream of going to medical school and was determined that all his children complete graduation at the very least. Bajpayee describes his own childhood as “blessed”. “You will never understand unless you come from a farmer’s family,” he says. “It’s difficult for the father to bring up those children, but it’s such a beautiful experience for them to be in that environment.” One of his early memories is of hiding his father from the co-operative bank loan recovery men when they came around to collect.

Bajpayee’s parents were film buffs—he was named after actor Manoj Kumar—and whenever they went to Bettiah, the nearest town with a cinema hall, they’d try and catch a show. So would young Bajpayee, whose earliest film-related memory is watching the 1968 comedy Padosan. Like most small-town theatres, the cinema could not afford to procure reels of current hits most of the time and played reruns of old films instead. Bajpayee remembers seeing classics such as Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, Awara, Yahudi, even the 1935 “Fearless Nadia” film Hunterwali as a child.

He began performing in school, in elocution contests (prompted by a teacher who felt the experience would make him more social) and skits. It was here that he developed a love for reciting poetry—a practice he believes has benefitted him tremendously and which he recommends to aspiring actors. There’s a YouTube video of him from earlier this year reciting Ramdhari Singh Dinkar’s epic poem "Rashmirathi". Even in a performance this informal, it’s revealing to note how easily the words roll off his tongue, how he knows just when to slow down and speed up, raise an eyebrow, bring those expressive hands with their long fingers into play. You can gauge how seriously he takes his characters’ vocal rhythms from the fact that he immersed himself in Marathi literature while preparing for Aligarh, even though he doesn’t speak the language in the film.

Like so many actors of his generation, his life changed after watching Amitabh Bachchan in Zanjeer. That was the moment he knew he wanted to be an actor, though he couldn’t bring himself to tell his folks. So he went to Delhi University, first to Satyawati College, then to Ramjas, ostensibly to study. There, he threw himself into the campus theatre scene, performing in street plays and stage productions, reading, strengthening his grip on English. “Those three years of DU were life-changing for me,” he says. “I went from someone who could not read the front page of The Times Of India to reading Shaw and Shakespeare.” However, he was also living hand to mouth. His father would send Rs 200 a month; once he paid his rent, mess fees and bought a bus pass, he’d be left with Rs 20.

Bajpayee’s all-consuming goal was to join the National School of Drama. During his three years on campus, he’d built a bit of a reputation as an actor and was confident he’d be accepted. He wasn’t. The rejection sent him into a spiral, and thoughts of suicide entered his mind. A friend convinced him to attend a year-long workshop being conducted by the Sambhav theatre group. This led to roles in plays, some of which were directed by NSD alumni. The actor Raghubir Yadav pointed him towards a workshop being conducted by director and acting coach Barry John. He attended this, alongside another unknown young man called Shah Rukh Khan. John was impressed and hired Bajpayee to assist him with his teaching. This left Bajpayee free to act for other troupes. He soon became a sought-after actor on the Delhi theatre circuit and formed his own company, Act One, with N.K. Sharma in 1990.

Bajpayee’s NSD dream, meanwhile, had a bittersweet ending. He applied the year after he was rejected, and the year after that. When he tried for the fourth time, they offered him a teaching position at the school instead.

One day in 1992, his friend Tigmanshu Dhulia, then the casting director for Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, sought him out. Kapur had seen his photographs and was considering him for the role of daku Vikram Mallah in the film. That role eventually went to Nirmal Pandey; Bajpayee remembers seeing a “tall, Jesus Christ-looking guy” with Dhulia and telling himself that the part was no longer his. Bajpayee was cast in the smaller part of Man Singh, one of the dacoits who joins up with Phoolan Devi. In a film bursting with great performances, his intensity is palpable, but because he had only 15-odd minutes of screen time and about as many lines, he went, in his own words, “completely unnoticed”.

Well, not completely. Two years after Bandit Queen released, Bajpayee met Ram Gopal Varma for a supporting role in Daud. He’d taken Kapur’s advice and moved to Mumbai to pursue a film career, but the initial years were a struggle. His first marriage ended in divorce, his health deteriorated, and roles just weren’t forthcoming. A part on the TV soap Swabhimaan ensured that some money was flowing in. Still, when he met Varma in 1996, he was desperate for work, any work. When Varma heard that Bajpayee had played Man Singh in Bandit Queen, he jumped up. “I’ve been trying to locate you since then. Where were you?”

