Pankaj Tripathi has a chameleon-like ability to slip into characters – be it the roguish Sultan in Gangs Of Wasseypur whose dialogue, “Ye Wasseypur hai, yahan kabootar bhi ek pankh se udhta hai … aur doosre se apna izzat bachata hai (This is Wasseypur, where a pigeon flies with one wing and covers his honour with the other)” has inspired many memes or his role of Army officer Aatma Singh, yang to Newton’s yin.
He is also comfortable sharing space in female-driven films such as Anaarkali of Aarah or Nil Battey Sannata. Amid these content driven films, a big-budget masala film such as Kaala seems like an intriguing choice. “There are no commercial or indie films, there are only good or bad films. You should do both. There has to be a balance,” says Tripathi in a chat with Silverscreen, ahead of Kaala’s release.
“Director Pa Ranjith saw my work in Gangs of Wasseypur and Nil Battey Sannata and wanted to work with me. He asked his team to make me sit for a narration for Kaala. When I heard that it’s a Rajinikanth film, I just had one question – how many days do I have to dedicate?” he says.
And, without knowing the story, he signed for the film. “I wanted to meet Rajini Sir. I wanted to spend the 15 days allotted for my shoot with him and figure out what makes him so popular and larger than life,” he says. And, what did he find out? “He is simple and grounded, yet extraordinary in so many ways.”
Recounting his first day with Rajinikanth and Nana Patekar, with whom Tripathi is working for the first time too, he says, “Nana rebuked me and said that with my talent I should stop doing small roles. Then, he introduced me to Rajini Sir and praised my work. It was overwhelming.”
Tripathi plays a cop with shades of grey in Kaala. According to him, his character has many interactions with Karikaalan. On the sets of Kaala, in the company of Rajinikanth and Nana Patekar, he was happy being the earnest listener.
The actor, who speaks in chaste Hindi, is warm and sincere while talking about his work. He doesn’t offer the templated answers that actors often dish out during film promotions. Tripathi says that though he hasn’t seen many commercial South Indian films, he likes small-budget indie films. He has seen Thithi (Kannada) and Angamaly Diaries (Malayalam), and is fan of Priyadarshan’s Kanchivaram.
“I have a lot of respect for South Indian films. There are many good storytellers here and they have a better understanding of talent. Priyadarshan told me seven years ago that had I been in Tamil or Malayalam films, I would have become a star. He said, ‘We respect actors a lot and make them stars’.”
But, what about the tendency to stereotype South Indian characters in Bollywood? He says, “It’s not just South Indian characters, even characters from Bihar, where I come from, get caricaturised. They don’t have any real resemblance to the people of Bihar.”
Tripathi explains that back in the 90s, there was a lack of good writers and they would use the usual tropes to flesh out characters. “The writing has improved with people such as Varun Grover,” he says.
So, is this the time for character actors? He corrects me. “It’s the time for actors, and they are being given respect. When I started, there used to be stock characters – hero, heroine and five or six characters around them. There are no stock characters anymore. Films such as Gangs of Wasseypur are being made, where every character is important. In Bareilly Ki Barfi, the parents are as important as the daughter. I don’t like the term supporting characters; the lines are blurring. We have worked hard to give a certain dignity to the supporting cast. The audience does not come to see just the hero and heroine, but the film in its entirety. People are noticing and appreciating good performances,” he says.
After shouldering films such as Gurgaon, Newton and Bareilly Ki Barfi, and bagging a National Award, the actor ought to be riding high on the success. But, he says he’s grounded. “There is this niggling worry that I have to keep doing good roles. Last year, I got scripts such as Gurgaon and Bareilly, but this year, I haven’t got anything like that so far. There are two options – either I sit at home or select among what I have.” It’s unlikely that he will sit at home!
The actor is particularly appreciative of the digital platform. His Gurgaon and Powder are already on Netflix, he is doing Mirzapur, a web-series for Amazon Prime, and is also part of remake of BBC’s international series Criminal Justice, directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia. “Digital platforms are great for small-budget films that don’t get a wide theatrical release. Moreover, unlike films, here you don’t have to worry about censorship. The actors and filmmakers have full creative freedom. I can deliver my lines without worry.”
The conversation couldn’t have ended without the ‘Sophie’s Choice’ question – his favourite character. But, the actor refuses to give in. “Be it Gurgaon or Powder, I like playing complex characters, and not unidimensional ones.”
On the recent accolades, he says, “People say it took me a long time to reach this place, but I think it’s a natural progression of things and I am satisfied with it. It takes time for a plant to bear flowers.”