It’s a wet Thursday in Mumbai, but Pankaj Tripathi has started his day early. In keeping with his godman character Guruji from the upcoming second season of Sacred Games, Tripathi is clad in a wig and mango-coloured robes and occupies a replica of an ashram at a suburban hotel in Mumbai.
Tripathi sits on a floor cushion and serenely delivers a sermon to a roomful of journalists. A few hours later, he has discarded the wig and changed into an all-white ensemble. The floor cushion is gone and Tripathi is now perched on a sofa, running through a tight line-up of interviews.
Tripathi’s Guruji made a brief appearance in the first season of the Netflix series in June 2018. Based on Vikram Chandra’s novel of the same name, Sacred Games revolves around Mumbai police inspector Sartaj Singh’s efforts to unravel the mystery behind the suicide of gangster Ganesh Gaitonde. Before dying, Gaitonde alerts Sartaj about a conspiracy that will put Mumbai at risk. The enigmatic Guruji is involved, as Sartaj realises in the final episode of the first season.
The returning cast include Saif Ali Khan as Sartaj, Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Gaitonde, Neeraj Kabi, Aamir Bashir, Luke Kenny, Surveen Chawla and Jatin Sarna. Among the new entrants are Kalki Koechlin, Ranvir Shorey and Amruta Subhash.
Anurag Kashyap is back as co-director, and Vikramaditya Motwane has been promoted to showrunner. Neeraj Ghaywan is the other director of the new season, which will be premiered on August 15.
Guruji’s dialogue delivery is languid. He stretches out the final syllable of the words and sentences, not unlike the late godman Rajneesh. But Tripathi denies that his character is modelled on any particular spiritual leader. Anurag Kashyap instructed him to avoid watching videos or researching any past or present gurus and told him to stick to the script.
“He’s a fictional character and when I spoke to Kashyap about preparation, watching videos and referring to spiritual gurus, he asked me not to. He just said, learn your lines and come,” Tripathi told Scroll.in.
Tripathi got the script a fortnight before the shoot. He focussed on memorising the pages of lines. “There are long dialogues, and they are such that I cannot improvise,” said the actor who is known for spontaneity. “It was tough for me. But there is a thought and a philosophy in those lines that I could not alter. So I worked hard, learnt the lines and played back a recording of my voice to check on my preparations.”
When Tripathi signed on to play Guruji, he knew that his character would be a spectral presence in the first season and would fully emerge only in the second. The performance had to be “effortless without becoming bloodless”, Tripathi noted. “Guruji’s words are deep and have a thought, but that can become boring,” he said. “So my attempt was to make it engaging without being bloodless while also communicating the writer’s intent.”
If Tripathi were to deliver a sermon, what would his philosophy be? “It would be that everything is rubbish. Everyone should use his or her own brain and mind. Actually, I feel I am becoming too ideological and philosophical in my interviews, and that has begun to irritate me.”
Sacred Games allowed Tripathi, who doesn’t know any holy men, to “explore a new world”. He did wonder, however, whether Guruji had gotten under his skin.
“I question myself – am I acting even in the interview? Is it that I am performing even in real life? I am encumbered with this stamp of being humble and grounded. I am disturbed by that characterisation. Maybe I am not that humble or grounded? And even if I am, it’s no great achievement.” He quoted a line from the 2018 movie Newton, in which he plays a key role: “Imandari se zyada imandari ka ghamand hota hai. Look at me now: I sound like a baba!”
Tripathi reunited with his National School of Drama buddies Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Chittaranjan Tripathi, who plays the fixer Trivedi, during the shoot. “I have known Nawaz for a long time – he is eight years my senior from NSD and when he would come visit the college, he would stay in our hostel room,” Tripathi revealed. “Shooting with him for Sacred Games was great fun.”
Sacred Games is the third web series starring Tripathi after Mirzapur and Criminal Justice. The impact of streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hotstar doesn’t cease to amaze the 42-year-old actor.
“Sacred Games has a great reach,” he recalled. “When I was shooting in Scotland recently, people from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Europeans recognised me and acknowledged me as Kaleen bhaiya [from Mirzapur] and Guruji. That’s when I realised the enormous reach of these services. More than Hindi films, these stories are reaching a wider audience.”
Tripathi is also busy with films, which include 83, Shakeela and Angrezi Medium. “I am doing so much work right now that I think I am in a burnout situation,” Tripathi admitted. “So much work is coming my way right now that I am unable to grasp it all. I really want a break, even for 10 days, but then I think I might get bored because going to work has become a part of my mechanics.”