As Pankaj Tripathi, arguably the most interesting contemporary actor of the Hindi cinema, speaks about his rise from a nobody in Bihar to an actor who commands huge respect, he gazes with satisfaction at the deep blue ocean overlooking the balcony of his new home.
“My wife Mridula and I shifted into our new home this week. It was our dream home, a love nest at the seaside. Now I’ve finally bought our dream house in Madh Island. My wife got very emotional after we shifted into our new home,” says Pankaj with a catch in his voice. He has plenty to rejoice over. The performance in the riveting web-series Criminal Justice is perhaps Pankaj’s best yet. And coming from an actor who has given outstanding performances even in the smallest of parts from Masaan to Newton to Stree, that’s saying a lot.
Exults the extraordinary actor, “The praise for Criminal Justice is pouring in. People who are knowledgable about acting are praising me. Manoj Bajpai called me to say, ‘Yeh tu kya kar raha hai? Kaise kar raha hai?’ (What are you doing? How are you doing it?) Manoj Bhai is my role model and inspiration as he also comes from rural Bihar and I felt that if he could become an actor, why can’t I? It’s a good feeling. Until a year ago, I accepted any role that was offered to me. Now, I’m in a position to pick and choose.”
The role of cheesy but kindhearted and finally a heroic lawyer in Criminal Justice wasn’t originally what it finally became. Admits Pankaj, “I didn’t watch the original HBO mini series The Night Of. I didn’t want to get influenced by the actor (John Turturro) who played the lawyer in the original. My lawyer’s character Madhav Mishra was not written the way I’ve played it. But by and by, I added ‘character’ to my character. I improvised my lines, reworked my scenes until Madhav Mishra shed his sleazy skin and actually ended up being humane and even heroic.”
Pankaj believes the secret of his brilliant performances is his ability to cling to his roots even after acquiring unexpected success. “Today my wife Mridula and I own our dream house. But I haven’t forgotten my one-room shed with its tin roof in Patna. One night, the rains and wind were so intense one of the tin sheets blew away and I was left looking at the naked sky.”
Surprisingly, Pankaj had no interest in movies. “I was culturally inclined from the beginning. At 21, I’d cycle for miles to catch a concert by Bismillah Khan. Although I didn’t understand the music, I listened in rapt attention. I had no interest in cinema. Theatre was my scene. I joined the NSD (National School Of Drama) in Delhi, did my course and returned to Bihar to pursue theatre. But I soon realised, there was no future and no money in theatre. I decided to move to Mumbai where movie acting was a viable option.”
For years, there were only small roles. “My wife Mridula and I survived on her income in Mumbai. She was a qualified schoolteacher and she got a job in Mumbai while I did what all out-of-town actors in Mumbai do — struggle. My first major role was in Bhavna Talwar’s Dharm in 2007 where I got to work with my namesake the great Pankaj Kapoor. It is significant that my first major role came to me from a woman director. Women have always played a very important part in my career.”...