Pankaj Tripathi On Pandemic Epiphanies, A Role That Changed His Life And One That He’s Most Ashamed Of

Ankur Pathak
·Entertainment Editor
·9-min read
Pankaj Tripathi (Photo: Sarika Gangwal)
Pankaj Tripathi (Photo: Sarika Gangwal)

It’s nearly the end of a year that has roiled Bollywood in more ways than one, and Pankaj Tripathi has already appeared in 3 movies.

Next week, he will be seen in the second season of Amazon Prime Video’s crime saga Mirzapur, where he plays the role of Akhandanand “Kaleen” Tripathi.

As I looked up the actor’s body of work ahead of this interview, I knew I had to ask him how he chooses his roles—and whether he’s convinced about all of them.

While he made his movie debut in 2004 as a minor character in Abhishek Bachchan’s Run, it’s after 2010 that Tripathi has done most of his work. In the past 10 years alone, Tripathi has appeared in a staggering 70 films and TV shows, averaging almost 7 appearances a year.

“At times, I’ve said yes to a project only because I wanted to hang out at the location where it was shot,” the 44-year-old says over a Zoom call.

The actor who almost always lifts any film that he’s in, knows that some of these movies may not be the most path-breaking but is clear about the different reasons for which he chooses them.

“I plan detailed itineraries once I know which location we’re going to be holed up in. I look up restaurants and museums and other sites of interest beforehand,” he chuckles. “Food is most important.”

Ahead of the release of Mirzapur S2, the actor spoke to HuffPost India about why he’s so prolific, discovering the joys of a break and his attraction towards complicated characters.

Edited excerpts:

How have the past few months been for you? Like some people, have you become over-productive? Or do you have a renewed respect for the joys of being lazy?

(Laughs) I’ve been spending time asking myself: what was I chasing for this long? What does that ‘end goal’ look like? Why was I working as much as I was? Now, I’ve decided to explore myself. I stay away from the city: I’m at Madh Island. So every evening I just go for a walk on a different road, discovering new nooks and crannies around. I’ve found my way back into boredom and laziness. You know what, since the past two years, I haven’t taken even a single day’s break. There’ve been months when I’ve worked 35 days: 30 days and 5 nights. This pandemic has given me pause. It’s made me respect the fact that the format of having a weekend is essential and must be honoured. I’m not doing any physical meetings, everything is on Zoom. There was some dubbing work to be done. Luckily, I found some sound engineers in my building who helped me with getting it done at home itself.

You’ve become quite prolific in recent years, doing as many as 5 films a year. Does the desire to be constantly seen come from the lack of visibility that you endured during your struggling days or the fear of oblivion?

When you are starving for a long time, you end up overeating, don’t you? Bhook lambi thi, to zyada kha gaya. And when you are hungry, even the most average food tastes like it’s the best meal you’ve ever had. For 10-12 years I was hunting for work and wouldn’t get much, so when I finally did, I admit I went a bit overboard.

It’s my great fortune that despite being so over-exposed in the past few years, my weaknesses as an actor—and there are plenty—haven’t been caught yet. Maybe it’s my experience in theatre that taught me how to camouflage it or the fact that I’ve consistently worked with very sharp directors who handle me well.

Holidays are essential, yaar. Zindagi mein jo sabse important cheez hai, woh hai zindagi. We end up losing sight of that.

After having dabbled in a bouquet of varied roles, what’s your chief incentive to choose a part now? Also, do you struggle to say no?

I’ll give you a simple answer which is also the honest answer: it’s always the people. Yes, there’ve been times when you’ve read the script and it isn’t the best piece of writing but you do ask yourself: Am i going to have a lot of fun working with these people? Is the time spent likely going to be memorable?

Then, there have been times when people who stood by me when I had nothing going for me have offered me work now when I’ve plenty of work. How do I say no to them? To me, that’s the hardest part. Hum gairat waley aadmi hain. Ehsaan toh chukayenge na ( ).

At times, you look at the credibility of the production house, the relationships you share, the broader picture. It’s a combination of factors that make a role work. When I’m stuck, I remind myself that I never planned my career, just organically went about it, so why should I do it now? The fear, of course is that it’ll become monotonous but the beauty of being an actor is that it’s unlikely: every character offers you a new world, a new reality, a new unit, a new set of people, a new story.

