The natural scene-stealer

The natural scene-stealer

Actor Pankaj Tripathi's rising fame and firm footing

Pankaj Tripathi and family

As someone in awe of his recent performances said, “When he comes on screen, you do not look at anyone else!”

Pankaj Tripathi gently denies that “accusation”. “A film is never a solo enterprise,” he replies with a smile when we put this across to him. “All the actors have a task to perform whatever the writer and director have thought. We have to see to it together. There is no question of performing to outclass or overshadow a co-actor, unless you want the scene to suffer.”

“In art,” he goes on. “Nothing is mukkammal (perfect). Perfection is a lie and an illusion. It’s like a game where I throw the ball at someone and he or she throws it back. And a lot of that vital give-and-take happens with eye contact. Remember that I can see my co-actor, who can see me. But we cannot see ourselves!”

We pose another query: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, the whizkid director of Nil Battey Sannata and Bareilly Ki Barfi, who is now directing the Kangana Ranaut movie Panga, told us at the time of our last meeting that she could not now imagine a film minus this actor, and that she would somehow work in a meaty part for him in every film.

He smiles again. “Yes, she called me up a few days back and asked me to keep 10 days free for her in February. I do not know what I am doing in the film though! But I told her, ‘Done!’”

That Pankaj is going places is an understatement. He is now the protagonist as a don in the latest Amazon web series, Mirzapur, in a sharp break from his recent comic performances in the two films of Iyer as well as Fukrey Returns, Newton and Stree, to the extent that a whole assortment of other memorable performances in non-comic roles, like in (the web series) Sacred Games, Gangs Of Wasseypur and more seem to be sidelined in public memory.

Few are aware of his winning a Special Mention at the National Awards for Newton and two prestigious awards for his performance in the crossover film Mango Dreams, which is yet to be released here. This seasoned actor, who began in films with the Sridevi production Run (2004) and made his first impact as the whimsical housing society secretary in Ashwiny’s husband Nitesh Tiwari’s Chillar Party (2011), has also done television and theatre. But he says, “My character in Mirzapur has been highlighted. I am just one of the leads. When you see my entry, you realise that my character is not all that dominating!”

For someone who was known best for negative roles, what explains his comic turnaround? “It was very organic!” he says candidly. “On paper, the character of the principal in Nil Battey Sannata was not all that comic. But he came across that way and suddenly I began getting a lot of such offers.” Quite possibly, Ashwiny took off by recognising the comic spark he showed so effortlessly in Chillar Party, her husband’s film.

The son of farmer-priest from Bihar, Pankaj himself worked as a farmer until he was in Std XI. During festivals, he used to play the role of a girl in village plays and so much was he appreciated that he decided to make a career as an actor. “Even today, in films, my ambition is to play a woman’s role, so I hope they cast me in Stree 2!” he quips. So, how does he explain his chameleonic versatility as an actor?

“I did my college in Patna and was a member of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. I even went to jail as a student activist,” he says. “I never knew whether I would succeed as an actor, and worked for a while on a hotel job and sold shoes. And then I joined the National School Of Drama in Delhi and graduated in 2004, after which I came to Mumbai.”

Pankaj modestly credits India and its diverse cultures for his skills. ”In our country, cultures change every few kilometres, and I have travelled so much,” he says.

Calling himself “non-filmi,” he says that he primarily wants to be happy with his work. “It’s very simple,” he notes. “Take Mirzapur. When 200 people leave Mumbai in 60 cars, including hairdressers and cooks, to shoot 2,000 km away, what is the point of it all? The point is that we are bringing a 100-page script to life, a script that was written by someone in a small room on a laptop! It is a crazy thing when you think about it, but that’s what an actor lives for!”