“I am a simple man. I love buying potatoes and tomatoes,” says the real Manoj Bajpayee

Son of a farmer, Manoj says buying vegetables helps him connect with the outside world and that keeps him rooted. He is someone who likes to keep it simple and he loves to laugh at himself

Neelesh Misra
| Updated: Last updated on June 11th, 2021,

“Banat banat ban jaai” (things happen in a flow), said my friend Manoj Bajpayee at the end of a nice and “slow” interview. He is someone who has a strong Gaon Connection and so, naturally, we gel well. We have many things in common – just like me, he hates limelight, he hates attending parties, he is an introvert and likes to keep it simple. But still, it was a delight to discover a whole new Manoj Bajpayee, who opened up like never before

Me: I have lived in Mumbai for many years. It is easy to be in front of cameras, or attend press conferences or to wear a mask while attending meetings. How did you manage to save yourself from all this?

Manoj: It is very easy, but very difficult at the same time. We have very limited needs. My wife and I took a decision early on that we will not multiply our needs. It is very important to protect yourself. We decided that we will not work to fulfil our needs. We will not work to pay our instalments. We will work for our happiness and comfort. However, we will not kill our desires. If we feel like taking our daughter to Switzerland, we will go. But I will not drag myself to work because I want to go to Switzerland. I like to keep it simple. If my wife asks me to buy tomatoes on my way back from shooting, I stop and buy tomatoes.

Me: Do you still buy tomatoes?

Manoj: My driver will tell you when was the last time I bought tomatoes! My vegetable vendor knows me. She knows what to offer me. She does not take me for granted. She knows that I am a son of a farmer! She knows I can distinguish between fresh vegetables and those kept in cold storage.

Me: Wow! Amazing! So, this is how you have been protecting yourself!

Manoj: Yes! I enjoy it. I like to keep it simple. Let me tell you something very honestly. It’s very difficult to pretend. I recognised this early on. This is the reason why I don’t attend parties. You have to pretend a lot at parties. Secondly, I am too lazy to decide what clothes to wear! I fail when it comes to this!

Me: I can understand that!

Manoj: It suffocates me. My fashion designer keeps telling me to get over my denim and shirts. He says, “Sir, please don’t do this.” But I can’t help it! Poor fellow, he has no idea where he is stuck!

Me: I have also worked with many creative people. Do you sometimes feel that we are privileged? That we are different? That we are unique? Don’t ask us to buy tomatoes! Although you are an exception! But do you sometimes feel that the world should leave us alone and let us do what we want to do?

Manoj: I feel happy when I buy tomatoes. Don’t call me for interviews! I will go all the way to Bandra to buy potatoes and tomatoes, but do not ask me to attend any social gatherings. Don’t invite me anywhere as a speaker. I don’t feel comfortable when I have to attend felicitation ceremonies, or address gatherings or to be a keynote speaker. It annoys me when I have to share my experiences or talk about myself or unnecessarily educate people. This happens probably because I don’t talk much. I believe each person has his own journey. That person will struggle and deal with his issues on his own. My words or me saying something is not going to solve his problems. Maybe my presence will make people in a gathering happy because I am an actor, but more than that my presence is not going to yield anything. For the reason, I run away from such gatherings. I feel very uncomfortable when I have to pretend to be someone I am not. Acting in movies and living a character in itself is quite exhausting. So, it is even more difficult to entertain others as Manoj Bajpai. I don’t mind buying vegetables for home. I believe it connects me with the outside world. But I feel I don’t fit in social gatherings.

Me: You play these serious characters in movies. But I have heard that you like to laugh at yourself and others.

Manoj: Earlier, I used to be very serious. Although I am an introvert, but now I have learned how to crack jokes when I am amid people and lighten up social gatherings. When I came to Mumbai, I could not express myself. I could not tell people who I was, what I wanted to be, what were my abilities or what I wished to become? Not just Mumbai, each city is demanding. All the cities push you in a competitive zone. After joining the film industry, I realised very late this is an “industry” and soon after you arrive at Mumbai Central, you don’t have an option but to start selling yourself; be it your art or your skill.

