A pressure cooker, a cooking gas, pans and ladles, spices, a camera and an elaborate music system — a peep into the boot of Sanjay Mishra’s car can surprise those who don’t know the actor well. And those who do, will say he’s as passionate about cooking as he is about acting. “For shoots that are a few hours’ drive, I leave ahead of schedule to stop at a picturesque spot, rustle up a meal and click pictures. I did that last month in Fiji too, where fresh catch was easily available,” says Mishra.
When we meet at Film City, Mishra’s left his portable kitchen behind but food is still on his mind. The actor offers to order fish from a popular restaurant nearby. Then, signalling his make-up man to start applying a fake beard for the film he is shooting for, Mishra switches topics to talk about his next, Rajat Kapoor-directed Ankhon Dekhi, which releases on March 21.
Set in a part of Delhi that still retains an old-world charm, Ankhon Dekhi revolves around Babuji’s (played by Mishra) decision — triggered by a family problem — to believe only in what he has either seen or experienced himself. For instance, his need to see a tiger growl before using the Hindi proverb ‘Sher ki tarah dahadhna’. How this pans out for him and the household, which comprises his brother’s family apart from his own — with constant visitors that include nosy neighbours — forms the crux of
“This drastic decision by Babuji is driven by what’s happening in his daughter’s life. Babuji has probably been a perceptive, sensitive man; he doesn’t appear to be one who goes about his life and work mechanically. That’s what I gathered from the character when I saw the film a few weeks ago,” says Mishra.
For an actor who pretty much carries the film on his shoulders, Mishra’s response makes one wonder why he doesn’t seem sure of his character’s intentions. Rolling a cigarette, he considers the question for a few seconds before explaining that he doesn’t believe an actor can know his character better than the director. “In the early days of my career, I was part of the TV show Chanakya. To prepare for the role, I would read the script thrice a day and work on my character. But on the first day of shoot I realised the image I had conjured of my character was nothing close to what the director wanted. Ever since, I let the director lead me close to his vision and play it out the way he wants it,” he says.
Now, he also responds to the character based on how an audience would view it. To do so, he uses “clues” such as the setting of the scene and the mindset of other characters. For instance, Kapoor’s vision of Babuji that he had gathered from the script became clearer when he saw the house the family lived in, the kind of neighbours they had, and the clothes they wore. He then tried to breathe life into it, improvising the script to make Babuji fit into that kind of a setting.However, Mishra isn’t entirely unlike Babuji. Much like the character who refuses to believe in mathematical theory that parallel lines can meet at infinity “because no one’s seen it happen”, he questioned everything taught in the formal education system during his early years in Varanasi and Delhi. “If education couldn’t answer my questions — Did Emperor Akbar go to bed in such finery every day? Did he have a sense of humour? — I didn’t want it,” he says.
This, in a way, led him to join the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi. Upset by his performance in school, Mishra’s journalist father wanted him to take up any job, even that of a peon. But his father’s friend, noted Hindi writer Manohar Shyam Joshi, saw his horoscope and suggested that he go to a drama school instead.
However, Mishra was reluctant. It meant “another three years of schooling. I loved acting because it helped me connect with people even if I didn’t know them. I didn’t want it to come with the burden of being my profession,” he says. But while at NSD, he had an enriching time as he discovered international cinema, and learnt from his roommate Tigmanshu Dhulia and his senior Irrfan, among others.
Yet, Mishra — who has been critically lauded for his roles in Golmaal Returns, Jolly LLB, and Phas Gaye Re Obama among others — insists he doesn’t take acting too seriously, pointing to his filmography. “I am often asked why I do all kinds of roles and films, especially the ones I know may never release. But acting’s to me is a way of life that also earns me my bread and butter. Films are also my way of rehearsing — I can do that in front of a mirror but I prefer it with a script. I have reached where I am by doing all those films; for instance, I got my next with Yash Raj Films because they saw me in Ankhon Dekhi when it still didn’t have a distributor or a release date.”