Pankaj Tripathi in a still from Mirzapur (Photo: HuffPost India )
Pankaj Tripathi in a still from Mirzapur (Photo: HuffPost India )

What’s the one aspect that attracted you most about the season 2 of Mirzapur?

It’s the writing. There are more layers, more complexity in this season. The crisis and the conflict are woven into the writing itself.Personally, I like this a lot better than the previous one. It’s a joy to perform complicated characters. Actors are such funny people. We want simple real lives and a complicated fictional one. Zindagi aasan hoti hai to maza aata hai, character mushkil hota hai to maza aata hai.

Acting as a job enriches your life in a way few other disciplines can. Through the lens of a fictional character you dive into a spectrum of emotions that you otherwise won’t feel as acutely in real life: happiness, pain, heartbreak, the highs, the thrills, the conflicts, the moral dilemmas. What other job can give you the opportunity to live viscerally through these characters without facing the real consequences of their actions?

Another factor I’d point out is empathy. As actors we’re constantly thinking about other characters. It fundamentally trains you in being more empathetic towards others.

Is there a role that you remember playing which changed something fundamental within you?

It’s hard to pin it down to one character. Every character adds to your experience. It’s never immediate. At times, I’ve realised it over a period of time how a character affected me. For instance, Gurgaon’s Kehri Singh haunted me a lot. His conflict stayed with me and from time to time, it’d present itself in my other real-life scenarios. More recently, my character as the father Anup Saxena in Gunjan Saxena stayed with me. Because I want to be a father like he was to Gunjan in my personal life. I want more of such fathers in our society. What I like about Kaleen bhaiyya (his character in Mirzapur) is his hypocrisy that encapsulates a wider reality: publicly he insists that women should be respected but he doesn’t quite live up to the same values when it matters the most: in private with his wife. It’s a nice nuance of contradiction. Yes, he’s patriarchal. But he wants to be seen as someone else. Isn’t that true for most of us?

Oh, right. We’ve ‘Beti Padhao, Beti Bachao’ campaigns and it’s out there for everybody to see how much of it is a lip-service.

You know, when I speak to my non-actor friends from the village who’ve now moved to various cities across the country, I realise how far I’ve come from what I used to be. They’re still caught up with the same worldviews. I am not. And I truly believe it’s a result of watching all sorts of cinema, consuming literature, travelling extensively and being in the company of bright, critical, thinking individuals. It has been a journey of unlearning. And everyone thinks of themselves as having the right opinion. Nobody admits to being the villain. Unless they’re really, really clever.

As an actor what are your biggest insecurities?

This is a very difficult question to answer. Okay, let me say it simply: the fear that my weakness as a performer will be exposed through a role. Another fear connected to the same line of thought is that I won’t be able to internalise a role with depth and gravitas and end up doing a superficial job of it. But that’s also a grey area: at times you feel you’re winging it while others go waah-waah. At times, you put in your best and nobody quite notices it too much. So it’s an endless conundrum.

I used to be insecure about something else before but now that’s faded away.

Do say!

I’d be consumed with frustration for not getting covered by the media. Now, of course, I am on the other side. I’m like, ‘please don’t write about me’. At all! You know, there are actors who are ‘spotted’ outside the gym. I always say this line: to enter the hearts of your audience, you don’t have to run on a treadmill. Sirf screen pe acche se spot ho jao. Audience will automatically give you a place in their hearts. It’s taken me years to have this perspective. I used to be so jealous of those who’d get printed in Page 3 but now I’ve realised it’s all for vanity. The focus should always be on craft. Rest everything follows.

Is there a performance of yours that you are embarrassed by and cannot bear to watch?

There was a DD show called Chaudah Phere that I acted in. I was terrible. I recently re-watched it and was so ashamed of that performance. The show in itself wasn’t bad. I was the one who was bad in the show. I was acting purely from my tongue. Throwing lines without emotion. There was nothing within me. And imagine, this was after I had graduated from National School of Drama. But then after watching it, I realised my own graph. From where I began, to where I’ve reached. A core understanding has been the knowledge that acting isn’t wrestling, your co-actor isn’t your opponent who you need to win against. Many make that mistake. It is a delicate dance. You need to come together to communicate the writer and director’s vision.

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This article originally appeared on HuffPost India and has been updated.