By Apurva Asrani
In a nepotistic film industry, where star children irrespective of talent or looks have the inside route to becoming movie stars, there is much respect for the “outsider” who made it on their terms. Today I pay homage to two phenomenal male actors with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working closely—Manoj Bajpayee and Rajkummar Rao.
It was the Summer of 1997; I was all of 19, and had been enlisted by Ramgopal Varma to edit Satya (1998)- a film on the Bombay underworld. In the days leading up the shoot, I got a chance to bond with the actors in Varma’s suburban Bombay home. That is where I met Manoj for the first time. He was a lanky, curly haired young man, with an infectious laugh and intense eyes that arrested you on first contact. He had done small roles in significant films like Bandit Queen (1994) and Drohkaal (1994), but his restless energy conveyed an incredible talent that was yet to be harnessed.
Manoj refused to wear a cloak of self-importance that is usually associated with actors, and this made him very approachable. He submitted himself totally to Anurag Kashyap and Saurabh Shukla’s affable gangster character, and he gave Bhiku Mhatre a heart that he wore—to a fault—on his sleeve.
As an editor, I often look to follow the protagonist’s energy while pacing the narrative. And even though a brooding Satya was the titular role, it was Bhikhu Mhatre’s restless, nervous energy that I found most attractive. When I look back at my process, I think the frenetic pace and jumpy cuts bear allegiance to Manoj’s performance, more than any other. I remember watching the rushes of Satya and being absolutely blown away by the spontaneity of the actor. You just never knew which direction he would take the scene in.
In one scene Bhikhu slaps his wife (played by the terrific Shefali Chhaya) for being rude, and she glares at him angrily. Now you’re expecting Manoj, the ruthless gangster, to maintain a brutish character, but instead, he melts. Not only is he afraid of her wrath, he actually seems turned on by it. His wife hits him back and he takes it, laughing and cuddling her.
Manoj and I also bonded as friends and I would often pick him up on my scooter and take him to the set or the office, chatting excitedly about new scenes in the film. I once forced him to come to a gay party, where he giggled nervously as boys pinched his bottom. Not once did he display a shred of disgust or disrespect, he was curious and observed the goings-on. Little did I know that 18 years later we would make a film where he would play a gay man.
In 2011, I had returned to Bombay after two years of a self-imposed exile. Hansal Mehta (who Manoj had introduced me to in 1999) was making a film after years, and he insisted that I cut it. This new film, then titled ‘Based On a True Story’ was about a young pro bono lawyer who was assassinated in 2010. Hansal had a sketchy script outline but knew who he wanted to cast—a new actor named Rajkummar Rao.
Raj had payed character parts in LSD (2010), Shaitan (2011) and Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012) and I had recently seen his ‘spirited’ performance in the horror film, Ragini MMS 2 (2011). He was by far one of the most exciting and virile talents out there, but nobody had imagined him as the protagonist who could headline a film yet.
Two days after I moved to Bombay to work on the film, I went shopping to a mall. Across the denim wear section, I saw this lanky boy with big hair, politely talking to the sales staff. I called up Hansal and said, ‘your actor is here, what’s his name again?’. “Rajkummar,” Hansal replied, ‘go say Hi”. I did, and Raj hugged me warmly. His eyes gleamed with excitement to see a new team come together to make a film he richly deserved.
We struggled hard for almost two years to make and release Shahid (2013) a film that put Raj on the map, and gave many floundering careers a new lease of life. Like Manoj, Raj is also an extremely spontaneous actor. But he belongs to the digital generation – one that has redefined stardom to include regular people who play by their own rules.
Rajkummar’s style is quite different from Manoj’s. He has an assuming quality – the guy next door that you could meet while out shopping; someone who will listen when you speak. This is a quality that, in my opinion, makes for the best kind of actor. He doesn’t act, he reacts. He is that rare actor, absorbing everything his co-actor is saying or doing, without feeling the burning need to say his own lines. That level of grace and security is a quality seldom seen in mainstream actors, and that is probably what makes Rajkummar so sought after today.
It is hard to edit actors like Rajkummar, as they give you their best with each take. In Shahid, there is a crucial courtroom scene where the protagonist’s final submission wins the case. Shahid almost breaks down in the scene because, like his innocent client, he too had been wrongly imprisoned. While there was a palpable choking in his voice, Rajkummar held back his tears. Each one of the three takes was pure gold, and on the table, I found myself confused about which one to choose. I mean it’s not often that one gets the opportunity to edit great actors on the cusp of stardom. It gave me a great sense of responsibility.
That evening Raj came to my studio to watch another scene I had cut. He had none of the airs of greatness that I had been attributing to him while watching the rushes. He first nervously saw the scene, and then asked to see it again, before getting up to squeeze my shoulder excitedly. He seemed to be in awe of the editing process and of my skills. Before leaving, he asked permission to hold the Filmfare Award that I had won for editing Satya. ‘Wow! This is really heavy’ he said beaming proudly. ‘I hope one day even I win one’.
There was no more doubt. I went with my instinct, and chose the right take for the scene. It was the subtlest of the three, and turned out extremely powerful in the final film. Never did the director, nor Raj, ever question my choices. Raj eventually won the Filmfare (critics) award for Shahid.
If I got the chance to edit Manoj in his breakthrough film, and then Raj in his, I enjoyed the double bonanza of having them both star in Aligarh (2016), my debut film as a writer. This one was special on so many counts, especially because the characters that came from a place in my heart were being brought to life by actors who were not just brilliant, but also wonderful human beings. It would be an understatement to say that they interpreted the characters in ways I could never imagine.
The tenderness and simplicity that Manoj brought to Siras goes far beyond the pages of the script. His powerful eyes would twinkle sharply even in Satya Rai Nagpaul’s most muted frames. His performance while listening Lata Mangeshkar’s Aapki Nazaron Ne Samjha with a glass of whisky in his hand will go down as my proudest cinematic collaboration in 23 years. And to think that that scene had just a two-line description in the script.
As for Raj’s work, it is probably the most generous performance I have seen in my career. To be at the top of your game (he had won the National Award the precious year) and to accept a role that is not author-backed takes a special kind of courage and understanding. Raj gave his all to the film, but he always looked up to Manoj and his performance with awe.
He listened sincerely in the scenes where he, as the reporter, interviews the reluctant gay professor. He transformed his character from an ambitious rookie to a sensitive man who wanted nothing but justice for his friend. He never forgot that there was a bigger context to the film (it was still illegal to be gay in India when we made it). He wanted people to fall in love with the protagonist, and gave his faith, heart and rapt attention to Manoj. Even though there can hardly be a match for Manoj’s phenomenal performance, Raj’s work was hailed and appreciated in respectful tones.
And to think that many moons ago, Manoj played the supporting part to the titular Satya—with an equal amount of grace. Life had indeed come a full circle.
Illustrations by Nishant Saldanha