Pankaj Tripathi: The Star of Simplicity

The much-feted minimalist actor inhabits a rich universe where he is an ally of women, has the ‘software’ to straddle both village and city, and is inspired by literary giants like Muktibodh.

Give Pankaj Tripathi any role and he will make it his own with his signature style – minimalistic, effortless, unhurried. At a time when an edgy restlessness seems to have become the calling card of  performers and the hallmark of their performances, the wide array of characters Tripathi has played in Hindi cinema in the past 16 years, stand out for the simplicity, spontaneity and distinct stillness that marks his approach. He makes acting look so easy and natural.

On screen or during an interview, the soft spoken Tripathi seems to be completely immune to the tyranny of the clock, having all the time in the world to express himself. “Itminaan wala aadmi hoon (I am a relaxed person),” he says, admitting, “After a while maturity sets in, be it in life or in art.”

But the actor is clear that the centredness that has been his  calling card, right down to his latest release, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (on Netflix), comes with  conditions — the audience has to be kept engaged at all times. “It’s a thin line. It [the performance] can’t become pallid in the pursuit of effortlessness. One has to retain that hook,” he says, adding that it is somewhat akin to “street performers and magicians who try to engage the audience first.” 

At times, he has consciously tried to break his rhythm – such as when he played the over the top, caricature-like character in the small town rom-com Luka Chuppi last year.

This time Tripathi is gathering accolades for the way he has fleshed out the role of Lt Col Anup Saxena, the father of Indian Air Force officer Gunjan. As the liberal, encouraging father, his performance has gone down so well with the audience that he has been besieged with playful requests by young fans on social media platforms, asking him to adopt them!

While attributing the success of the character to writers Nikhil Mehrotra and Sharan Sharma (also the film’s director) he acknowledges that every actor does bring something of her or his own to a character, and that “the same piece of writing or scene can be taken in different directions by different actors.”  

The actor can see a lot of paternal roles coming his way now. “Although, at 45, I haven’t quite reached the age of a filmi father as yet,” Tripathi quips.

Interestingly, be it Gunjan Saxena or his other recent films like Anaarkali of Aarah, Gurgaon, Bareilly Ki Barfi (all 2017) and Stree (2018), the characters Tripathi plays, become the female protagonist’s ally. It’s a role he likes to play in both reel and real life. 

“When I go back to my village, see the boys [I grew up with] and compare myself with them, I realise that a lot has changed within me, and that change has been brought about by the books [I have read], the people and ideas I have encountered and lived with,” he says.

The actor feels characters like Anup Saxena are positive role models for it is important to change the mindset of men regarding gender discrimination. Referring to the slogan, beti bachao, beti padhao (save the girl child, educate the girl child), he feels “it is more important to educate the sons. If they turn out sensible, our daughters would be safe.”

What enthuses Tripathi is the fact that there are many more women to be seen working behind the camera as well. “There is a girl from Kota working as a camera assistant. When I see her confidence and her choice [of profession], I feel happy that things are changing,” he says.

For this ally of women, one of the biggest influences on his life in his growing years – in Belsand village, near Gopalganj in Bihar – has been his father, a farmer. Now in his 90s, his lifestyle has still not changed. Says Tripathi, “My father still doesn’t know how to answer a call on the mobile. My parents also refused to have a television set installed at home during the lockdown. They are happy in their frugality, with their cows, fields, plants and flowers to look after.” The essence of their simple existence has left a deep imprint on the actor’s mind.

He feels, “saadhaaran durlabh ho gaya hai,” that is, such simplicity is hard to come by these days, so much so that in today’s times, the ordinary feels extraordinary. As he sees it, in our complex world, simplicity has been reduced to acts of marketing – like organic brands – that are in no way part of a seamless, lived reality.

Conversations with Tripathi are always exhilarating. Like a river prone to change course, they often dip into reflective reveries. But in the last few years it has been difficult to pin him down, for he has been working non-stop. He says this trajectory was fuelled by the long years of struggle: “If you are very hungry and see a huge spread, then there is a tendency to overeat.”

After passing out of the National School of Drama, Tripathi left for Mumbai in 2004, but it was not until Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and Fukrey (2013) that he truly got noticed. The characters of Sultan Qureshi, the butcher and henchman in the former and corrupt college guard Pandit in the latter struck a chord with the audience.   

With equal ease he played the humane Sadhya ji (Masaan, 2015), a railway ticketing clerk who strikes an inexplicable bond with film’s female protagonist, Devi.

Also read: Masaan and the Vulnerable Body of Desire

If Wasseypur gave him an identity, it was with the role of CRPF commandant Atma Singh in Newton (2017), which earned him a special mention at the national film awards, that Tripathi began to be taken seriously as an actor. Finally, the commercial success of Stree (2018), with Tripathi in sparkling comic form, bestowed stardom on him in the truest sense of the word.

And now, recent web series like Sacred Games, Mirzapur and Criminal Justice, available on various streaming platforms have further expanded viewership for actors like him. These platforms, he feels, are creating more space for exploring new stories and newer ways of telling them.

The punishing pace that the actor had set for himself these last few years came to a screeching halt during the pandemic-induced lockdown. Now that the pressure of EMIs [for his new home in Madh Island] has reduced, Tripathi says he has decided to take it easy.  Staying home during the lockdown he made several discoveries, one being “that my daughter’s sense of humour has sharpened.”

