It’s a rainy weekday evening in Bengaluru and Pankaj Tripathi is sitting in his vanity van, scrolling through his phone, waiting for the shot to be ready. The Newton actor was in the city to shoot for Indrajit Lankesh’s biopic of south Indian screen sensation Shakeela. Tripathi plays Shakeela’s co-actor, a role that requires him to, among other things, run in slow motion wearing a red blazer and black trousers.
“It’s a character I haven’t played before in my life,” Tripathi told Scroll.in. “I don’t have the ability to wear red shoes and a green coat and dance, like a hero. I was scared here. But when they made me do it, I was surprised that I could pull off such an act convincingly too.”
Does anybody doubt that Tripathi will ace any role? The National School of Drama graduate has played nearly every character assigned to him with remarkable ease and fealty, including the charming Indian Railways employee in Masaan (2015), the battle-hardened Central Reserve Police Force officer in Newton (2016), and the alcoholic builder in Gurgaon (2017).
This year, Tripathi was in Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain, apart from small roles in Kaala and Phamous. He also appeared in the first season of the Netflix series Sacred Games, and is expected to return for the second round. His latest scene-stealing performance is as a bookseller in Stree, which was released on Friday.
There’s more in the months ahead: Super 30, the biopic of mathematician Anand Kumar, the action drama Drive and the comedy Bhaiaji Superhit. Tripathi is also shooting for Luka Chhupi in Gwalior, in which he plays a real estate agent who is single and “tries to search for his to-be bride in every woman he meets”. Then there is Criminal Justice, BBC’s Indian adaptation of the American drama series The Night Of.
The appointments diary is packed at least till February 2019, then, which is a departure from a fallow period in which the 42-year-old actor sometimes had to take what came his way. “Now I can wait, patiently choose because there is no urgency to earn money for some time,” he said. “Earlier it wasn’t like this. I had to dig the well and drink water. Now there is some water in the well already.”
Tripathi’s ideal role is one that has layers and intensity. “A role in which my job is not just to play to the gallery, or something that isn’t too easy,” he explained. “I think like a cook: if you’re walking through a vegetable market and you see okra, you can visualise a curry in your mind, right? In the same way, I can see the role I’m reading about in my imagination.”
Tripathi also makes efforts to drop contemporary references into his performances. In Stree, for instance, his character Rudra says that the female spirit haunting the village has the Aadhar details of every single resident.
“That line was my addition,” he said. “I always like to keep my characters politically and socially aware. In this case, Rudra is a bookseller and he would naturally be someone who reads a lot. So I added one more line – Agar nahi chahte ho darna toh shuru karo padna.”
Although characters he meets in his regular life inspire and influence his performances, his own personality seeps in too. If Tripathi were a librarian and not an actor, he would be Rudra, he asserted. This is also true of his other characters, including Sultan Qureshi from Gangs of Wasseypur or Atma Singh in Newton. “See, I’m five feet and 10 inches with a distinctive long nose and even more distinctive mannerisms – it is inevitable that my personality will enter the role I’m playing,” he said.
That distinctive leftward tilt of the head seen in nearly ever single Pankaj Tripathi performance isn’t only for the movies. “I often tell filmmakers to reduce my lines because I feel I can communicate some of those lines in a gesture,” he said.
Does he ever revisit his work and feel that he could have done things differently? “Always,” Tripathi said. “Some of the most interesting ideas come to mind at the end of the day’s work. But there is no point in regret. I channelise that feeling into my performance the next day. The day an actor feels he has performed excellently, he will stop growing.”
One role that will be difficult for Tripathi to top is Atma Singh from Newton, which was India’s official Oscar entry in 2017.
Tripathi was playing a hidebound family patriarch who clashes with his urbane daughter-in-law in the television series Sarojini Ek Nayi Pehal when he was offered Newton three-and-a-half years ago. “I was looking for work and had auditioned for a film but did not get through,” Tripathi said. “When this serial came to me, I felt it was a main role and the money was good. I had bought a house back then and had a loan to pay off, so I agreed.”
Tripathi enjoyed the work for about three months, but drudgery set in soon afterwards. “I used to tell the bahu sometimes that so many episodes have passed, when will you die?” Tripathi joked. “I did that role purely for money but had enjoyed it too. But soon it became impossible to carry on.”
The day he asked the channel to be relieved of the role, Masurkar sent him Newton’s script. Tripathi had worked with Masurkar on a short film on women and driving called L.
Atma Singh was initially more of a cynic and “villain-type” person. “I wanted to make him more human,” Tripathi recalled. “He is just a part of the system and not a villain. He has no personal rivalry with Newton. He just met him around 5am and will not meet him again after 5pm. He also has crises of his own and a sense of duty. I wanted to add some internal humour to him and make him one badmaash type ka aadmi who tries to have some fun with Newton as well.”
Is this the dream run Tripathi was hoping for when he started out as a theatre actor in 1995? “Overall, yes this is much better than what it used to be,” Tripathi said. “Earlier, the entire year would pass by and a decent role with at least two good scenes would be rare. Now, I’m having fun, but I still feel that the challenge I seek is not coming my way. In a year, there are only few Newtons and Gurgaons. For instance, this year’s Newton or Gurgaon hasn’t come to me yet. I’m searching for such scripts.”