Underdog to primary character: Decoding Pankaj Tripathi's rise to fame and what makes him stand out
He is the star among a new wave of actors who brings experience and essence of India’s reality, reducing the distance from the Bollywood bubble and rise of less self-referential storytelling.
When luck suck everyone f*ck, says Pankaj Tripathi aka Sattu Bhaiya in the colourful Ludo on Netflix. Well, there’s nothing wrong with Pankaj Tripathi’s luck. He’s had an exceptional year even by his own recent standards.
A role in Netflix’s global action film Extraction, based in India but shot in Bangladesh; important parts in Gul Makai, Angrezi Medium, Gunjan Saxena, Ludo, as well as the yet-to-be-released 83; and a much-appreciated return as the fierce but mostly silent strong man of Mirzapur, Kaleen Bhaiya. Despite the lockdown, the next year looks equally busy, with Mimi, Kaagaz and Romeo.
About time too. Tripathi, 44, has been in training for stardom for several years, beginning with a, by now, well-publicised hotel management degree from Institute of Hotel Management, Hajipur; a two-year stint as chef in Maurya, Patna; almost a year as a shoe wholesaler; and then finally a coveted diploma from the National School of Drama (NSD).
Along with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, his older colleague from NSD, he is part of a group of character actors who have made it from the margins to the mainstream, going from roles as hero’s best friend and heroine’s uncle, to parallel leads.
Once used as garnishing for typical Bollywood entertainers, they have gradually taken over the plot, leading from the front, rather than wilting by the sidelines. With websites dedicating entire segments to his best dialogues and finest scenes, the little boy from Belsand in Gopalganj has become the king of Bollywood’s scene-stealers.
The democratisation of talent mirrors the diversity of ethnicities and accents in Mumbai cinema, the stories they tell, as well as the talent behind the scenes. Actors and performers from small-town north India, the hinterland, are increasingly finding a place onscreen. The industry itself, notes film scholar from the University of Hyderabad, Hrishikesh Ingle, has become embedded in popular culture. Earlier, he says, access to the actor’s screen persona was limited to the local cinema hall, film posters, and magazines/newspapers.
But since the 2000s, the performance of an actor is broadcast in multiple ways, from conventional theatre screens, to streaming services, to advertisements, to events, and to social media. This has led to the increasing demand from the film industry for actors who can provide a certain local authenticity, especially for the north Indian spaces depicted in films. This is also a kind of stereotyping, but Tripathi, Siddiqui, Manoj Bajpayee, who broke through before them in Satya (1998), Piyush Mishra and Richa Chadha, are actors who have an unmistakable connection with the local.
They have this characteristic performative ability to fit into serious, witty, or specific roles quite easily. The stereotyping is also a factor in screenwriters developing moments that are sarcastic when spoken or performed with a regional flair. This is a spatial fix, points out Ingle, which was also observed in the 1970s, when actors like Om Puri could evoke a special sense and smell of the earth.
The minor characters with their local quirks and regional eccentricities have attracted audience attention and expanded in scope as a result.
It happened with Siddiqui. He began as a minor character actor in movies such as Peepli Live (2010) and slowly grew as he got more screen time.
Tripathi, says Ingle, has similarly turned the peripheral into the central focus of the story, an indication of the significance of the social space that was earlier left out from mainstream films and which found representation through the work of filmmakers such as Anurag Kashyap and actors such as the late Irrfan Khan.
Call it the move from Bandra to Varanasi, from Juhu to Gopalganj. Bollywood went vocal for local long before Prime Minister Narendra Modi articulated it.
Ask an actor like Shweta Tripathi who has shot two seasons of Amazon Prime’s hit series Mirzapur in and near Varanasi.
“I have three more shoots in Varanasi coming up,” says the one-time Delhi girl. “My friends tell me I might as well buy a home there.” Casting director-turned-filmmaker Honey Trehan recalls choosing Tripathi for Vishal Bharadwaj’s Omkara.
