Updated: August 19, 2018 6:00:12 am
To describe his journey as an actor so far, Manoj Pahwa cites a Hindi idiom: “Saavan hare na bhaadon sukhe (Always remain steady, no matter the season).” From advertising to theatre to television, Pahwa has done it all, seen it all. But the rave reviews for his performance in Mulk marks a definite career high. “I have never shot to limelight. At the same time, I was never down in the dumps. There has always been a steady flow of acting jobs in theatre, television, commercials, music videos and movies,” he says.
Mulk has given him a break from playing yet another “happy-go-lucky” character, an image that seems to have stuck. “The movie is relevant considering the time we are living in. The character of Bilal Muhammad, who is the younger brother of Rishi Kapoor, came as a welcome challenge. Bilal has always been under the shadow of his elder brother but is loved by his family and neighbours. When someone as innocent as him is falsely implicated for aiding terrorists and dies in custody, you start questioning what’s fair,” says Pahwa, when we meet at his Andheri home on a windswept afternoon.
Growing up in Delhi’s Daryaganj acquainted Pahwa with a world where the division between Hindus and Muslims was blurred. “The two communities co-existed peacefully as neighbours and did business together. My father ran a garage. The automobile part dealers we did business with were Muslims in the Jama Masjid area. Most of my friends at the school (National Public School, Daryaganj) were Muslims. One of my lasting memories is buying a 25-paise ticket and climbing the Jama Masjid’s minar. We used to make paper planes and fly them from there,” recounts Pahwa, who moved to Mumbai in 1994.
The process of giving shape to a character in front of the camera, for Pahwa, involves knowing about it in as much detail as possible. “There are times, you tap into personal experiences of dealing with similar people in the family as well as outside,” says the actor. Some traits of the character develop following discussions with the director and writer. For instance, a bunch of children asking Bilal for a lift on his scooter was not in the script. “This scene emerged following conversations with Anubhav (Sinha) and writer Anjum Rajabali. We wanted to show that someone like Bilal is not a very busy person. He runs errands, helps others and is likeable.”
Do characters like Bilal show that the industry is moving away from typecasting actors? “This trend has changed slightly as we are no longer making movies with simple plots involving a hero, a heroine and a villain. While making issue-based movies, directors are opting for authenticity. If Rishi Kapoor is playing a character who is 65 years old, you need a 50-plus actor to play his brother,” reasons the 54-year-old thespian. Movies like Being Cyrus (2005), Aloo Chat (2009), Khap (2011), Dedh Ishqiya (2014) and Khajoor Pe Atke (2018) gave him the opportunity to look beyond stereotypical characters, he says.
Over the years, however, Pahwa has chosen “not to judge the kind of roles” he was getting. “When I shifted to Mumbai, I had no strategy. I just wanted to act — be it in a television show or music video. I just wished to be known as a ‘good actor’,” says Pahwa, who is married to Seema Pahwa of Ankhon Dekhi (2014) and Dum Laga Ke Haisa (2015) fame. Their daughter Manukriti will be seen in Sharat Kataria’s forthcoming Sui Dhaaga while son Mayank is going to study at MET Film School, UK.
The Delhi-bred Pahwa, who performed theatre during 1980-85 as well as featured in television shows such as Hum Log (1984), had to manage his father’s garage after his demise. “Seema and I got married in 1984. She was working for a repertory while I used to act in some Delhi-based projects once in a while. After two of my sisters got married, I handed over the family business to my younger brother. In 1992, I resumed started acting in plays full-time. Two years later, I moved to Mumbai with my family,” he says.
Soon after making Mumbai home, Pahwa joined the cast of the TV show, Banjara Guest House (1995). However, it’s television commercials that have brought him recognition as well as ensured a steady income. A day’s shoot fetched him Rs 8,000 in the late 1990s.
Adman Prahlad Kakkar cast Pahwa in the Maggi sauce ad campaign with Jaaved Jaaferi (“It’s different” was the catchline). What got him noticed is the 8 PM whiskey commercial, which showed him as a Pakistani army officer enjoying a swig and chilling with his Indian counterpart after 8 pm. “After watching this ad, Kamal Haasan offered me a role in Hey Ram (2000),” says Pahwa, who featured in about 200 commercials even as he kept acting in television serials such as Just Mohabbat (1996-2000), Sea Hawks (late 1990s) and Office Office (2001). When daily shows became the norm on Indian television instead of weekly, he focussed more on movies. “I chose acting as I wanted to escape the 9-5 routine,” says Pahwa, who has acted in popular movies such as Dabangg 2 (2012), Jolly LLB (2013) and Dil Dhadakne Do (2015).
This week, Pahwa is heading for London for the first schedule shoot of television series Beecham House, a period drama directed by Gurinder Chadha. Set in the late 18th century, it chronicles the mysterious life of John Beecham in a mansion in Delhi. Pahwa plays “a naughty cook” who wants to be called a “chef” and “spies on white women”. Once its shooting schedules are wrapped up, he plans to act in Seema’s directorial debut, Pind Daan.
Every actor, Pahwa acknowledges, harbours the “hunger” to do something challenging. “That hunger was satiated when a movie like Mulk is offered,” he says. He, however, hopes to play a “classic comedy character” one day. “My idea of comedy is something like Neil Simon’s play Odd Couple. Since we are trying to please the masses, we don’t opt for subtlety. Though I’m known for comedy, I have not done my best comic role yet,” he says.
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