Me: Yes, absolutely! Manoj: When I realized that, I started working on myself, and it was then I learnt how to make fun of myself. It helped me to speak freely. You are right, I make fun of myself. I make fun of my friends as well. Sometimes they become serious, but soon they realize that I do that to lighten the atmosphere and so that they also become free. Me: Not taking yourself too seriously …

Manoj: It is very important, especially in the time and age that we are living in.

Me: Like you said, you make fun of yourself. Who is real Manoj Bajpai?

Manoj: Who is Manoj Bajpai … you have asked a brilliant question. Who is Manoj Bajpai? … He is someone who is an introvert and is trying to figure out the mysteries of life and death. You may find it weird, but I have been thinking about it since childhood and I still think about it. It started when as an eight-year-old I saw my aunt pass away. That was the first time I saw someone die. Since then I have been wondering …

Me: What was that question?

Manoj: When I saw her die, it shook me up. Since then began this search for meaning of life and death. If there is death after we have lived our life, they what is life? It’s the same Manoj Bajpayee who is living a luxurious life now thanks to the Almighty. It’s the same Manoj Bajpayee, who is basically a village boy who yearns to visit his home in his village every week.

Me: Oh … really?

Manoj: I will not say anything just to impress you! I keep telling my wife that I would have gone back to my village had I not married or if I didn’t have a daughter. But she says I would never be able to do that because I am someone who is stuck between my ambitions and my village. Maybe this is the truth.

Me: It’s good to see that there are a few people who are not disconnected from their roots. And it’s good to see that you understand the tussle between your ambition and your village.

Manoj: My spiritual mentor says that my purpose is something else. I don’t know what that is. Even he does not tell me. I used to believe that acting is my life’s purpose. But apparently, it’s something else. Maybe I will find about it later on. But the reality is, the one who is constantly trying to figure that out is the real Manoj Bajpayee. The one who is trapped between his ambition and his roots … is the real Manoj Bajpayee.

Me: When I started my radio journey, I remember this moment. I also do live story telling. I was in Kota. I was in the green room. Some 2,000 people were sitting outside and they were calling out my name. I could hear that. It was very overwhelming and I didn’t know how to deal with it … because an introvert. I don’t have any stage fear, but if a room-full of people are talking about me, I want to sit in a corner and listen to them and not be amid them. But after a certain point, you can’t sit among people. This publicity comes with a price. So, how do you deal with this now.

Manoj: It’s very contradictory. I have noticed that in me. I have very few friends, not many. My daughter has started pointing things out to me. She asks, “Papa, why didn’t you take selfie with that person?” I dislike taking selfies because when I do that, the other person comes very close to me. I don’t like that. That is my perspective. I don’t enjoy this proximity with a stranger.

Me: Like, there is a kind of sanctity?

Manoj: Sanctity … and space. Sometimes, I give them selfies. My daughter has made it a habit to ask me, “Papa, was he nice?” When I tell her why would she ask that, she says: “You gave him a selfie!”. So, I tell her: “Yes, he was nice. He asked for a selfie and I gave him.”. Sometimes she asks: “Papa, was he not nice? You didn’t give him a selfie.” So, I have to tell her: “But I don’t even know him!” It was then I realised that she used to think I gave selfies to only those whom I liked! Then I told myself that I have to work on this. It’s work in progress. I don’t belong to that culture. I get uncomfortable. Well, I would like to apologise to all those with who I didn’t click selfies!

Me: Was there any particular moment when you realized that you had become famous?

Manoj: It happened after Satya. That moment came to me all of a sudden. I believe that Amjad Khan was the only person who experienced a moment like Satya. He became popular after the success of Sholay. Similarly, Bhiku Mhatre clicked with the audience and I became famous all of a sudden. I couldn’t comprehend what was happening. It was like a lightning bolt. People were admiring my work in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This hype lasted for a year. There wasn’t a moment really.

Me: After tasting this success, there came a time when you faced failures.

