At a suburban café in Mumbai, a director is offering Pankaj Tripathi the opportunity to be his movie's luck charm. The movie has been cast, and the National School of Drama-trained actor is being offered a small but significant part. “I need someone who can eat up the role, show the presence,” the filmmaker tells Tripathi.

These words might be music to the ears of actors struggling to make their presence felt in a celebrity-dominated business. But Tripathi has already made a habit of standing out in his movies. He is unsure about the role but enthused by the script, and the meeting ends with the promise of further conversations.

Tripathi’s latest lucky-charm role is in Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s debut feature Nil Battey Sannata, which is being released on April 22. Tripathi plays the earnest principal and tenth-standard mathematics teacher at a government school, where Apeksha (Ria Shukla) is struggling with the curriculum. It’s the job of Tripathi’s character Shrivastav to maintain discipline and encourage his 15-year-old pupils to embrace the joy of numbers. The comic role involves pantomime, deadpan humour and droll dialogue delivery. The humourous lines roll perfectly off Tripathi’s Bihari Hindi tongue, and he makes Shrivastava less of a clown and more of the typical pedagogue that many of us have encountered in our youth.

The scene that introduces Shrivastava sets the tone for his character. As the school prayer is sung, Shrivastava wags his finger at a student who is shuffling her feet, glares at another picking his nose, and bounds about the school ground ensuring that the latecomers, including Apeksha, are punished. Tripathi mimes his way throughout, setting up Shrivastava as a stickler for the rules as well as a mildly over the-top educator who is a source of mirth for his students.

“The scenes were there in the script, but they were flat and boring,” Tripathi told Scroll.in. “Ashwiny gave me complete freedom to do the role the way I wanted. I made the character an energetic person and added my own touches.”

Pankaj Tripathi in ‘Nil Battey Sannata’.
Pankaj Tripathi in ‘Nil Battey Sannata’.

Tripathi wove his performance around the reaction of the children, most of whom had never acted before. “The best actors are either those who know nothing about acting or those who are very experienced,” he observed. “You need to be a blank slate or have great maturity. Kids can be genius actors because they don’t know anything. In Nil Battey Sannata, I watched the kids like a learner. They provided the action and I, the reaction.”

Improvisation is a key element of Tripathi’s craft. “A writer writes at a table on his laptop, and it is our job to breathe life into their lines,” he said. A good actor must transform the written word into a performance by giving it soul, he added.

Anybody who has been watching Tripathi with even one eye closed will be in total agreement. Right from his debut Run in 2004 all the way till Masaan (2015) via the television series Powder, Tripathi has been making his roles count, regardless of their length. The actor, who grew up in a farming family in Bihar’s Gopalganj district, brings realism and honesty to his parts and strives to be utterly convincing no matter how outlandish the rest of the movie.

One of Tripathi’s most indelible performances is in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). Tripathi plays Sultan, a butcher who is consumed by a life-long quest for revenge against Manoj Bajpayee’s gangster Sardar Khan. “Anurag has the habit of not cutting scenes but letting them roll on, and as theatre actors, we know we have to be there [in the moment],” Tripathi said. He ad-libbed the line “Let’s bring automatic weapons” to a scene in which Sultan is discussing various ways to kill Sardar Khan. “I remember a craze for automatic weapons from conversations in Patna around 1993-94,” the 40-year-old actor said. “Actors usually improvise to get laughs, but I have to be on guard against this tendency. When the audience is watching, they should be in the same room as the character, get the aroma of the food, as it were.”

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Pankaj Tripathi in ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’.

An entire short film could be made on Tripathi and food. He is an enthusiastic cook, says Masaan director Neeraj Ghaywan, and this skill featured in one of the 2015 movie’s loveliest scenes. Tripathi plays Sadhya, an Indian Railways employee who befriends Richa Chaddha’s reticent character Devi. Sadhya offers Devi kheer and exults about the beauty of the rice-based pudding. A person who hasn’t eaten kheer doesn’t know what it means to be human, Sadhya declares.

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Pankaj Tripathi and Richa Chaddha in ‘Masaan’.

