In 1987, Ashish Vidyarthi’s dream of being an actor drew a step closer to being fulfilled when he was admitted to the National School of Drama. But he was not only underwhelmed but also disappointed. His dear friend Manoj Bajpayee had tried thrice but failed to secure admission to the drama school. “It felt unjust, wrong that such a talent as Manoj had been rejected. That memory still touches a raw nerve,” says Vidyarthi, the son of a Malayali thespian and a Kathak danseuse.
The two actors went on to chart starkly different career paths. Bajpayee has acted in landmark films of the new wave, while Vidyarthi, after an award-winning performance in Drohkaal, went on to do more of regional cinema.
In Aligarh, they come together on screen after two decades. Aligarh, says Vidyarthi, represents everything his friend “Baju” has fought for in his 23-year-long career — quality cinema and honest performances. The two friends discuss their friendship, the days of struggle, new wave cinema and what the future holds for them. Excerpts from a conversation:
In Aligarh, you two share screen space after 22 years.
Bajpayee: Govind Nihalani’s Drohkaal is special to both of us, it was my first film and won Ashish the National Award for Best Supporting Actor. Aligarh, similarly, is special, too. It has me playing Professor Siras, who was suspended from Aligarh Muslim University after a local news channel aired footage of him having consensual sex with a man. Ashish essays the role of the lawyer who fought for Siras, and got him justice.
Vidyarthi: It is the film’s intent that makes it special.
You two go back a long way. How do you know each other?
Bajpayee: I was at Ramjas College, when one day, I received an invite to read a play at the dramatics society of Hindu College. I remember Ashish, a student of the college and already part of the Mandi House professional theatre circuit, walked in while I was reading the play. As the son of a farmer from a small village in Bihar, I was shy and my language still had a heavy Bhojpuri accent. I looked up to Ashish as someone who was opinionated and articulate in both Hindi and English. I wanted to be him.
Vidyarthi: I have very little recollection of what Baju is talking about. My memories of him are mostly snapshots — of us biking around Delhi, of him using bricks as dumbells and weights to keep himself in shape and so on. But he has been a consistent part of my life since those days. His journey inspires me.
Vidyarthi: When we entered cinema, it didn’t have very much to offer to actors like us. I moved to Bombay in 1992, following a chance meeting with director Saeed Mirza, who had offered me a role in ‘Kutte ki Maut’, which never got made. My mother, a teacher, had been working hard, getting herself extension after extension to keep the house running. When I would ask her what she wanted the most, she would say she would like someone to prepare the meal after she returned from work. I decided I wanted to provide my parents and family a comfortable life and opted for mainstream and regional films. I became what people call a sellout but it was a conscious decision on my part as the kind of movies I wanted to do back then were too few and didn’t pay enough. But Baju didn’t give up and has a body of work behind him that’s truly inspiring.
Bajpayee: I don’t agree that Ashish was a sellout. Anyone who knows him is aware that he is a man of utmost clarity. Though I am hearing the reasons from him today, I knew even then that the choices were serving a purpose. Even I have had it tough — I would have to hear nasty remarks every day for refusing mainstream films. There was eventually a time when I had to take up such films to make ends meet, till Prakash Jha’s Rajneeti came along.
How difficult was it to take such decisions?
Vidyarthi: I created different spaces for work and life. I was never looking for success in material terms, I found it in being there for my parents, spending time with family and friends.
Bajpayee: Back in college, Ashish had made a rule and we all followed it, that we won’t talk about work. But I love to talk about my work. It is the only way I can justify leaving my parents alone to wrinkle and age while I single-mindedly pursued my dream.
When did you find out you were both part of Aligarh?
Bajpayee: One day, Hansal (Mehta, director) and I were discussing the film and he mentioned he was looking for someone who is fluent in both Hindi and English. That reminded me of my first encounter with Ashish and I suggested his name.
Did you two tap into your long standing bond to essay your respective roles?
Bajpayee: As an actor, my personal relationships don’t interfere with my roles. I usually tap into my vulnerability as a human being to find my characters within me. I am quite mercurial and being myself allows me to stay honest, not get corrupted.
Vidyarthi: I admired Baju’s nuanced portrayal of Siras, his silences convey a lot. These, I suppose, he found within his own quiet nature.
Bajpayee: I am silent but not at peace; I have a lot of chaos inside. Siras, in contrast, is at peace with himself.
Vidyarthi: Siras isn’t calm but he has created this box around himself to keep out the chaos that surrounds him. Within that space, he has his alcohol, music and poetry, which make him happy. But it upsets him when people try to invade that space too.
You both started your career in the early ’90s, How much has changed since then?
Vidyarthi: ‘Kutte ki Maut’, based on an encounter, never got made then. But a film like Aligarh can be made today and not be called ahead of its time. That is a huge change and much of it can be attributed to the advent of multiplexes that have altered the definition of a successful film.
Bajpayee:The success of Satya (1998) back then surprised me. The film was stalled after the second day of the shoot because the producer pulled out and Ramu (Ram Gopal Varma, director) had to run around to find another financier. But when it released it triggered a change that would shape the new wave cinema of today. The corporatisation of the industry has helped get rid of the feudal system that dominated the film industry, where only a handful of people decided what films got made and distributed.
Vidyarthi: Aligarh, in that sense, holds out a promise. We are in a time when a Masaan and Titli will be made alongside PK. It is a time that encourages me to once again feel hungry for good roles the way I did when I started my career.
Bajpayee: It’s a time when middle-of-the-road films are being made. At this stage, I know that I don’t have to take up mainstream films to survive, even films such as Rajneeti and Special 26 can help me make enough money.
Do you think that actors such as Vicky Kaushal, Nawazuddin Siddiqui or Rajkummar Rao, whom we see with you in Aligarh, have it easier than you?
Bajpayee: Without mincing words, yes. I’d say I envy that they come at a time when we have fought the tougher battles to set the stage for them.