Manoj: When I made my debut in 1998, that year belonged to Satya. Even on Google search, it topped the list. But that was the time period when the Khans ruled the industry. Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgan were leading actors. People like me were considered outsiders. I was the lone outsider. There was a lone Ram Gopal Verma. Shekher Kapoor came and made one Bandit Queen, after which he went abroad. Then from the South, there was a lone Mani Ratnam. Nobody would make films for us. I would sit at home, alone. But I had made up my mind that I would not play a villain in commercial films and would work on my own terms. I would get many offers. That was the time you would get money in cash, in a suitcase. I used to live in a rented apartment in a city like Mumbai. My father was a farmer and I came from a typical middle-class family. The responsibility to settle my six brothers and sisters was on me. If anyone needed the money, it was me. So, it was difficult to live in a rented apartment and say to no to that money and, at the same time, to stick to the goal I had set for myself. I think people should applaud me that I survived that phase! I think I deserve some credit. I think I made a small contribution in getting work for actors and directors like me who were outsiders, but extremely sure of what they wanted to do.

Me: You are a very simple man, aren’t you?

Manoj: I would die if I complicate issues. It would be very difficult to deal with those complications then. I am an actor so I can pretend to be complicated, but that would be very exhausting.

Me: When you said ‘no’ to people who offered you films, were you able to distinguish between who your real friends were and who were your ‘friends’? Did people stop being your friends?

Manoj: I lost many friends. But, at the same time, many people became my friends. I witnessed that transition. I have always been a very sensitive person. So, it’s not difficult for me to notice changes in behavior. It’s easy for someone like me, who has been pondering about life and death cycle since childhood. So, people are always standing naked in front of me. I never point fingers at anyone, I simply move on. This is how life goes on. I was not getting the kind of films I wanted to do or my films were not working because it wasn’t an era for such films. I remember someone interviewed me for Filmfare. I was asked where did I see myself five years from then. I replied: “I see myself going down the hill.” They were quite surprised. I remember telling them that kind of films I did, were not blockbusters and not all films were like Satya. Those who were expecting blockbusters from me were getting disappointed, because I refused to do what they were expecting me to do. And I did go down the hill in the next seven years. Many things changed then. Many people went out of my life. These were those who were in my inner circle. Even they went away.

Me: So, you did loose friends …

Manoj: When I notice change in people’s behavior, I distance myself from them. I am a loner. I like isolation. This is a part of my personality. So, many people distanced themselves from me when my career went down. Some of them are successful now. It comes as a surprise to me that some of them don’t even acknowledge the fact that I am responsible for their success. I was watching an interview of Salim Khan sahib the other day. He said something very important – that a person who is thankful is that most genuine person, because he is generous enough to thank you without you asking for it. He will recognize even the smallest contributions that you make. On the other hand, the one who does not recognize others’ efforts is no less than a villain in your life because he will only boast about his accomplishments and completely disregard you. I just observe people and move on.

Me: Doesn’t it hurt?

Manoj: It will hurt only when you start expecting things. For instance, if I don’t acknowledge that fact that it was Tigmanshu Dhulia who introduced me to Shekher Kapoor, I would be the most shameless person on this planet. I acted in a Shekher Kapoor film. This became possible because Ram Gopal Verma gave me my first break. If he had not considered me, I would not be sitting here. It’s all related. And the least that I can do is to recognize this. You can’t function on your own. There are people who are instrumental in your growth and you have to acknowledge that.

Me: Yes, we are what we are because of certain people and the help that they provide.

Manoj: Let me give you an example. Ashok Puran is a very dear friend of mine. He would come to my place in Delhi. I used to live there along with my younger brother and Ashok would do odd jobs. Once, he gave Rs 600 to my younger brother and said that he had borrowed that money from me which he was returning. My brother was astonished! He said: “Bhaiyya! When did you have Rs 600 to give? It’s been ages we have had mutton and you are distributing money?” I hadn’t. I realized then that it was his way to help me in his own subtle way, without telling anyone. And if I don’t acknowledge that now, I would be the most shameless person. I have so many such friends. So many years have passed. We have families now. We have kids. We don’t catch up often, we just call each other sometimes. We share each other’s joys and sorrows. They all are important to me. For instance, my friend Sanjiva Vatsa is brilliant. He didn’t get many opportunities. But I must acknowledge that he is brilliant. I can’t walk up to you, Neelesh, and say I did this for you, now return the favour. That would be wrong.