In an interview with the anchor Irfan on the Rajya Sabha TV show Guftagoo, Tripathi compares acting to cooking. He spent a few months interning for a hotel management course in Patna before choosing acting as his profession, where he peeled potatoes, onions and eggs before learning to whip up dishes. “Acting is like cooking – an actor should look at the end product right at the beginning,” he told Irfan. “What will be the colour, the thickness, and the process by which the dish is prepared? Like cooking, acting too is about precision.”

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Pankaj Tripathi on the ‘Guftagoo’ show.

Tripathi is often typecast as an unsavoury sort, but movies like Masaan reveal his ability to portray tenderness and humour. “The image that has been formed of Pankaj from Powder and Gangs of Wasseypur is of a ferocious person, but in real life, he is just the opposite, and that is what we wanted to capture in Masaan,” Ghaywan said.

Tripathi graduated from NSD in 2004 and moved to Mumbai that year after briefly returning to Patna for an aborted career in theatre. Among his early roles was in the television series Bahubali in 2008, but HIS breakthrough came with Atul Sabharwal’s acclaimed series Powder two years later. Tripathi plays Naved Ansari, a drug baron who is reserved in his manner, ruthless in his work, and devoted to his family. The role runs the gamut from quiet menace to poignancy as Naved strives to protect his clan from the perils of his profession.

Sabharwal signed up Tripathi on the recommendation of his casting director, Abhimanyu Ray. “If I remember correctly, Pankaj was unwell during that audition and he had a shawl wrapped around him that made him look vulnerable rather than menacing," Sahbharwal said. “Rahul Bagga, for that audition, played his younger brother. And I don’t know whether it was Pankaj’s flu or what but it seemed he was in pain for his wayward brother.” When Sabharwal met Tripathi later, they spoke of the actor’s family in Bihar. “We had our Naved Ansari who in the story feels for his family and goes to extreme lengths to protect them only to see it disintegrate in the end,” Sabharwal said. “The rest of the performance is embellishment and professional actors deliver ten upon ten once they fit the core right.”

Tripathi approaches his roles with “the humility of a blue collar worker”, Sabharwal added, a quality that appears to have contributed to his increasing popularity among filmmakers and casting directors. Among Tripathi’s upcoming roles is in cinematographer Shanker Raman’s debut feature Gurgaon. “I am playing a former farmer named Keri Singh who becomes a builder over a 20-year period,” Tripathi said. “He becomes an alcoholic and is almost always holding a glass in his hand. It’s an interior role like Powder.”

Tripathi has also wrapped up the shoot of Sulemani Keeda director Amit Masurkar’s second movie, titled Newton. The actor plays a Central Reserve Police Force commandant in the black comedy, which is set in the tribal belt of Chhattisgarh. “It is a serious comedy, and my character is arrogant and aggressive but also very human – I want to retain the humanity in all my characters,” Tripathi said.

After Gangs of Wasseypur, he has declined several offers to play butchers characters and is also done playing the thug from the Bhojpuri badlands. “I can hopefully go beyond these roles,” he said. In another upcoming comedy, tentatively titled Anarkali Ara Wali, he plays an orchestra arranger opposite Swara Bhaskar’s small-town singer. “I do want to play roles where I can over the top, be flamboyant,” he said.

For the moment, Tripathi is in demand for his ability to inject realism into fiction. He is a keen observer of individual traits and quirks. “I still buy my own vegetables, and I take an auto when I have to go the airport,” he said. “I mingle with people, I talk to them. If I don’t go towards the truth, where else will I get it from?”

When Tripathi was in college, he told Irfan on the Guftagoo show, he was a high jump athlete and a sprinter in college as well as a student leader with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad. This helped him develop an ease before crowds as well as a talent for dexterous oratory. The other elements of his craft have been built incrementally, one sparking role at a time.

“Actors can either be intrusive or impose themselves on you, but Pankaj is humble, modest and unassuming,” Neeraj Ghaywan said. “Any role that takes him back to his roots makes him feel good.”

For Nil Battey Sannata, Tripathi drew on memories of teachers from his school years. “I studied in a government school, and I too had masters like these,” Tripathi said. “The role was a combination of imagination and reality. Too much mimicry would have made the character a caricature.” The actor is in a lucky charm mode, eating up the role without ever chewing the scenery.