He says, “I remember when he came to Mumbai, he called me and the first thing I asked him was ‘where are you right now?’ He said, ‘Guruji, Prithvi Theatre ke aage kahin famous parathe milte hain wohi khane aaya hoon (I have come to eat the famous parathas outside Prithvi Theatre).’ I asked him to finish and come to the office to meet me and Omkara happened.”
It wasn’t much of a role—a gang member, to whom Omi, on the cusp of becoming a baahubali (strongman) delivers these lines: ‘Sharat ghodon par lagate hain, shero par nahin (you bet on horses, not on lions).’
Omi was played by Ajay Devgn. In this life, it may well be Tripathi, who was not even allowed the dignity of using his own voice in his first walk-on part in Jeeva’s Run (2004) opposite Vijay Raaz, yet another fine character actor whose career has unfortunately been chequered by charges of drug use. In Lakshya, Tripathi’s character didn’t even see the light of day, completely excised from the final cut.
Tripathi remembers going to auditions and being told by casting directors how to do a scene.
“I would wonder why they’re doing that. They seemed more interested in how I would do the scene, rather than how I would act or whether I even knew how to act,” he says. Tripathi has often seemed droll on screen, with a sense of immaculate timing. Even in Kaleen Bhaiya’s most fiendish character, he can find some hilarity. “Hum darshan karne aaye hain (I have come to pay my respects to you),” says a rotund police officer. “Kyun kya hum shivling hain (Why, am I a god)?” answers Kaleen Bhaiya. Or in Gangs of Wasseypur, where his ruthless Sultan Qureshi says, “Yeh Wasseypur hai! Yahan kabootar bhi ek pankh se udta hai aur doosre se apni izzat bachata hai (This is Wasseypur, even pigeons are fearful of their modesty here).” Or in Newton, where Atma Ram says, “Voting machine ek khilone jaisa hai. Joh pasand aaye, achha lage, woh button daba do (the voting machine is like a toy, you can press whatever button you wish).”
Fortunately, the sense of humour is very much part of his reality. It has sustained him through some tough times.
He was in the wilderness that is the lot of the small-town actor in Bollywood until Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012, sustained by his craft and the salary from his teacher wife, who is now his manager.
“I didn’t even know that Sultan Qureshi’s character in Gangs of Wasseypur had been noticed,” says Tripathi. That was until fellow actor Gautam Rode told him that he should capitalise on it when they met in the gym—“I was told you need to go to the gym,” says Tripathi, explaining his presence in such a prosaic place.
“I was not on social media then so had no idea that Sultan had become a cult hit.” By the time Amit Masrukar’s Newton hit the screens in 2017, he was made aware of his fan-following.
Masrukar, the director of Newton, says, “Tripathi knew people like the paramilitary commander Atma Singh and based it on them. He enjoyed sitting on a khatiya in the forest (while waiting for his shots) instead of spending time in the vanity van. Also we had two consultants, an army trainer, Yakub Khan, and a retired paramilitary officer, Sahu Sir.
He spent time with them.” Tripathi’s directors love him. Karan Ashuman, who directed him in Mirzapur Season 1, says the factors that fuel most actors to be the best are common: a hunger for success, a myriad of insecurities, and a yearning for acceptance. How much of this side they let out in public is directly proportional to the amount of success they’ve had. “I don’t think Tripathi is very different,” he says.
“Not that I know him too well. We’ve rarely met outside of work. I try to not let the line between professional and social blur with actors because I’ve found that directing friends takes the spark and the surprise element out of the process.
But I do know he’s got this mimetic ability to be who he needs to be once the camera rolls. The juggernaut of rehearsals, prep, discussions might all come to naught at this point, as he grapples for inspiration in the moment. From where he gets it, I don’t know. But it feels like a lightning strike when he owns the character. But once he does (and he always does), when he finds that perfect note, when he knows he’s got it (and the director knows he’s got it), he holds on to it with such fierce consistency that the slightest shifts only serve to elevate his performance.”
This is most obvious in some of his showiest performances as in Mirzapur, Newton or Amar Kaushik’s 2018 sleeper hit Stree, where his character of whisky-swigging librarian Rudra Bhaiya was a hoot every time he explained the rules of boys resisting the lure of the female ghost.