Me: And sometimes when you become successful, you don’t, sometime, realise when you cross that thin line. Is that so?

Manoj: Success is very objective and temporary. I think sooner someone understands this, it would be better for him. It’s important for one’s sanity. Otherwise you will get trapped in the “what next” zone. If you go to India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, you will see even he is trapped in the “what next” zone. Even Amitabh Bachchan, who has done so many films, even to him his success would mean nothing. So, the best thing to do is to not get swayed by success.

Me: How connected are you to your village? Do you have a gaon connection?

Manoj: I have a strong gaon connection. I got trapped because of some things, but I am connected to my roots.

Me: Where is your village? How was it like to live there?

Manoj: The name of my village is Belwa. It is the most beautiful place on the earth. I am not saying this because I was born there! You would agree with me if I take you there. Picture this. When you wake up in the morning, you get to see the picturesque Himalayan range from your window. It snows in winters. The sun rays bounce and fall on your house. It’s so cold during winters that your body would freeze and it’s so scorching in summers that a person can die! About four kilometers from our village, there used to be a dense forest, which has now been converted into a tiger reserve. There are 32 tigers in it. During my recent visit to the reserve, the forest guard said because the village is near the India-Nepal border, which is porous and tigers roam around freely, it’s difficult to know that there are 32 tigers or 132! The soil is so fertile that you can grow anything without using fertilizers. A river runs through my village …

Me: What’s the name of that river?

Manoj: You will laugh if I tell you its name! It is known as Hadbadwa. It originates from the mountains, flows downstream and makes lot of noise, hence the name! Sometimes it dries up, and sometimes it gets flooded.

Me: How was your childhood like?

Manoj: It was great! I would take bath in the river and in the canal next to it. Now, whenever we for swimming, my daughter stops me saying I swim like a crazy man!

Me: Why!

Manoj: Because I used to swim in rivers and canals. You have to put in lot of effort. We never learnt swimming. It came automatically to us because we had to cross the river. But these modern kids will not understand this!

Me: Were you mischievous?

Manoj: I was full of mischief! We would play hide and seek all day in the fields. While my mother is a dictator, my father is extremely calm and cool. We are six brothers and sisters and we all are scared of her. She is 77, but when she gets mad, we run for cover! When we were kids, we would go to the Nepal border with my friends and brothers. We would carry all the spices and cook meat there. When we grew up, we also started carrying beer!

Me: Could you imagine then that you would become an actor?

Manoj: I guess 80% youngsters all over the world are clueless about their career goals till their graduation. I am among the remaining 20%; those fortunate people who are sure about what they want to do. And I am talking about those days when there were no transportation facilities in my village. There were hardly any motorcycles, tractors or trolleys. It was extremely difficult. We were always dependent on someone to drive us to the town. We then had to take a train to a town called Bettiah, where I did my schooling. During those days, there was a train called Jayanti-Janta train. If you could get reservation in that train, great. But if you couldn’t, then you had to pray to the Almighty to save you from the ticket checker! We would run from one compartment to the other to escape him! We would play hide and seek at major stations like Mughalsarai, Kanpur and Aligarh! I left my home at 18. I wasn’t scared of anything. Someone who comes from a middleclass family of a farmer and has six siblings, he can’t afford to be scared. People like us are full of confidence. We survive, we remain self-assured.

Me: What did you do after you left your village?