Varma promised Bajpayee a role in his next venture, an as-yet-unnamed gangster film set in Mumbai. This, of course, was Satya, the film that would change Bajpayee’s fortunes forever. Bajpayee was given the task of finding writers for the film. The first person he brought in was a young man who met him at director Sriram Raghavan’s office and told him how much he admired his performance in a play called Netua. That was Anurag Kashyap. The second was his former roommate Saurabh Shukla, who also played Kallu Mama in the film.

The rest of the team soon fell into place: actors J.D. Chakravarthy, Urmila Matondkar and Shefali Shah (then Chhaya), cinematographer Gerard Hooper, editor Apurva Asrani (who would go on to write Aligarh). Though the titular character was being played by Chakravarthy, everyone associated with the film knew that the lit fuse at its centre was the role in which Bajpayee was cast, that of the gangster Bheeku Mhatre. The film released in July 1998.


Much has been written about the seismic effects of Satya, of how it introduced a welcome grittiness to romantic, choreographed 1990s Bollywood, the ways in which it changed the grammar of Hindi cinema. Yet, not nearly enough attention has been paid to the centrality of Bajpayee to the film’s success and ensuing legend. Time has done little to dim the danger and magnetism of Bheeku Mhatre, but even so, viewers who were too young to see it in theatres will have to imagine the thrill of seeing him shout “Mumbai ka king kaun?” for the first time. I was in school when Satya released, and I remember all anyone could talk about was this new actor called Bajpayee. Was he the hero? No, but he wasn’t the villain either.

In truth, it was a new kind of performance. In it lay the seeds of compelling, many-shaded roles by actors who emerged in Bajpyee’s wake: Irrfan Khan in Maqbool, Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Gangs Of Wasseypur, Kay Kay Menon in Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. Just like Bajpayee saw Bachchan in Zanjeer and tried to recreate the police station scene, so hundreds of young performers now tried to imitate the infectious laugh that seemed to bubble up through Bheeku. Chhabra says he gets around 200 aspiring actors a month telling him they took to acting after seeing Bajpayee in Satya.

“Manoj’s contribution to this whole indie scene has gone unheralded,” Mehta says over the phone from Patiala. “He’s the man who opened the doors for everyone else. He began that whole alternate star cult.” In a 2014 interview to DNA, Menon was even more emphatic. “If it were not for Manoj’s brilliant performance in Satya, actors like Irrfan and me might still be waiting to be accepted. Manoj opened the doors for us.”

Ashish Vidyarthi, who knows Bajpayee from Delhi, says the hallmarks of his approach—obsessive preparation, commitment to the material—were evident even in his early theatre days. He speaks admiringly of Bajpayee’s gift for “detailing”, a factor he believes sets the actor apart from his peers. “He’s willing to take that leap—to embrace fear, to be vulnerable, yet confident in his craft,” Vidyarthi says.


As is the norm in Bollywood after a breakthrough, Bajpayee found himself being offered more of the same. The “Hindie” didn’t really exist then, and the industry was dominated by commercial film-makers. “They had to offer me something,” he says, “but they couldn’t change themselves. They could only change the doctor or the inspector into Bheeku Mhatre. It was hard, saying no to loads of money, still staying in a rented place.” Eventually, he found his next two roles through the Varma-Kashyap combine.

Eight months after Satya, he appeared in Varma’s three-character psychological thriller Kaun? His wheedling insurance salesman makes an entry 20 minutes in, after we’ve seen a jumpy Urmila Matondkar alone at home on a rainy night, watching a news flash about a serial killer on the loose. Bajpayee takes credit for introducing comic tones into what had been, on paper, a serious part. His aim, he says, was to maintain a balance of “annoying and suspicious”—enough to break the tension, but not so relaxed that the audience stop believing he could be the killer. It’s a lovely bit of horror film acting: rapid-fire line delivery, unblinking eyes, tense, high giggle.

Later that year, Bajpayee headlined a film for the first time, in Shool, directed by Varma’s former assistant E. Nivas and written by Kashyap. This time, there was no trace of levity in his performance. If one were to crown the angriest Hindi film character ever, Samar Pratap Singh would be in a dead heat with Om Puri’s tortured cop in Ardh Satya. Shool was a fairly standard honest-man-against-broken-system drama, but was elevated by the specificity of the writing and the rural Bihar setting, and by Bajpayee’s volcanic performance. “I knew that if I don’t maintain the intensity, this film will fall flat,” he says. “If you see the film, even if I smile a little bit, I wipe it off immediately.” Staying in character took a toll on him; months after the shoot, he was snapping at people and having nightmares.