Raj Nidimoru, who produced Stree, says Tripathi is a natural and grounded actor, who has an extreme command over language—important in an industry that is increasingly forgetting the art of speaking Hindi.
“Given a specific or banal set of instructions, Tripathi would interpret it in a slightly different way and most of the times it would put a smile on your face,” he says.
Case in point: “Sabka Aadhaar link uske pass hai (She has everyone’s Aadhar link),” referring to the Stree ghost. He takes every word off the page and goes beyond what the writer or director has imagined for that scene. And watching this is like seeing magic. It’s thrilling. And this is what makes him great.
Or as Tripathi puts it: “It’s the sum total of all your experiences in life. Your reading, your travel, your situation, your life.” Then, it’s merely you and the camera, he adds. And how you want to work with the ingredients decides the dish, he says, speaking like the chef he once was: “You can dice, slice, julienne the vegetables.” It helps to create a variety of characters, from the progressive fathers of Bareilly ki Barfi (2017) and this year’s Gunjan Saxena, to the comical Panditji of the Fukrey franchise (2013 and 2017), to menacing, lead characters in movies and shows such as Gurgaon (2017) and Mirzapur. As Janhvi Kapoor, his co-star in Gunjan Saxena, says, “He is even more relaxed in front of the camera than he is off it, if possible.”
Actor as star
But what happens to the actor when he becomes a star? When the distance between the real lived experience and the ivory tower existence widens and becomes a yawning chasm. Tripathi laughs at that and says gently that his wife recently replaced the sofas in their home.
“But there was something that needed to be fixed, so I called up the sofa mistri (carpenter). I asked my wife later which actor in Bollywood do you think must be having his sofa mistri’s number on speed dial,” he says. There are other ways Tripathi stays connected to the man who came to Mumbai from NSD.
He is a great observer of people, even animals. His two Labradors, Ginny and Prince, adopted because no one else wanted to take care of them, are his subjects too. Ginny, he is sure, will start a conversation with him someday.
“She is already well on the way to conversing with me soon,” he says with a hearty laugh. Tripathi speaks only in Hindi, in a slow leisurely fashion with an innate smile buried deep inside him. The lockdown allowed him to read a lot in Hindi, something he never enjoyed when he was studying. He read Awara Masiha, a biography by Vishnu Prabhakar on Sarat Chandra Bandopadhyay; proponents of ‘nai-wali Hindi’ such as Satya Vyas, Nilotpal Mrinal, Divya Prakash Dubey; and Anu Singh Choudhury’s village stories.
“They write in an easy, conversational style, which I like very much,” says Tripathi, one of the few stars to headline two stellar shows for rival networks Netflix and Amazon Prime, Sacred Games and Mirzapur. Even when he would hang out with security guards at the offices of filmmakers as a newcomer, Tripathi never felt out of place in the film industry. “Mujhe apni type ki jagah lagi (I felt it was my type of place),” he says. He calls himself an overnight success who has spent many unaccounted-for nights in the dark.
Fame is a fickle friend, he knows that. “It is not easy to get audiences to love you. It takes time, effort and hard work. But it is all too easy to get them to fall out of love. Especially in an age where everyone’s a critic and believes that ‘mera theek tumhare theek se zyada theek hai’.”
The emergence of streaming services has meant a more colourful narrative has taken root, leading to the rise of the subaltern star across genres and demographics. It could be Radhika Apte who briefly became the poster girl for Netflix with shows such as Sacred Games and anthologies such as Lust Stories, or Siddiqui who was the star of Sacred Games and then a series of films on streaming services during lockdown such as Raat Akeli Hai and Serious Men. Movies that reference other movies and actors whose life experience revolves around the worlds constructed by their moms and dads will continue, but so will sharper fiction that can easily pass off as social commentary.
‘Acting is like Cooking’
Pankaj Tripathi is almost as accomplished at his interviews as he is in his scripted roles. Each interview is a conversation full of knowledge, practical and literary, with the added advantage of humour. Here he talks to Kaveree Bamzai on the similarities between the work of a chef and an actor, and the forces that transported him from Belsand, Gopalganj, in Bihar, to stardom in Mumbai.
