To Bollywood buffs, he is resourceful Panditji from Fukhrey, ambitious Sultan from Gangs of Wasseypur, the handyman Rangeela from Anaarkali of Arrah and the witty Principal Srivastava of Nil Battey Sannatta. The name of the actor, Pankaj Tripathi, is less famous. “Naam bhool jayega, kaam yaad rahega (The work will remain after the name is forgotten),” says the 40-year-old actor. Tripathi’s Hindi, layered by Bhojpuri accent, boasts the purity derived from his fondness for Hindi literature. He quotes from Chekhov, Gorky, Nirala and Phanishwar Nath Renu between discussing his latest role as Kehri Singh, a farmer-turned-real-estate-tycoon, in Gurgaon. The script of the film won the Prasad DI Award at the NFDC film Bazaar in 2015. Excerpts from an interview with Tripathi:
Tell us more about Kehri Singh.
It’s the journey of the character over 25 years – from his days of poverty as a farmer to being a tycoon and having all the frills that come with it. He is a patriarch, who loves his daughter, Preet, to a fault. He believes her to be his lucky charm, he has even named the business after her. This phenomena of protecting ones daughter or woman and decrying and disrespecting others is very North Indian. For me, it was a very internal performance. I have never played anything like him before.
Did you have to learn the Haryana way of life to play this role? Did you have to acquire the accent?
I learnt a bit of Haryanvi as we needed to get the flavour of the place. I am familiar with the dialect because of my years spent at the National School of Drama in Delhi but we were keen to not make Gurgaon too much of a Haryanvi film. The issues it deals with are spread across the country.
Until now, you have always played peripheral characters.
With this role, I am at the centre. The film raises important questions for those of us who are living in metro cities. We have sold our lands and made towers. Is that development? At the end of the day, the film is a thriller that depicts a global concern. It is only based in Gurgaon, which is feudal Haryana and cosmopolitan Delhi at the same time.
Your filmography includes films such as Masaan, Nil Battey Sannatta and Anaarkali Of Arrah, which are all socially conscious of the message that they send. Is that deliberate?
It is very deliberate. I firmly believe that films are not just a medium of entertainment. They can be important tools of social change. On the weekend, the whole family goes to a film seeking something entertaining. Cinema was meant to protest, debate, deliberate and highlight the cause and voices of those people who are not noticed by the mainstream. A rebellion or a movement can perhaps happen in a city or two. But through cinema, the rebellion can be asserted across the country and, in the digital age, the world over. The problem starts when the motive is to make Rs 300 crore at the box office. Then, the meaning and message take a back seat.
How do you balance the two and fit into into the mainstream?
The idea is not to give people a headache when the message gets too heavy. Manoranjan dunga (I will provide entertainment), but a healthy one. Fast food is like popular cinema, which tastes great when we eat it but it messes up your health. Meaningful cinema is good food — we entertain you and also say something meaningful at the same time. Thoda dimaag par bhi zor lage (You should use your brain). It’s not easy to get scripts such as these. Most of these films are small budget and indie. I need to do such cinema or I will be bored and not be able to balance myself as an artiste.
There is an outright commercial film, such as Dilwale in your repertory, too.
Art secondary hai, pehle jeena hai. Jeeyenge nahin toh art kaise karenge (Art is secondary. I need to live. If I don’t live, how will I make art?). I live in Mumbai, which is an expensive city, and I have to eat, don’t I? Don’t misunderstand me, I am not decrying commercial cinema. It’s because of commercial cinema that multiplexes and cinema halls are thriving. Or those spaces will be reduced to shaadi and banquet halls, and where will we screen meaningful cinema? Look at Raju Hirani, Nitish Tiwari, Anurag Basu and Imtiaz Ali, who are doing good work.
You have spent the last 13-14 years in Mumbai as a actor. Do you turn to your hometown, Gopalganj in Bihar, for inspiration in playing rooted characters in your films?
I am that subzi that sells in the film bazaar of Mumbai but am grown and farmed in the village. My parents stay in the village. I turn to my village and my people. I travel a lot, but without sunglasses and tinted windows of a car. I don’t care if I am active on Twitter. In the real world, I hope I am able to connect with as many people as I can. New landscapes and people help me grow as an actor. Whatever I do, however I act for whichever role, my village, my people and my experiences are at the core of who I am. That, and literature.
You have a long period of struggle. You had blink-and you-miss scenes in Run, Omkara and Apharan. Finally, you were noticed in Gangs Of Wasseypur.
Matke main jaise ek ek boond paani tapakta hain naa (Like drops of water falling into a pot), the same way, I collected scenes from films for my career. Now, I am all set to become a stream.
What is keeping you busy after Gurgaon?
I have Newton, a dark satire. There is Bareilly Ki Barfi, written by Nitish Tiwari, and Fukhrey Returns.