Over the next two years, Bajpayee continued to subvert expectations. In 2000, he was the shy, soft-spoken Ram Saran Pandey in Hansal Mehta’s Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!. The film went largely unnoticed, but seen now, it feels like one of his most personal performances; one can imagine him drawing on his memories as a migrant to Mumbai (Pandey is from Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh) and the culture shock he experienced. The following year, he got a chance to appear alongside Bachchan in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Aks. Playing a psychopath who, midway through the film, enters the body of Bachchan’s upright police officer, allowed Bajpayee to go boldly over the top; he seemed thrilled when I told him I thought his performance predicted Heath Ledger’s as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Three years later, he won a Special Jury National Award for his performance as Rashid in the partition drama Pinjar.


Then, just when it all seemed to be going so well, it started slipping. Unwilling to play another villain, he told his friend Tigmanshu Dhulia to cast Irrfan Khan in Haasil. He lobbied for the lead in Maqbool, Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Macbeth, but Bhardwaj (another friend from DU) decided to go with Khan. Films such as Fareb, Bewafaa and Inteqam came and went, making little if any impression on the public. 1971—a little-seen, underrated army drama—was a bright spot, but by 2007 the actor had, by his own admission, “disappeared”. A shoulder injury kept him out of action for a year. Worse was to follow: Money Hai Toh Honey Hai, Acid Factory, Jail.

The kind of cinema Satya had helped foster was now gathering steam, but Bajpayee wasn’t a part of it. “All these directors were coming up—Vishal Bhardwaj, Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali—but because of my failures and some wrong choices I made, I was down and out,” he says. Yet, he remained calm, waited for that one special role to come along. Supporting turns in Prakash Jha’s message-driven multi-starrers Raajneeti and Aarakshan kept him in the public eye. Then, one night, Kashyap called and asked him if he’d come over and listen to an idea.

Chhabra, casting director on Gangs of Wasseypur, recalled how Bajpayee’s name was being thrown around from the beginning for the gangster Sardar Khan. “It was his space, his style, his language,” he says. “The combination was right.” Bajpayee felt so too and joined the production. He also agreed to a drastically altered new look, agreeing to go bald for the role—Kashyap felt it would help deepen the character’s sexual aura.

If Bheeku Mhatre is the ego, Sardar Khan is the id: a repository of barely suppressed urges, both sexual and violent. Considering he’s such a reprobate, it’s also a strangely beautiful performance, with Bajpayee prowling the screen like a panther, speaking in a musical Bihari drawl, getting leered at like some six-pack-sporting hero while sporting a langot in the "O Womaniya" song sequence. The film was the big critical success of 2012. Just like that, everyone was talking about Bajpayee again. Later that year, he appeared in Chittagong as the schoolteacher and revolutionary Surya Sen. One of his students in the film was Siddiqui, who had appeared onscreen with him for all of 90 seconds in Shool more than a decade ago. Another was Rajkummar Rao, who told me that one of his main reasons for doing the film was that he’d get to work with Bajpayee.

I ask Bajpayee if he feels he paved the way for actors like these. “I don’t know about that,” he says, “but I would say I’ve taken the brunt. I’ve accepted loads of criticism and sacrificed so much money to do what I wanted to do—which, in a very small way, contributed to making things easy for my kind of actors.” He’s bullish about the kind of work that’s being done on the edges of the mainstream today, even if the new indie directors seem to think of Siddiqui or Khan more readily than they do of him. After the two Wasseypur films, one might have expected the quality of offers to improve appreciably, but there haven’t been any overwhelming indications of this. His one notable release since Wasseypur (unless one counts Satyagraha or Tevar) was Neeraj Pandey’s smart crime comedy Special 26. In the same time, Siddiqui has been in Monsoon Shootout, Badlapur, Liar’s Dice and Haraamkhor; Khan in The Lunchbox, Life of Pi, Piku and Talvar; Sanjay Mishra in Ankhon Dekhi and Masaan. “I’ve been saying no to roles for the past six months,” Bajpayee admits, “which is not a very good sign.”

Aligarh’s theatrical release in February will serve as yet another reminder to audiences and film-makers of Bajpayee’s range and commitment. He has four other projects in various stages of completion—Soumendra Padhi’s Duronto, Neeraj Pandey’s Saat Uchakkey, Mukul Abhyankar’s Missing and Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic—and is hoping at least a couple release this year. Though Bajpayee says the thought of hiring an agent in Los Angeles somehow makes him feel tired, Chhabra says that a Hollywood project is on the cards. He’d like to return to the stage someday, but for now he seems content to do what he’s always done: remain picky, keep calm and wait on a good part.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge. You can read that version here.