“Many people don’t know me by my name but by the characters that I have played, and that’s fine”

He is funny and a very fine actor. But Sanjay Mishra has an emotional side. He has regrets. He wishes to go back in time and undo some damage that he has done. Meet the real Sanjay Mishra

Neelesh Misra
| Updated: March 4th, 2020

When you go back in time, what memories do you have?

I have memories from Patna. I have memories from Narayanpur (Darbhanga, Bihar). The food in Narayanpur had a different kind of aroma. I have never eaten dal-chawal like that again. The Rs 1,000 that my father would earn and hand it over to us at the end of every month was the heaviest cash bundle I have ever held. I have fond memories from Patna. We used to live at Rajindar Nagar, Road Number 6. In Delhi, it’s known as kothi, in Mumbai it’s known as a bungalow, we call it home. My grandfather was a ‘bada sahab’ but a flute-player by heart and grandmother was a collector. They had a beautiful relationship. My father had four siblings. By the time we were born, our aunts had gotten married. My aunts would do my homework, which was good. My grandmother was fond of singing. When she would sit to do her rehearsals, she would look at my mother and others and wonder if they would be able to sing. She would encourage my mother, her daughter-in-law, to sing. She had to do as it was mother-in-law’s demand. All this was non-verbal communication. We, kids, used to get buckets and utensils and play the orchestra. At times cities shape human beings. We don’t want smart cities, what we want is smart citizens. We can make smart cities. But if cities will start making us, we will be like robots; like how India is right now … far away from roots. We then moved to Banaras.

Why Banaras?

My father got transferred so he moved to Banaras. We just sat in an auto as we were told we were going to Banaras! Our language, our dialect suddenly changed when we moved from Ranchi to Varanasi. Once you start moving in that direction, the language becomes musical and lyrical. They say, in Darbhanga, even the dogs speak in a musical way! Towards Bengal, it’s even more musical and once you reach Thailand … ! Coming back to Banaras, Lahurabir, Nati Imli, Kabir Choraha … the reason I am mentioning these places is because they are the musical fortresses. Banaras has contributed a lot to the Indian classical music. They all call each other ‘guru’. Since my father was interested in music, we came in contact with a lot of them. At times, Godai Maharaj would come to our place and make chura-matar. At times, on Sundays, Bismillah Khan would play Shehnai at Kabir choraha. I would do some antics to get his attention. And he would notice me, which was important to me. He would listen to me. Today, we have stopped “listening” to each other. This Slow campus that you have made, it’s very nice. You can hear the birds. You don’t feel like disturbing the silence.

My father was fond of perfumes. I was like him. Since childhood, I love to create an atmosphere and dramatize things. I started eating paan so that I could become like Godai maharaj! I didn’t want to train under him, but I would eat paan to be like him! They would wear gamchas. So, I would leave my house wearing my pants, change into a gamcha and then go ask for a paan like they did! But I just didn’t like to train. I would run away from there to go catch kites or just go sit by the Ganga. One day my father went looking for me. He didn’t find me in the class. The master told him I hadn’t come for a month. Dejected, my father went to the bank of the Ganga. He was very disappointed with me because I would run away from everywhere — school, classes. He spotted me fooling around and yelled at me. I was so scared that I jumped into the water! That’s how I learnt how to swim!

Life was difficult, not for me, but for that father who was earning Rs 1,000-1,200 a month. In Banaras, he was earning even less … Rs 600-800. He worked as a translator. He had to feed four children and a wife. He was worried for me, but I was always very confident. Maybe ‘learning’ wasn’t for me. I would hate it when someone would try to teach me something. But I was always confident that someday I will play something created by me and people will like it.

I would write poems, but when I would show it to my father, he would point out mistakes, so I stopped showing my poems to him. I would flunk quite often. There came a time when my brothers and sisters were studying in my class and then they moved ahead!

How many times have you flunked?

I don’t remember! I never counted. If you ask me how many films I have done, I won’t know because I have never counted. My father didn’t know what to do with me so he sent me to Begusarai to study at Premchand’s nephew Krishna Rai’s place. But I didn’t like it there. I felt lonely without my parents. Qurbani film was released then. I was impressed with Firoz Khan. I would impersonate him. I would wear bell-bottoms, borrowed boots, lie to my uncle and aunt and then this “Firoz Khan” would roam around the streets of Bugusarai. I would smoke cigarettes like he did. One day, in this “Firoz Khan” get up, I caught a train, sat amid vegetable vendors and came back to Delhi. I didn’t have a ticket. The ticket checker humiliated ‘Firoz Khan” for this. I had Rs 10. I caught an auto and came home. When I reached home, the milkman was about to deliver milk. I drank some, rang the bell and acted as if I was about to puke. My grandmother opened the door and saw me “puking”. She thought I had fallen sick because I was kept away from home. She scolded my father for doing so and decided that I would stay at home. I told you … I loved drama!

