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July 11, 1998

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Powerful performer

Manoj Bajpai in Satya. Click for bigger pic!
Mrudula Rajyadhyaksha

You could imagine yourself in the house of a student who has stood first in the board exams. For the phone at Manoj Bajpai's house doesn't stop ringing. It gets a little trying after a while for us. But Manoj is enjoying some belated attention after the success of his performance in Satya.

So, in between questions, he leans over on the simple divan, politely thanking the callers for all the compliments they shower on him. No doubt, his portrayal of Bhiku Mhatre has made him a 'hot' guy in Bollywood, which is always in search of fresh talent but, paradoxically, is scared to take them on. A job left best to directors like Ramgopal Verma and Vidhu Vinod Chopra.

Manoj is comfortably clad in black jeans and a dark blue shirt and dragging away at a cigarette. He has the contended look of an actor who has made his name.

He stubs out his cigarette, laughing at a question in this regard.

"It's too early. Till the word spreads and people actually notice, it at least takes a few months...." But he's certain he won't go running around for roles now; they will have to come to him.

We warn him that this could be construed for over-confidence or, worse, success going to the head.

"No, nothing of that sort. I don't mean it that way. See, when I was new, the makers didn't know what kind of actor I was. But now my work is in front of them. Now they can watch my work and form their opinions," he says before turning to his friend who doubles up as his assistant to make us some lemon tea.

With Paresh Rawal in Tamanna. Click for bigger pic!
Turning to us, he continues, "I did theatre for some 10 years in Delhi and for some time in Bombay." He did a small role in Shekhar Kapoor's Bandit Queen. Then, for some time, Manoj was a darling of the Mahesh Bhatt camp. And so figured in the serial Swabhimaan and films Tamanna and Dastak.

These roles could have easily been forgotten, hadn't Ramgopal Verma been watching this character actor in the making. He gave Manoj a cameo role in Daud, Few noticed.

But during the making of Daud, Ramu realised he was in on a gold mine, an actor he could experiment with. So he told Manoj that he could play Bhiku Mhatre in next movie, Satya.

And before the Bombay film industry could step in, Manoj already had his already doing two other films with Ramu. One is a suspense thriller, Kaun, a tight two hour drama set in a bungalow. It has only two lead characters, played by Urmila Matondkar and Manoj Bajpai, and four supporting characters.

This dark story also uses some stark lighting and strong sound effects, all apparently intended to make the character Urmila plays into a nervous wreck. The shooting took just 16 days to complete and post-production work is to start soon.

"Sorry, I can't reveal anything, either about the story or the film," says Manoj apologetically. "You know how surprises are? But it's going to be a great film."

Click for bigger pic!
"Of course, Kaun sounds promising. But so is Ramu's Telugu film, shooting for which will start from July 15 in Hyderabad, he says.

So with seven films in his kitty, does Manoj already expect producers to come and seek him? If so, which producers?

"Rajkumar Santoshi, Vinod Chopra," comes the reply. Why not Inder Kumar, David Dhawan..?

"Yeah, why not? I like commercial films too. I liked David Dhawan's Ankhen and Coolie No 1. Govinda was brilliant."

There was this growing fragrance in the air. And we realise what it was when the lemon tea comes in. There is a moment of silence and the clatter of crockery before we sip the drink, a delectable blend of sweet and sour. Perfect, we tell Manoj.

"Thanks," he says blandly.

He didn't make it, we tell him indignantly. "But I taught him (his friend) to make it, so I can take the compliant," he says. We let that be and return to the engrossing matter of him vis--vis David Dhawan films.

"People think I am a serious actors and that serious actors can't do comedy well..."

But isn't it true that comedy is very difficult to carry off.

With Sharad Kapoor and Paresh Rawal in Tamanna. Click for bigger pic!
"Sure, but I can carry it of well. I can do any role comfortably if given a chance." He says he wants to prove he is a versatile actor. But Bollywood is generally cruel to actors, lodging them and then trapping them into stereotypes, he complains.

Then why does he not stick to television? At least on the small screen, there's scope for variety.

"No, I did Swabhimaan and Imtihaan, all right. During them, I got some more offers. But the attitude of people towards this work upsets me. Most of them are interested only in making serials quickly and submitting them to channels with no care taken to ensure quality.

"This attitude troubles me. I can't work with people who don't have dedication or interest in their work. Unfortunately, most of the TV producers who approached me fell in this category."

Maybe, he'll soon see that, barring a few exceptions, Bollywood too has the same attitude towards work. Being too choosy doesn't always help.

"I know. Oh, let's see what happens. I don't think too much. I don't have a car, a mobile, a house... But I don't bother too much. When my time comes, I will get everything. Today, I travel by local trains..."

And dress up much like Bhike Mhatre, we offer. He laughs.

"Why should I? I'm not him. But yes, I am very ordinary."

Give false modesty a name and that's Manoj Bajpai.

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