Manoj: It was difficult for me to go to Delhi as I was stuck in a hostel. For 11th and 12th, I had to move out to a college. I completed my 12th from Maharani Janki Kunwar College. I was very restless then. I got in involved in street fights and local gang politics even though was clear that I wanted to get into National School of Drama. I had read interviews of Naseer sahab and Raj Babbar sahab, but I was clueless about how to go about getting into National School of Drama. I was whiling away. It was then that I would get involved in fights. Eventually my father threw me out! He said I didn’t belong there. There was a friend of mine, Raveendra Chaudhary. He was leaving for Hansraj College. He asked me to accompany him. It was then I learnt the skill of changing compartments to evade getting caught by ticket checkers! That’s how I managed to reach Delhi. One of my friends, Desh Deepak, wanted to direct a play — An enemy of the People by Henrik Ibsen. He got to know that there was this boy who was interested in acting. He approached me. I started practicing street theatre under Shamshul Islam. He used to teach us politics. I saw one of his plays in the Delhi University campus. I went straight to him and told him that I wanted to act. He asked me to come over. That was easy!

Me: You were waiting for that moment …

Manoj: I got involved with them. They were Left-leaning, but I concentrated on drama. He gave me many books to read. Chekhov, Tolstoy, Marx … I read them all. That was a huge plus point. There was another perk. I didn’t know English. I got to learn the language thanks to them. In three years, I did at least 350-400 street plays with Islam sahab. I did 3-4 plays for Ramjas College and the Hindu Dramatic Society. My days used to be hectic compared to my classmates. Once when I went to attend a lecture, one of the well-known professors of Modern India, Dilip Simiyan, said: “Come, come Bajpayee sahab, he deserves a seat.” I thought he was mocking me. But what he said touched me. He said: “There is only one person in this class who is very clear about his future.” Delhi University was instrumental in shaped me. It compensated the two years that I wasted in street fights! Delhi University not only gave me a direction, it also paved the way for my future. I learnt many things in those three years, like Hindi, Urdu, English, Politics and History … and even mannerisms!

Me: Tell me something about your daughter.

Manoj: She is very mischievous. I guess she is a replica of what I was in the two years of my life that I wasted! If Nana Patekar is watch this show, he will laugh! When my daughter was born, one of my relatives, Rajeev, asked me to make her kundali. It’s a tradition that we follow that one is supposed to make kundali of the new born and keep it locked. One is not supposed to read it till the kid grows up. Rajeev insisted that he would make the kundali. He handed it over to me and I felt very nostalgic. He said he wanted to reveal some details. It was then he told me that my girl is a lady Nana Patekar!

Me: Is she still the same?

Manoj: Yes! I don’t know if it is a compliment for Nana … Please take it as a compliment!

Me: Are you a good father?

Manoj: I try. My daughter would be able to answer this question when she will turn 30 because before that she would have to fight many battles. While growing up, sometimes she would like her mother, and sometimes her father. She would keep oscillating between these two. Maybe in her 30s she would be able to judge both of us aptly.

Me: What is her name?

Manoj: Ava.

Me: I feel today’s generation does not respect their teachers and mentors like we did. Do you agree? Or am I wrong?

Manoj: They respect them, but they don’t know how to express it. Our generation and today’s generation have different definitions. Let me narrate an incident. My daughter is 8. I was going to meet one of my director friends. She kept insisting that she wanted to tag along. I agreed but I told her that I would take her along only if she promised to greet him nicely, speak in Hindi and to do Namaste properly. She went there and said, “Hello uncle!” Later when I asked her why did she say hello, she said: “Papa it’s the same thing!”. I guess this generation doesn’t know how to express and when we urge them to behave in a particular way, it’ against their very nature. Maybe they are able to express more freely when they say Hello. We need to let go of our stubbornness.

Me: Yes. What’s the point in copy-paste?

Manoj: Yes. We need to be open up when it comes to this generation because time has changed. Our generation didn’t have the luxury of computers. The present generation is moving very as it has to keep pace with globalisation. And we keep wondering why our kids are not like us! I think that’s too much to expect.

Me: Absolutely! Like the year 2000 is nostalgic for us. Mobiles phones of that era make us nostalgic! It’s hard for our kids to believe that one could talk to dadi without smartphones, touch screens and video calls!

Manoj: Also, we had to yell when we called someone living in Delhi!

