Actor Sanjay Mishra has been in over a hundred films, even appearing butt naked in a children’s film (Thanks Maa, 2009) and yet the National School of Drama graduate isn’t given the screen time he deserves. Mishra appears in a small role in Prem Ratan Dhan Payo. In the trailer of Dilwale, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol amongst a bevy of smaller stars, the 52-year-old actor can be seen alongside Boman Irani for exactly one second. He does manage to elicit giggles in that stretch of time.
But that’s not how he would like to be remembered. “I am known only as a 'comedian' in Hindi films, a tag which I disagree with,” Mishra said. “I believe I am an actor first.”
Whenever tragedy has struck Mishra, comedy has rescued him. He started his career with a bit role in O Darling Yeh Hai India (1995). Mishra didn’t fit in because he didn’t look like a hero, a villain or even a comedian. He tried television (Chanakya, Office Office) and was successful at it. His odd face began to appear familiar. Small parts came in such films as Satya (1998), Dil Se (1998), Bunty Aur Babli (2005), Golmaal (2006), All the Best (2009) and Phas Gaye Re Obama (2010).
The comedy tag came with his roles in the Golmaal films by Rohit Shetty, who repeats the actor solely on his merit. “I love working with Rohit Shetty. Kuch bhi karva leta hain mujhse (he makes me do anything)!” Mishra said of Shetty, who has resurrected his career time and again.
Mishra recounts the time his father passed away. “I was shattered, I could not go back to Mumbai. I wanted to be alone, so I went to Rishikesh and started working in a dhaba, making omelettes,” he said. “The Sardar who owned the dhaba did not recognise me. But customers would see me and ask, “Golmaal mein aap hi the na (Weren’t you in Golmaal)? Then, they would want a photograph with me. Finally, the Sardar asked me who I was. Someone had told him I was an actor.”
Rohit Shetty heard of Mishra’s condition and asked him to return and act in All The Best (2009).
Mishra finally got his much-needed big break when he was cast in the lead role as the irascible Bauji in Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi (2013). The movie won him a Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actor trophy.
Speaking of his role in Ankhon Dekhi, Mishra said, “I did not understand Bauji till I saw him on screen. After the screening, I saw someone was crying in the bathroom; a few others wanted to hold my hand and cry. It took me 30 minutes to leave that room that day. I kept asking myself, ‘Yeh kaisi picture banayi hai Rajat ne’ (What kind of a film has Rajat made)?”
Ankhon Dekhi turned Mishra into a sombre figure with which the actor identifies more readily than his comic turns. In Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, Mishra plays a fussy old man who re-examines his relationship with his daughter Devi (Richa Chadda) after a tragic incident. In a key scene, Mishra goes from rage to remorse within minutes when he finds out that his daughter is in a mess, and nothing he can do will salvage the situation. Mishra invests his character with quiet dignity and says a lot without saying much.
The makers of the short film Monk have beautifully used Mishra’s ability to speak volumes through his face and his hunched back. For the first three minutes of the 11-minute film, Mishra does not say a word. A camera follows him around as he unwinds at the end of a long working day, unpacks a snack and a bottle of rum and enjoys a drink by himself. A bit late in the day, but it works well as a showreel for an actor who is just starting out.