Bollywood darling Pankaj Tripathi discovered his calling for acting inside a jail cell

Pankaj Tripathi
Pankaj Tripathi
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One of the key actors in Newton, India’s official Oscar entry this year, failed to get into the country’s foremost theatre training institute, twice.

A farmer’s son from a small village called Belsand in Gopalganj district of Bihar, Pankaj Tripathi first took to acting during his growing-up years when he would play a girl once a year in a local theatre troupe. But making a name for himself in the movie business was never on the cards for him back then.

It was only in 1993, while studying at a college in Patna, that Tripathi got serious about acting as a career. The idea first occurred to him when he was jailed for a week for his involvement in a students’ movement. ”What will you do in jail for seven days? I went to the library, sat and read. That’s how I developed a little interest in Hindi literature,” Tripathi told Quartz in March.

After watching Laxam Narayan Rai’s play, Andha Kuan, he was inspired. He did theatre and street plays in Patna for seven years, and in 2001, Tripathi joined the prestigious National School of Drama (NSD). Three years later, he bagged his first feature film role in Run. But it wasn’t until 2012—when he played the butcher-henchman Sultan Qureshi in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (GOW)—that he actually tasted fame and recognition.

Now, he is counted among Bollywood’s top actors. Quartz spoke to Tripathi about carving a space for himself in a star-studded universe. Below are edited excerpts from the conversation in March, partly translated from Hindi:

How did you go from doing theatre in Patna to NSD in Delhi?

I started doing theatre in Patna because it used to give me joy. But it was very hard to survive on. I would not have left but there were no sponsors in Patna, no ticket culture. Hindi theatre is not commercial. For four months I had to pay out of my own pocket for everything. That’s when I decided to join NSD, where the government teaches acting for free. I failed the entrance test twice, but in the third attempt, I was selected.

Also, I believe that until you get proper training, acting is only a hobby. Just like you can’t become a neurosurgeon by just practicing it as a hobby, you can’t act without learning either.

How did you eventually break into movies?

It has been a very difficult journey. The industry is very crowded and you’re competing with thousands of people from all around India. I came to Mumbai on Oct. 16, 2004, and initially, I used to play small parts in daily soaps. I also did ad films and corporate films. I had to keep telling myself, “I’m talented. I know my craft.” I always kept working on my skills, hoping that the day I get the chance, I will do something great. It took me eight years to get GOW. It was like you sow seeds in the ground and wait months for them to grow. You give them favourable conditions—dhoop (sunlight), paani (water), chao (shade). Patience was important. 

Did being an outsider in the industry make your journey harder?

Film-making is an art and a business both. If you put in Rs10, you want to earn Rs20. When you don’t have a family background in films, you can have a few more challenges. First, you have to prove yourself as an actor, then fight for money. Our fight is a little bigger.

Do you remember how you got the much-acclaimed GOW role?

I had to audition for eight to nine hours with the casting director, Mukesh Chhabra. It was my life’s longest audition. He’d seen me do theatre in Delhi and called me in. I was sick and didn’t want to come but he said, you have to come. I took antibiotics and went, and auditioned from 12pm to 8pm.

You didn’t stick to TV but now you are dabbling with the small screen with Netflix’s Mango Dreams and the upcoming web series Mirzapur?

The commitment for daily soaps can be up to three years but a web series is shot like a film, where one season takes 50 to 80 days to shoot and then it finishes.

Also, internet platforms are growing now and have a unique advantage. For instance, I did a 26-episode show called Powder, which no one saw on TV, but on Netflix, people are watching it every day. The show was ahead of its times when it aired on TV in 2010. But today, people say they haven’t seen anything this brilliant.

In addition, daily soaps are limiting because there is a lot of censorship. In comparison, online mediums allow for more creative freedom. Like cinema, too, there’s no pressure to get certification.

What is the toughest aspect of acting?

There is a language limitation that comes in. For instance, Tamil is very tough to speak. An actor may not be able to bring truth to his performance when trying to get the language right. Even when I did a Telugu movie, Kaala, there was a lot of Hindi in it. Languages like Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam are hard for me.

While shooting for Kaala, you met your idol Rajnikanth. How was that?

I’ve only seen 50-60 movies in my life. So while he’s my idol, I had not seen his films. I am more inspired by how he is in real life—no wig, a simple lungi, and no black glasses. I had heard stories about his simple lifestyle and wanted to meet him to know how can a star be so popular and still be so grounded?

Rajnikanth has recently ventured into politics. Would that be a path for you?

In my opinion, politics for an actor is difficult because we try to be real and truthful. In politics, how can you be real and truthful?

Would you say this a good time for character actors in Bollywood?

Those days of character actors playing stock roles like a policeman or a lawyer are now gone. Everyone is doing all characters. Look at Aamir Khan in Dangal, he played a character, not a hero. Today, what’s important is to lift all stories, not just a hero’s story.

Do you think actors like you, who may not fit the mainstream Bollywood hero stereotype, are paid fairly?

Times are changing. Now, we’re definitely not underpaid actors but maybe I don’t always get how much I deserve. But the mindset is changing with movies like Newton. Sometimes, we take very little money for movies like Newton, Masaan, and Nil Battey Sannata because they have very low budgets. But I have fun in small films. As an actor, I get a lot of peace. A good night’s sleep only comes with being a good actor.