Me: Yes! Torture our vocal cords when we dialed an outstation number! It used to be quite funny when I was in Shimla and would call someone in Delhi from a PCO! But we change after we become fathers. Don’t you agree?

Manoj: There’s an added responsibility because you have to look after a little being. Moreover, most of us live in nuclear family set up now. We have one or two kids. We have limited resources. When we were growing up, we were six siblings. But we had enough space to play. The nearest mountain belonged to us! But now, our lives are restricted to 1,500-2,000 sq feet.

Me: It is a privilege to have a park in your neighbourhood.

Manoj: Two things scare me a lot – her fever and the constant fear that she may get spoilt.

Me: Do you self-analyse?

Manoj: A lot. I believe for an actor, self analysis is better than observing others. It is very difficult to understand someone else’s contradiction without understanding your own contradictions. It is very difficult. Unless I do that, I would not be able to relate to the other person.

Me: Do you write?

Manoj: No. I used to write while I was doing theatre.

Me: Do you get this urge to write?

Manoj: No, not anymore. But I get tempted to read other people’s work. I have written two dramas. It is a very lonely job.

Me: Yes. Cruelly lonesome.

Manoj: I choose to remain quiet. I don’t feel lonely. There’s a difference between the two. I can’t relate with loneliness.

Me: Do you cry?

Manoj: I cried this morning! I am reading this book. Yoganand jee established a school in Ranchi. He kept a deer as a pet. One day, he gave food to the deer in the morning and went out after informing others he would come back by evening. He clearly instructed his kids not to give food to the deer. But one of the naughty kids gave milk to the deer. The other kids informed Yoganand jee that the deer was dying. He came running, took the deer in his lap and started meditating. He chanted a few mantras. Soon, the deer started opening its eyes. The deer recovered in a few days.One night, he saw in his dreams that the deer is seeking his permission to leave the body. He asked him to let him go. In his dream, Yoganand jee gave him the permission to leave the body. When he woke up, he saw that the deer has died. He departed only after seeking Yoganand jee’s permission. It made me cry.

Me: What does your father says about your acting skills?

Manoj: My father is extremely happy with my acting. He takes pride in me. The way my father- mother, my entire village, my siblings and my wife reacted after I received Padma Shree, I felt my efforts have paid off. My hard-work, all the hits and misses, the trials and troubles, the chaos, fights, betrayals, relationships, everything was worth it. When I wasn’t doing well, people commented that I would not be able to bounce back. You have to take these things in your stride. When your parents say in interviews that they are blessed to have a son like you, you have won the battle. My father says that I act like Motilal jee (an Indian film actor).

Me: That’s a huge compliment!

Manoj: When my siblings say that I have been a father to them, that is a great achievement for me. When My wife says: “This is it”, I feel good. These compliments are completely overwhelming considering the long journey that I have lived. These compliments give you an assurance that you have done the right thing. It isn’t possible to achieve all this alone. If Manoj Bajpai is sitting here and sharing his journey, many people are responsible for this. I must thank all of them – my teachers, my friends, all those who would pay my rent, those who paid my medical bills, those who took me to a hospital when I fell ill, those who gave me clothes to wear.

Me: And they didn’t ask for the gratitude, they don’t have this expectation from you. Right?

Manoj: They shouldn’t even ask for that because I have been giving them the respect that they deserve. I embarrass all those people. After I received Padma Shree, I received a phone call from a friend. He congratulated me and I said he was responsible too. I phoned Berry John and thanked him. I thanked everyone.

Me: It was very nice to talk to you. Thank you so much for spending quality time with me.

Manoj: But we were just chatting. It felt amazing. I come from a village in Bihar. There, when we visit any bazaar, we start chatting and gossiping with people. There is a saying: “Banat Banat Ban Jaai.” Things happen in a flow. That’s is how this interview was! Me: This is what the ‘Slow Interview’ is all about, “Banat Banat Ban Jaai.” You have defined the ‘Slow Interview” very well!

Transcribed by: Preeti Raghav, Translated by: Shivani Gupta

Edited by: Swati Subhedar