Q&A: Pankaj Tripathi on surviving in frog-in-the-well Bollywood

Pankaj Tripathi went from being a murderous butcher in Anurag Kashyap's "Gangs of Wasseypur" to a docile father in "Bareilly ki Barfi" - and won acclaim for both roles. The National School of Drama alumnus has been acting in Bollywood for 12 years, but says it's only now that he's being noticed and credited.

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The 40-year-old actor plays a CRPF officer in Amit Masurkar's "Newton", which releases this week, and will also be seen in the Tamil film "Kaala" starring Rajinikanth.

Tripathi spoke to Reuters over the telephone about his movies, why he’s playing a father when actors his age are leading men, and why good actors find it difficult to flourish in Bollywood. The interview was conducted in Hindi and translated into English:

Q: You are currently shooting with Rajinikanth for his film “Kaala”. How has it been?

A: It has been wonderful. Just this morning I held a gun to his head and he hit me with a stick. Later, he asked me “chot to nahi lagi?” (I hope you didn’t get hurt). I had to do this film, only because I wanted to meet him. I wanted to see him, talk to him.

Q: There must be a world of difference in the way the film industry there functions. Has it been a culture shock?

A: Yes, it is a world of difference. Here, the hero is considered God. They even add 'hero' before the name, like Hero Rajinikanth or Hero Ajith. In the Hindi film industry, there is hero worship and while they may not consider them gods, heroes are just a notch below the almighty. Where I come from, there are no heroes or heroines. There are just actors. When I was learning acting, we used to have a trust exercise. In theatre, you have to trust your co-actor. You have to be confident that if you fall, your co-actor will hold you, or have a safety mat laid out for you, so that you land safely. Cinema takes away the need for that safety mat.In terms of acting also, there is a difference in the movies and theatre. People tell me that I underplay a lot, but that is because I have finally understood cinema as a medium. In theatre, I have to make sure I reach the person sitting in the last row of the auditorium. In the movies, I don't have to worry about that. The naked eye cannot see a close-up of my face and the emotions on it. The camera can.

Q: When you work in a film with Rajinikanth, it is all about him and they make no bones about that. Everyone else is peripheral. As an actor, does that make you hesitant about accepting such a role?

A: You know, I haven’t seen a single film of his. For me and a lot of Indians, he is part of our folklore, a mithak (myth), about whom we have heard stories and jokes. I know his films will be a little larger-than-life, commercial and there is a different style of acting. I am from the theatre, where style is secondary and the truth is of primary concern. For us, the performance should be truthful, whether or not it is stylish. Even then, I wanted to see for myself what kind of a man he is. I wanted to know what it is that makes him such a legend. That is what I am trying to learn.You cannot reach the height he is at merely through acting. It is more than that. I wanted to know what it is besides acting that makes him so great. Maybe if I stay close to him, I’ll find out what it is.

Q: Has this happened before - that you say yes to a film for reasons other than the quality of the role?

A: Until recently, I didn't have the clout to be able to choose. Now I can. I listen to the story, what space there is for me, and what the purpose of the film is. Some films, which are big-budget and commercial, their purpose is only to entertain. But that goes against my belief. Cinema is not just a medium of entertainment. Yes, it should entertain, but cinema is made to convey a message, to say something. But in our popular cinema, it has become the norm that entertainment is important and the message is secondary. At the same time, you cannot make a cinema with a message that will put people to sleep in theatres. I try to combine the two in my acting. Whether I am acting in "Masaan" or "Dilwale", I try to keep it entertaining, because I can only convey my message if the audience is engaged.

Q: You are 40, and around the same age as some of our leading men. Why aren't you the hero of "Bareilly ki Barfi"?

A: Up until now, I just went with the flow. Whatever role came my way, I used to look at the scope and do it. I never looked at the age of the character. In both "Nil Battey Sannata" and "Gurgaon", the roles were of a father, but they are completely different characters. I thought I could look at it as a challenge. If I could play a character who wasn't my age and look authentic, it would be great. There are no prosthetics. I just changed my voice and body language. In "Bareilly ki Barfi", Seema Pahwa is around 12-14 years elder and played my wife, but no one noticed. Thankfully, in "Newton" I play someone my age, and hopefully I'll get more age-appropriate roles from now on.

Q: After the character of Sultan the butcher in "Gangs of Wasseypur", do you think you should have held out for more age-appropriate roles?

A: I had no idea that the character of Sultan was appreciated so much. No one told me, and I didn't have a PR mechanism in place to tell me what people were saying about me. Our industry is very koopmanduk (frog in the well). They think whatever is published on page 3 is popular. Those who get published are the ones who get the roles and the money. But my performance was appreciated by people in Rajasthan, Nepal and places other than Mumbai. The film industry didn't think they were worth considering.I have realized this now, and have started to say no to films. But again, there is a fear that the message will go out that I have become arrogant and am rejecting films. I am not arrogant - I just want what I deserve. I just want the space, the roles that I deserve.

Q: In the frog-in-the-well kind of world of Bollywood, can actors like you flourish?
A: It is difficult. Sometimes, I think our industry takes notice when an actor makes a very big splash that is difficult to ignore. I think after "Newton" and "Fukrey Returns" it will be difficult to ignore me. But it has taken me a long time to build that confidence. I wish I had done more at the time of "Gangs of Wasseypur". I didn't leave my house. I saw one show and that was it. I had no idea how the film was being received. I was nominated for an award, and I didn't even get a call saying I was. That is how our industry is.

(Editing by Tony Tharakan; The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)