Vinay Pathak is known for mischief and nervous energy that can descend into mania, but for his new movie Gour Hari Dastaan, the actor is the very embodiment of restraint. His character, Gour Hari Das, is a much older man with scanty hair, measured movements and a deliberate manner of speaking. Das proceeds slowly but surely: he has been trying to establish his credentials as a freedom fighter for years and he isn’t going to allow thick-skinned bureaucrats to swat him aside in a hurry.

Anant Mahadevan’s biopic, which opens on August 14, has been inspired by the real-life travails of Gour Hari Das, an 84-year-old who lives in suburban Mumbai. “I don’t think any actor in his right mind would say no to a role like this,” Pathak said in an interview. “The role has the sink-in-teeth indulgence for any actor – it is based on a true story, it has a principled character, I have known the script writer, CP Surendran for years, and I knew the world he would bring into the movie.”

Ranvir Shorey, Pathak’s old friend and partner on comedy-based television shows and the stage, plays a cynical journalist who gets all the film’s funny lines. In another movie, the two actors would have played off each other. But Mahadevan was very sure that he wanted the core of the story’s empathy to reside in the character of Das, Pathak said.

“Anant had seen me in Saurabh Shukla’s film Pappu Can’t Dance Saala, and he told me afterwards, you are labelled a comic actor, but don’t people see anything else in you?” Pathak said.

Viewers will have the chance to do so when Gour Hari Dastaan finally opens on August 14 after travelling to several films festivals. The real Gour Hari Das sounds rather like Pathak: he is very funny and energetic, the actor said. But Mahadevan had a different take on the character, probably to emphasise his ordinariness and the doggedness of his 32-year struggle to be officially recognised as a freedom fighter. The actor agreed, since he didn’t want to play “Vinay Pathak” but wanted “the character to reflect in me rather than me reflecting in him”.

Pathak had to “clip out many things” for the role, including the way he laughs at himself (full-throated in real life, muted in the movie). “It was more of an unlearning of my own demeanour, keeping it understated and simple,” said the 48-year-old actor.

Pathak has played his share of underworld crooks, misfits and hero’s best friends – the last category typically involves being the bouncing board, broad shoulder, and conscience keeper of the leading man. One such best friend was in Aditya Chopra’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008), a three-hander involving characters played by Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma and Pathak’s cockscomb-sporting Smart Alec. The honours in Rab Ne naturally belong to Khan and Sharma, but Pathak has his moments, such as when he advises Khan to be more “macho”.

Pathak’s turn in Rab Ne follows a series of solid roles, mostly in the comedic vein. Some of this work has been in ensemble films, such as with Rajat Kapoor’s couples-swapping drama Mixed Doubles (2006) and gangster lite version of Kagemusha, titled Mithya (2008) and Sriram Raghavan’s crime thriller Johnny Gaddar (2007). In between these films, he starred in Bheja Fry (2007), an unacknowledged copy of the French satire Le Diner de Cons and a bonafide sleeper success. The plot features a smug music producer who regularly invites people whom he considers easy targets for ridicule over for dinner. But he get his just desserts when Pathak’s titanium-armoured tax employee Bharat Bhushan walks in.

Success in the Hindi business is usually followed by rinse-and-repeat offers, and it is not surprising that Pathak quickly tired of playing further iterations of the spectacularly annoying and spectacularly funny Bharat Bhushan. “I kept looking for a different story, and I must have said no to at least ten scripts,” he said. “It was great fun, but I had to reinvent another spine for Manu Gupta from Chalo Dilli [in 2011] – here was a guy who was also irritating and annoying, but he had different qualities. If you give the character to another actor, it would be easier for that actor to wear the role because he doesn’t have the burden of doing another Bharat Bhushan.”

Some of the traits that Pathak draws on to portray his manic characters are inspired by observation. “We are very animated in real life, you see 20 rickshaws standing in a row, and all their drivers will talk in a very loud and strong manner.”

The trick, he says, is to ensure that tics and peculiarities are “within the realm of realism, where they are not treated as items, but kept as real”, as is the case with Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddar and this year’s Badlapur, in which Pathak plays believably twisted characters.

“The play [acting] is fantastic, but you need the captain to let you play,” he said.

One of Pathak’s most steadfast captains has been Rajat Kapoor, whose career straddles theatre and cinema and who has directed Pathak in absurdist plays such as C for Clown and Nothing Like Lear and the movies Mixed Doubles and Mithya. Pathak is not only a part of Kapoor’s informal repertory, which includes Ranvir Shorey, Konkona Sen Sharma, Saurabh Shukla and Neha Dhupia, but they are all close friends who draw professional and emotional sustenance from each other. “They are like my immediate family,” he said. “We are all like-minded people and partners not just in cinema but also in life.”

Though the group has earned the reputation for being a clique that is most comfortable only with each other, Pathak dismissed the perception. “I know that people say we are a gang, but we are not a gang,” he said. “We challenge each other’s notions, and we fight without losing out on who we are because of the years of trust and faith in each other.”

Pathak met Kapoor in 1995, the year he moved to Mumbai. The actor grew up in Bihar, where his father was a Deputy Superintendent of Police. After a Bachelors in English Literature from Allahabad University, he went to the State University New York for a Masters in Business Administration, but abandoned the starch of the white collar for the sweat of drama school after a year.

Drama school refined a mania for movies that characterised Pathak’s formative years. “Movie watching is all I did – I would watch everything that released in the week, whether it was Hindi, dubbed, parallel, Malayalam [soft porn] titles like Her Nights,” he said. “The magic of celluloid was so huge and my understanding of cinema so puny that even the worst film held something for me.”

The filters, and the finesse, came with drama school in New York City. “All my notions were challenged there,” he said.

His initial years in Mumbai were spent on honing his comic talent for comedy shows on television, and although humour remains his trump card, he would like to shuffle the deck. “I would love to do a grand interpretation of a grand man, like Gabbar Singh, who was an outlaw and an eccentric but had this demeanour that was also very real,” he said.

Pathak’s gut for the roles for which he is best suited depends entirely on the script. Does he see the film and his role while reading it? The answer to the questions can also depend on how much work he has on his plate, which explains some of the less worthy parts that Pathak has signed up for in recent years, including the sequel to Bheja Fry and Bajatey Raho. “After a point, you don’t always have wonderful scripts to play around with,” he said.

Does he get bored of the acting profession, with its uncertainties and frustrations? “Do I get tired of working – that depends, but do I get tired of playing? Never.”

Pathak is brilliant at portraying the fool, and the demand to do so haunts him in the most unlikely places. During a promotional set of interviews for Chalo Dilli, he got tired of the routine questions and started playacting at being a television reporter.

“I did it for this one television reporter, but when the others saw what I was doing, they asked me to repeat my actions over and over again,” Pathak said. “I guess I can’t help it if people want to do what everybody else is doing. I dealt with the situation by playing the fool, and I ended up having fun.”