COVID-19 has also made the hotel management institute graduate and one-time trainee chef in a five-star hotel try his hand at his other passion—cooking. “I took to acting because of food and travel. Free mein mil jaata hai, producer ke paise pe ho jaata hai (‘You get it for free as it is the producer’s money’),” he says with a puckish smile.

Tripathi confesses that he is the kind of person who goes to the market to buy a glass with an upper limit of Rs 10 in mind but ends up buying one for Rs 5 instead. What he says next tells you that he does not shy away from reflecting on himself:

“Bhautik taur pe safal abhineta kaha jaa sakta hoon main. Har doosri film mein hota hoon. Ye time tha ki mera dimaag kharab ho sakta tha. Safalta ke nashe mein jaa sakta tha. Arrogant ban sakta tha.

(‘In worldly terms I can be called a successful actor. I am there in every second film. It [success] could have made my mind play tricks on me.  I could have become intoxicated with success, turned arrogant.’)

“As things turned out, a minor accident and months of anxiety kept him grounded. Udne ka mauka chala gaya (The opportunity for a flight [of arrogance] was gone),” he says.

In the midst of analysing the notion of success he suddenly remembers Shrilal Shukla’s iconic political satire Raag Darbari and then recalls Hazari Prasad Dwivedi’s essay, Nakhoon Kyun Badhte Hain (‘Why nails grow’), in which the author talks about nails being a sign of animal nature. “Badhte hain aur hum kaat ke mita dete hain – as the nails grow, we clip them, in the process pushing back the animal in us,” reflects Tripathi.

The very next moment he gets distracted by real animals – his pet dogs are back from their walk – making him say ruefully, kahani do track pe chali gayi (our story went on two different tracks). Then he ‘zooms’ back into our conversation.

Pankaj Tripathi in ‘Gurgaon’.

Tripathi’s ability to hold the audience’s interest was exploited to the hilt when he was a right-wing students’ union leader in Patna University in the 1990s. When he found himself in jail for a week following a local agitation, he spent time in the jail library. That was when he first read the works of the literary giant Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh and was introduced to Marxist ideas as well. He continues to draw inspiration from Muktibodh and other favourite authors like Phanishwar Nath Renu and Uday Prakash when it comes to the craft of acting.

In fact, in 2018, on a memorable evening organised on the theme of  ‘Sheher Mein Gaanv’ (village within a city), as Tripathi shared his experiences of a migrant’s quest to find a foothold in an alien city, it gave the audience a clue to the deep and varied reserves that nourish an artiste’s creativity.

The evening was part of a series of events, titled ‘Yun hi idhar udhar ki – Zindagi Live,’ with informal sessions (baithaks) devoted to prose, poetry, stories and music focused on specific themes. Tripathi talked about how he still carried a part of his village within him. 

Two years later he feels that he hasn’t drifted away from his roots:

“Paudha theek se apni jadon ko pakde hue rahe. Thode bahut aandhi toofan aayein to tika rah sakta hai. Mausam ki maar jhel sakta hai.”

(‘If a plant has strong roots, then it can withstand storms and inclement weather and remain standing.’) 

At the same time, the actor admits he loves Mumbai, his karmabhoomi, just as much –he has become a Mumbaikar, and has found the right balance in his identity spanning Bihar and Maharashtra. “When I land in Mumbai after being away for a month, it feels like I have come home,” he says.

What pulls him back to his village are his parents. “And the moment I reach the village, I turn into a rustic,” says the actor. That includes foregoing the toothbrush for neem ki datun. There must be a ‘software’ within him that allows for the quick switch and the lack of conflict between his two homes, he muses.   

Tripathi says his life can be divided into two halves – his first 25 years in the village and the next two decades in the metros of Delhi and Mumbai. Delhi, however, does not exercise the pull Mumbai has; the national Capital is more a source of memories and nostalgia – for Mandi House, Bengali Market, Purani Dilli and the glow of winters.

Also read: Painting a Talking Portrait of Old Delhi

Stories of migration and cultural memory fascinate the actor and he has been reading about the Girmitiya, or Jahajis, the indentured Indian labourers who were taken by the British almost a hundred years ago to Surinam, West Indies, Fiji and Mauritius. “Woh aaj bhi gaane gaate hain, Chutney music ke roop mein hai (They still sing songs in the form called Chutney music),” he says, referring to their mix of Bhojpuri and Caribbean music. Marvelling at the second migration which has happened from those places to countries like Netherlands and Poland, he exclaims, “What a journey! Their heritage, art and culture has been preserved. Even today that music is alive in another form.”

Closer home, what distressed him the most during the lockdown were the visuals of unending lines of migrant workers fleeing the cities and walking all the way back home, bereft of any support, a large proportion of them from his home state of Bihar. The way out, he says, is to strongly focus on the rural economy so that people are not forced to come to the metros in search of work. He has himself been involved with the khadi sector and says he wants to think about some initiative to address the migration issue. “It will take time, but I will do it,” he says

For now, he says, working in his field to the best of his ability is how he can give back to society. He has his own reasoning. Saying “I became an actor on the strength of the taxpayer’s money [at the NSD],” he insists that if he does not take his work seriously, it would be dishonouring the time and money that was spent on his education.

That can mean only one thing where the actor is concerned – an ongoing quest for good stories, films and roles anchored by  performances that seem to be crafted straight out of life. With Pankaj Tripathi relishing the challenge of yet again treading the fine line between minimalism and dreariness.

Namrata Joshi is an independent writer and well-known film critic. She is the author of Reel India: Cinema off the Beaten Track (Hachette, 2019).