I was again sent to school — this time it was Kendriya Vidyalaya Gol Market. I would go along with my brothers. I used to be angry with the education system. I still am. What they teach you and what you ultimately become, there is a huge difference. Anyway, I would leave for school, but go sit in the Talkatora garden. A servant who used to work with us earlier was now working there. I told him that I leave home at 8:30 in the morning and reach home by 4:30 pm, and requested him to give me any kind of work and pay me Rs 5. I would eat tandoori roti and dal, which I got for free. I also worked with an ironsmith and made jacks. I would share my tiffin with a girl from Rajasthan, who was working there.

My father was working with the Press Information Bureau. He was at a good post. All the renowned journalists of the country were friends with him. One day he spotted me there and caught me while I was making jacks. He was accompanying Rajeev Gandhi who had come to see the Asian Games preparations. Once that was done, he spotted me. That scene was straight out of Shakti movie — Amitabh Bachchan and Dilip Kumar. But I wasn’t ashamed or rattled. I was taken to the principal, who informed my father that I was missing from school for a month. The principal scolded me. My parents were very upset. But I couldn’t explain to them that I hated those who tried to teach me! I just left … I left my home, father, mother. But before leaving I stole Rs 50 from my mother.

Sanjay Mishra with his mother. Source: Sanjay’s Instagram

Where did you stay then?

Pahadgunj. In one of those tiny shops. Some people were gambling. I also went. I betted some money and won! I got Rs 500. If you visit Gol market, there are many kabab shops. It was also close to my home. So, I thought let me go and eat kababs and also see my home. I had a dog named Bulbul. The dog saw me and came running to me. My father caught me again! He told me, very seriously, that my mother wanted to see me. I am very possessive about her. So, I went. She was unwell. My father was also very upset. I handed over to him Rs 500 that I had. He said: “You are so talented. You ran away with Rs 50 but earned Rs 500. Why don’t you study?” I again tried explaining to him that I don’t like someone teaching me and that I would learn on my own. He was very, very upset. The next day he was sitting very sadly in office. All the friends would gather in the evening. One of the friends Manohar Shyam Joshi was a literature lover. He would also see kundalis. When my father told him about me, he asked for my kundali. When he saw my kundali, he said: “Shambhunath, why are you trapping him? He will end up becoming a peon at Shahstri Bhavan and that too a bad one. He is meant to do something else. One day people will know you because of him.” My father could not believe it then. Then the National School of Drama happened. People like Nita Ganguly, Krishna Sobti came to my father. They convinced him to send me there. I went to the National School of Drama for an interview. I went there reluctantly because deep inside I knew that they are again going to teach me for three years! The interviewer asked me where I was from. I said Patna, Bihar. He said Patna is in Uttar Pradesh. I said for you it must be in Uttar Pradesh, for me it’s in Bihar. Then they asked me to sing. When the results came out, my father was really happy. I had topped the entrance test. I joined the National School of Drama, but I never went there to learn. People like Irrfan Khan, Ashok Lokhande were my seniors … they were walking-talking books. So, there was no way I could have learnt through books. The atmosphere was incredible. Tigmanshu Dhuliya was my batchmate.

He talked about you very fondly when I met him …

We are like husband and wife. We talk fondly about each other in front of others, but not to each other!

I am sure you must have done some mischief while studying at the NSD.

I was the class representative. Once day, post lunch at 2 pm, a class was going on. The peon came and handed over a chit to me. It was in English. There was a guy in the class, Kennith Desai. I asked him to read what was written in that chit. He said I had to vacate the hostel in seven days. This time I was scared. I thought my father would not be able to take it. I thought he will get a heart attack. I went to a teacher. He said I was made a scapegoat of some petty politics and the real aim was to remove the director. They had to make me a scapegoat as I was popular and also politically inclined. Shocked, I sat beneath a tree on the campus. My brother — whom I fondly called Guddu — came to me. I told them that I had disappointed all of them. He said it wasn’t my fault and he will stand by me. Surprisingly, my father stood by me too. And what was incredible was my entire batch stood by me. It came down to me versus the director. They said they all would also quit if I was sacked. We had holidays for month but none of them went home. They all stayed back with me and helped me so that I could become an actor even though I was expelled. The love that I got was amazing. I was confident because now I had the support of my father, brother and my entire batch. There were also people who wanted me to self-immolate and die!

And then you went to Mumbai? How did that happen?