What goes into making a character like the recent Sattu Bhaiya in Ludo?
Trust between the director and actor. Given that I was playing an internalised gangster in Kaleen Bhaiya, I had to play Sattu Bhaiya as flamboyant. His dress—the leather jacket, kurta, dhoti, revolver tucked into his garter, and his song. It’s pretty much what Dada (Anurag Basu) imagined. Just as a chef I can decide to chop, dice and julienne the vegetables, I can vary the ingredients of acting required. But a lot of it has to do with the director. Until I watched Ludo, I didn’t even realise that Dada had a black and white colour scheme in mind for Sattu Bhaiya.
When did you realise you’d become famous?
After I’d done Gangs of Wasseypur, I remember going into the gym one day and meeting actor Gautam Rode. He told me I should go to every film production office now and just get in. I wasn’t on social media then. I didn’t have a smartphone and didn't’ read trade papers either. It was only after I played Atma Ram in Newton in 2017 that producers started calling me. Between 2017 and 2019, I worked on auto-pilot, 340 days of the year. It takes a long time for the audience to be attracted to you but very little time for that aura to end.
Do you enjoy your fame?
Yes, I’m happy that people know me for my craft. It is humbling.
What else are the ingredients of an actor?
All the experiences he has had to the point he stands in front of the camera—all the literature he has read, the travelling he has done, the situations he has found himself in. You have to first live your life before you can live another’s.
Doesn’t fame distance you from reality?
No. I observe even my Labradors and how they behave. My wife recently replaced the sofas in our home, and there was something wrong with them. So I had a long conversation with my sofa mistri about it. Which actor in Bollywood do you think has a carpenter’s number on his speed dial?
What Pankaj Tripathi's co-stars feel about him:
“He’s got this mimetic ability to be who he needs to be once the camera rolls. From where he gets it, I don’t know. But it feels like a lightning strike when he owns the character.”
Karan Anshuman, Director
“Given a specific or banal set of instructions, Tripathi would interpret it in a slightly different way and most of the times it would put a smile on your face.”
Raj Nidimoru, Producer
“He is even more relaxed in front of the camera than he is off it, if possible.”
Janhvi Kapoor, Actor
The Rise of the Subaltern:
The year 2020 has been a particularly good year for the small star. Marginal characters have suddenly become mainstream with expanded storylines and different ethnicities.
Former assistant director, the Delhi Public School RK Puram student’s role as avenging angel Golu Gupta in Mirzapur Season 2, co-starring Vikrant Massey in Arati Kadav’s highly rated Cargo and working with half of Bollywood’s new wave in Honey Trehan’s moody thriller Raat Akeli Hai has elevated her.
Gully Boy’s standout mother was an irritating neighbour in Anurag Kashyap’s Choked and will be seen in Netflix’s much-anticipated series Bombay Begums. The veteran Marathi film and theatre actress is a graduate of the National School of Drama.
The Surat-born trained engineer and Gujarati theatre actor stunned everyone with his confident portrayal of Harshad Mehta in Hansal Mehta’s Scam 1992. A financial thriller, which also doubled as a slice of history in the SonyLIV series, it was one of the finest to hit the streaming screen this year, justifying his decision to finally give up his day job as a consultant.
From the 2008 acting batch of Film and Television Institute of India, which also had the talented Rajkummar Rao and Vijay Verma, the Rohtak, Haryana-born actor comes from the Anurag Kashyap school of filmmakers and was one of the many talents on display in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). But his breakout as a lead came with Amazon Prime’s darkly brilliant Paatal Lok.
The Punjab-born school dropout was supposedly the least successful of the trio in Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che! (2013) based on Chetan Bhagat’s Three Mistakes of My Life. Co-star Rajkummar Rao has kept up a steady pace of character-driven leads while Sushant Singh Rajput’s rising star ended tragically. Sadh has been doing a series of streaming shows steadily and quietly but finally won wide applause with his return as the enigmatic police officer Kabir Sawant in Amazon Prime’s Breathe and tough soldier in SonyLIV’s Avrodh.