Birthday special: Manoj Bajpayee talks about being away from family amid Covid-19 pandemic, winning National Award & more

He’s one of those rare actors who is able to rise over a weak script and enhance a good one. Rarely is Manoj Bajpayee out of sync with his character and just when you think you’ve seen it all, Satya’s Bhiku Mhatre manages to pull off another surprise, be it the applause-worthy Bhonsle, the intriguing Family Man or the just-released Silence. On Monday, as Mumbai tottered under the weight of a second surge of the Covid-19 pandemic, he posted a picture on his Instagram handle from Loha Ghat, Uttarakhand, which was so beautifully serene it seemed far removed from our crazy world where everything is shrouded in shades of grey. Blue sky, snow-capped peaks, lush green conifers and an escape from this nightmarish reality. Naturally, that prompts the first question to Manoj as he preps up for a long night of shooting …

What are you doing in Uttarakhand? Weren’t you there around this time last year too, stuck for weeks following the pandemic-induced lockdown?

Yes, last year, we had just started the shoot of a yet-untitled film being helmed by Thithi director Raam Reddy when the lockdown was announced. Some managed to return home, some like us were stuck near Nainital. We’ve returned to a small village in Uttarakhand, which is so cut off from civilisation that it is not even on the map for a month-and-a-half-long schedule of the same film. The producer has suffered huge losses because of the delay and we have to get the job done for him, and do it well. We are living in a bubble and following all the prescribed SOPs.

Is your family with you?

My wife (Neha) and daughter (Ava Nyla) were to join me, but Mumbai is going through a difficult time and they have had to stay back. There are friends there to help them out but it’s still worrisome. Last time they were there and that was reassuring. This visit to Uttarakhand is no longer about the Himalayas and its snow peaks... There’s a lot of anxiety and stress now. But I still think I am fortunate to be working everyday when so many back home haven’t been able to do so.

Doesn’t anxiety come in the way of work?

It can’t, you have to detach yourself from what is happening around you when you face the camera. But once it is switched off, you’re back to the here and now. Last year, the country and the world were grappling to understand what Corona is because we were battling it for the first time. This time, the virus is far more aggressive and dangerous. Just before you called, I was speaking to someone who needs blood and plasma desperately. So many people are reaching out for help on social media but despite our best efforts, we are helpless. The only way to deal with this pandemic is to stay home, be patient and know that this too shall pass.

You bring in your birthday today…

(Cuts in) Birthdays are for good times, when you are in a good place. Right now, it’s a crisis situation, and I don’t care for my birthday.

In these dark times the Best Actor National Award for Bhonsle must have come as a silver lining.

I can’t even begin to tell you how humbled and overwhelmed I feel. This film took four years to complete and at every step we struggled. Then, we had to struggle to get it to the audience. But once Sony Liv started streaming it, the views and the reviews have been just amazing for a small-budget indie film. It picked up a few mainstream awards on the way and now, the National Award has completed the journey for Bhonsle for me. I am so full of gratitude.

Will this coveted award give you the impetus to back projects like Bhonsle?  

For me, everything begins and ends with the script. If it is a good script, I will back it, 100 per cent. The last year has been good for me professionally, despite the pandemic. Apart from Bhonsle, Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari released in theatres and then on OTT where a lot more people watched it. The rap song in Bhojpuri that Anubhav and I brought out was also appreciated and even 1971, which hardly anyone saw before, has found a huge viewership on YouTube. Silence is equally successful and my web series, Family Man, which started streaming before the pandemic, has a cult following now. It’s incredible that people are watching this 10-episode series over and over again. It says a lot for the standards set by writer-producer-director duo Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK. There were no compromises and this backed with Amazon’s conviction has made Family Man a game-changer, it has changed the dynamics of OTT content. 

Birthdays are for good times, when you are in a good place. Right now, it’s a crisis situation, and I don’t care for my birthday.

When is season 2 of Family Man coming?

That’s a question everyone is asking but we have to wait for Amazon to announce the date. It will arrive soon.

What else is on the cards?

There’s Dial 100, an emotional thriller produced by Sony Pictures. It’s a story of one person, one call, one night. We shot it in just 18 days after the lockdown lifted. The people associated with the project, including Neena Gupta and Sakshi Tanwar are such remarkable talents. I am so proud of the end product.

Then, there’s Despatch, a direct-to-digital investigative thriller, helmed by award-winning writer-director Kanu Behl and produced by Ronnie Screwvala’s RSVP.

Followed by the Netflix series…

Yes, that’s an anthology based on Satyajit Ray’s stories. I have been shooting with Abhishek Chaubey with whom I did Sonchiriya earlier, for this one-hour film. Chaubey and Neeraj Pandey are filmmakers I can work with blindly. Also, Kanu Behl and Raam Reddy. My admiration for them is as huge as is my gratitude to the universe for giving me so much good work which will keep me busy for the next year-and-a-half.

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