I didn’t want to go to Mumbai as I was getting to eat home-cooked food. I had a brother, Sumant Mishra. He was working with Navbharat Times. He would write in films. The day he came, my father packed me off to Mumbai along with him. I didn’t like it in Mumbai. I had already done Chanakya and Oh Darling Ye Hai India when I approached Ketan Mehta who was making a film on Sardar Patel. People like Mani Ratnam, Ketan Mehta are on everyone’s wish list. Mani Ratnam was shooting the beautiful Dil Se song in Dalhousie. I was playing a terrorist in the film, but I told Mani Ratnam I somehow wanted to be in the chaiyyan chaiyyan song. So, they made me sit on the bogey just after the engine and my task was to alert them if there was a bridge so that they could halt the train! First day of Chanakya was very embarrassing. I had just started my career and I gave 28 takes in the first shot. I kept forgetting the dialogues. That day I decided never to read scripts. I have never read the script of any of my films.

So how would you learn the dialogues?

Dialogues have nothing to do with the script. If you are a director and if you are approaching me with a script and while narrating the script if I am able to visualise the story and picture myself playing the character, then I am sorted. I would ask the director to narrate me the script again and again. While doing a scene I would just ask for the narration. In Hindi cinema, we are too stuck up doing a scene. It does not make sense to mouth parroted lines. An actor must understand the narrative.

So, you would improvise?

No. I just get into the narrative. Audience understands when an actor is mouthing dialogues. As an actor, that is a wrong thing to do. They should get the emotions. This way it becomes easy for me to do any kind of scene.

Were the directors okay with it?

No! That time they were particular about each and every word written in the script! But now they appreciate it when I do it my way. See, that’s the thing. You will not even realise when this society will make you Neelesh Sir from Nilu.

Is there any particular film that you like?

Something like Amar, Akbar, Anthony. There were so many character actors in that film. Who do you remember the most? Soorma Bhopali, right? At home, they would ask me to impersonate Sorma Bhopali. My father made me dance in front of Birju Maharaj once! We even have a picture. I was wearing bellbottoms and a muffler because it was cold. They would ask me to impersonate Keshto Mukherjee. I was made to entertain the guests after my parents would run out of conversations.

You have still kept that child alive …

All these moments from my childhood help me when I do movies now. You should never let the child within you die. Not just people from the art field … this applies to all.  

What happened after Chanakya?

I had to run around. It’s very important to make good friends in life. Ours was the first batch to reach Mumbai. Then when Phoolan Devi was being shot the next batch came. Most of us didn’t have work. We would gather at a friend’s place in Goregaon and stayed there till we got food to eat! We would sit and drink. We would eat food which tasted like Vim because the maid wouldn’t clean the utensils properly.

Your intestines were getting clean!

Yes! One day while we were at this very house, which we used to call Jurassic park, I got a call came from ESPN-Star sports. I thought it was a hoax. So, I didn’t take it seriously. One day, Victor Acharya, my friend, whose house it was, came to the salon where I would go for a haircut and asked me to call them back. Then I realised it was something serious. I went there. All the foreigners were sitting there and I still didn’t know what happened there, but I got that opportunity. I didn’t have a passport. I went to Patna to get it made but it got lost in transit. Lalu jee helped me a lot that time. He thought I was going to play some match! I went to London to shoot those ads. I played Apple Singh in those ads.

So, by the time you went and came back, your career had changed?

I gained confidence. I became popular, a household name. ESPN wanted me to continue, but I wanted to do something else.

How is it to become an unknown actor? People may know you by face but may not know your name …

I have seen many actors who struggled along with Amitabh Bachchan. They were famous, but not famous. Even I hesitated to stand at the bus stop and wait for the bus. People knew me, but didn’t know me that well. Some would call me Rajpal. Until recently people ask me my name. But it’s okay. Some people are known by their name, some by the characters they play. People know me by the characters I played. As long as I am getting to earn my bread and butter, that’s okay.

Do you miss something?

Time. My father. I miss the old times. Those Rs 1,000 that my father would earn was much more valuable than what we are earning now.

Sanjay Mishra with daughters Pal Mishra and Lamha Mishra. Source: Sanjay’s Instagram

Tell me about your kids.

I wasn’t even the type who would settle down. My family couldn’t imagine me handling kids. It’s amazing how my wife and my daughters — Pal and Lamha — put up with me. My daughters sometimes come and ask me why I don’t have a Mercedes like others have. I want to raise my children just like my father raised me. I ask them: “When someone’s father comes in a Mercedes and when I come to pick you up, what’s the difference?” They say when I go, teachers become happy. I tell them this is what I have earned. I don’t even want to buy a Mercedes. My children speak good English, so now I learn from them. They often say it’s annoying to sit in a small car. I don’t even know the spelling of annoying! They are sweet. That’s when I remember what my teachers used to say. “Let children think on their own”. I still think in Hindi. I don’t meet them often, but I try to be at home as much as I can. I don’t care if they are good students or no, but if they learn the LP, Sitaar and learn to create an atmosphere, I will be a successful father. The definition of success changes at every step of the life. When you are a child, stealing chocolate from the fridge and eating them also means success. The meaning of success keeps on evolving as we grow up.

