‘At 24, I learnt that for the French, India is Satyajit Ray,’ says Manoj Bajpayee

Growing up in Bihar, Manoj Bajpayee admits that entertainment for him was mainstream Hindi cinema helmed by Amitabh Bachchan, Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha. It was only when he started doing theatre that he became aware in the midst of a Bachchan Tsunami that a different kind of indie cinema spearheaded by Satyajit Ray was also flourishing elsewhere in the country. “When I was 24, I went to Paris for a play. There, rehearsing with French boys and girls of my age, going out for coffee and drinks, I learnt to my surprise that for them India was Satyajit Ray,” reminisces the National Award-winning actor.

Back home in Mumbai, Manoj started accompanying friends from the stage, along with some intellectuals and cinephiles, to Ray festivals and retrospectives. “The first Satyajit Ray film I saw was Mahanagar and I have to admit that back then it was just a film for me. I was very young and I found the pace too slow. It was only after I started educating myself through conversations with directors and actors on his style of filmmaking, that I began to understand Mahanagar’s understated drama and humour, realised what a great film it is,” Manoj recounts, crediting Shyam Benegal for introducing him into this space through his films, along with Govind Nihalani and senior actors like Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri.

Along with Ray, he also started appreciating the works of Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen and later Kumar Shahani. A few friends also introduced him to world cinema. “Initially, I was baffled by Tarkovsky (Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky) and had to read up on what the greats were saying about his films,” Manoj says frankly, admitting that this journey in film appreciation was slow and gradual, and happened over years. “It was only much later, when watching No Man’s Land that I realised that this was the pace of life Ray had brought to the screen in Mahanagar and the reason Akira Kurosawa had worshipped the auteur.”

As he watched films like Shatranj Ke Khiladi and Pather Panchali, he grew to marvel at Ray’s interpretation and his empathetic treatment of the characters, his storyboard sketches, his framing of scenes, the poetry in some of his dialogue and his music, some of which he composed himself. “This learning was very similar to my education in classical music. It was theatre again that introduced me to Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, Kishori Amonkar and Kumar Gandharva. If you are doing theatre, it is imperative that you know classical music even if you are not a singer,” he points out.

When he was in college, Manoj had featured in a stage adaptation of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. When he saw Ray’s Ganashatru sourced in the same play, he realised just how amateurish that act had been. “The framing, characterisation and music is so amazing! And the best part of Mr Ray’s film is that he does not go into loud and direct political commenting. He focuses on the characters, their relationships with each other and the world they inhabit, and through them makes a subtle political comment,” he marvels.

Is there a character in a Ray film that he can see himself playing? “I can’t visualise myself in roles played to perfection by greats like Soumitra Chatterjee and Utpal Dutt. But I wish I could have been a part of one of his films. I enjoy working with such trendsetting directors. After I came into films, I personally approached young and revolutionary makers like Anurag Kashyap, Kanu Behl, Atanu Mukherjee, Ram Reddy and Abhishek Chaubey among others who moved beyond commerce to explore the medium of art,” he asserts.

Manoj has joined hands with his Sonchiriya director Abhishek Chaubey for a Ray anthology series streaming on Netflix later in the month, which is a modern retelling of Satyajit Ray’s stories. The segment featuring Manoj and Gajraj Rao is titled Hungama Hai Kyon Barpa.

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