You have named your daughter Pal and Lamha. What was going on in your mind when you gave them these names.

I live life in moments. These moments stay with you for life. Right now, when I am talking to you, this is a beautiful ‘pal’ and I will remember this ‘lamha’ all my life.  

Sanjay Mishra with wife, Kiran Mishra and daughters, Pal and Lamha. Source: Sanjay’s Instagram

Are you a good father?

I don’t know. But I don’t get too involved. I observe them from a distance. I don’t get too much emotionally invested. I don’t have any expectations from them. If I will have, they would be disappointed if they are not able to achieve all that. Whether or not I am a good father, time will tell.

All those who have come on this show mostly live away from their homes and are also not able to spend time with their children. Many of them have said this. What impact does this have on children?

I am here right now. It’s a beautiful place. I have seen it, but inside I am thinking my children should also get to see it. When I go for outdoor shoots, I go to beautiful locations. I want my children to see those places. But when I see them speaking fluent English, that credit goes to the mother. What I am today, that credit goes to my mother. She didn’t study much, but what I am today is because of her sacrifices.

But these sacrifices are never counted.

Never. She wasn’t an IAS, she wasn’t a pilot, but she had in her that she raised four kids and made them capable to stand on their feet. And none of the kids had any complaint with the mother. There are so many actresses like Seema Pahwa, who were actresses, then became mothers and are now working again.

Are you a good son?

When my father passed away, I wasn’t married then. For me, my mother was like my daughter then. I wanted to take care of her, look after her till the time she was alive. I wasn’t a good son to my father. But in his last years, he could see my talent. He would feel proud when he would see my interviews. When they would show Filmfare awards on TV, he would always get excited when they would announce the ‘best actor’ award. I always felt he wanted me to win that award. I stopped watching award shows after that. I wished I could win an award and show it to him.

I couldn’t be a good brother. I couldn’t help my brother. He passed away. His liver had failed. The television and news industry is very stressful. He wouldn’t drink in front of my mother so he would get drunk in her absence. He got addicted. It’s very strange when the son passes away before the parents.

Sanjay Mishra (right) with his younger brother Guddu

Do you strive to be a good person?

Yes, that’s the first thing. You are a father, mother, brother, son later. You must try to become a good person first. One should try to be a good citizen. You should also try to be a good social worker before you die.

Any regrets?

That I couldn’t save my brother. There’s another interesting story. My film Aloo Chaat had released on March 18. My father passed away on March 24. I was in a hospital when the movie had released. I was down with a stomach bug, and they had given me a lot of antibiotics. When I was discharged, I was very weak and extremely irritated because of the medicines. My father insisted that we go and see that movie, along with his friends. Reluctantly, I went with them. A lot of fans approached me for pictures. I obliged. One security guy wanted us to click the picture along with his gun. I lost it and abused him. It happened in front of my father. In the interval, he didn’t look at me, I didn’t look at him. The movie got over. We were in the lift — my father, his friends, who were very well educated. My father told me very softly that I shouldn’t have yelled at him. I was so irritated that I shouted at my father. Before this, I had never yelled at my father.

That time I was also shooting for a film. The location was at the India Gate, so they booked me at the Meridian. There was a Bihari cook. He wanted to cook meat for me. I asked him to cook the next day. I wanted to call my father. The next day I sent a car for him. The car came back empty. I called him. He said he wasn’t feeling too well as he had eaten some stale food. I scolded him for doing so. He said: “I don’t need your advice.” That was his last line. He passed away the next morning. When I heard that, I felt a strange vacuum. My father was fond of perfumes, incense sticks, books. A pleasant aroma would emerge from the almirah. I opened that almirah while his dead body was outside. I could smell him. I took out his personal diary. He had also written about the Aloo Chaat incident. In his fluent English, he had mentioned it and had written that I had humiliated him in front of his friends. I felt very ashamed. I wanted him to be alive for a minute and I wanted to apologise to him. I felt ashamed that that incident was the last impression of me that he carried with him. These are the regrets that I have and there is no way to overcome this guilt. I just want to do good work. When I go to Banaras and when someone asks me if I am Shambhunath’s son, I feel very relieved.

I hope you are able to fulfil all his dreams. It was so nice talking to you.

It was nice coming to Slow when life is so fast. I will sleep peacefully today.

Text: Swati Subhedar