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From Bihar to Bollywood... a long journey

Manoj Bajpai is as unassuming an actor as Bollywood can dish out. Still rooted to the soil of Bihar, still in touch with his friends from East Delhi's Shakarpur area, he longs to get back to Barry John's theatre days. Here, he undertakes a trip down memory lane with ZIYA US SALAM

Low on airs, high on modesty... that's Manoj Bajpai for you.

E HAS come a long way, though he might still insist, "life in Bollywood is just a journey" where "everyday is a new day for me. I am still learning." Whatever he might do in the rest of his hitherto eventful life, even if he were to retire tomorrow and go and sow some wheat or pulses in the Gangetic Plains, to him will go the credit for putting the name of a remote village on Indo-Nepal border in Bihar on the map of the glamorous world of Bollywood — Belwa.

That is the name of the village from which hails Manoj Bajpai who wooed name and fame for quite a while before Lady Luck smiled with the chilling portrayal of Bhiku Mhatre in Ramgopal Varma's Satya. He has not needed to look back since — Bihar or Delhi, or whatever.

"I come from a traditional family. My father was a small-time farmer. We are six brothers and sisters. I am the second of the lot. My mother always found me stubborn. Even today, she said the same thing to a TV channel! My father was a very gentle person. He was so peaceful. He would never lose his cool despite having the six of us at home! I cannot recall any occasion when he slapped me when I was a kid. I started my education in a hut school. It did not even have a name! I studied there till class IV. Then I was put up in a lodge in district Bettiah. I completed class VII from there. From class VIII, I was in a boarding school, a missionary school from where I completed my high school. But I never liked staying in a boarding school. Never liked to be chained by anybody or at any place. I was always a free-bird, a happy-go-lucky guy who valued his freedom. I completed my class XII from Maharani Janaki College after which I came to Delhi."

Yet, all along, this son of a peasant was dreaming of Bollywood. Of the time when the silver screen will be his stage and the cine-goers his fans. When there will be enough in the bank and creative satisfaction in the heart. "Yes, from the beginning, I wanted to be an actor. District Bettiah had four reasonably good cinema halls where usually re-runs used to play. After completing my school, one day I was supposed to go to Patna to take medical entrance examination. My parents, like all others, wanted their son to be either an IAS officer or a doctor. But I used the money to purchase a ticket for Delhi. I had heard a lot about the theatre scene in the Capital from the likes of Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah. Surprisingly, when I broached my idea of a career as an actor, my parents did not object."

That was probably the first step he took in his long journey towards self-evolution. "I stayed like any other guy in the Capital. Initially, I stayed in Mukherji Nagar with a batch of guys from Bihar. Then I moved to trans-Yamuna. I stayed in Shakarpur, School Block to be precise. I used to stay in a single room with many other guys. I am still in touch with many of them and I am friends with a few."

Seen here with Karishma Kapoor in `Zubeida'.

However, life in Delhi was not like waiting in the aisles inside the cinema hall, knowing the usher will come in to provide you a seat of comfort. "The National School of Drama rejected me four times. Yes, you heard me right, not once but four times," Bajpai recalls.

Even as he tapped on the NSD doors, he continued doing small-time theatre. "I don't know how I survived those days. But I remember theatre was my only source of bread and butter. Looking back, it was tough but it did not seem that way when I was going through that period. My passion carried me through then." In retrospect, if there is the joy of nostalgia, there is also the pain of regret.

"While doing theatre, I came across Barry John. He liked my passion. He took me as a trainee. And I recovered what I lost out with refusal of admission to NSD by learning under his baton. I am today what I am because of him. He trained me not just as an actor but also as a human being. I could not speak English before I met him. He honed my skills. I owe everything to him."

Along the way, Bandit Queen happened to him. "After so many years of doing theatre, I wanted to do something different.

After 11 years, I wanted to earn a proper living from acting. In the early days in Bollywood, I survived on very small roles. Even one-minute roles in films like Drohkaal. Then came Swabhimaan. A mixture of television and films kept me going. But before any kind of recognition came my way, there was a period of six years of inactivity. Six years of idleness. Those days when one does not overcome self-doubts, one surrenders to them."

Well, the struggle was not about to end soon. "I met Mahesh Bhatt. He offered me Tamanna. It was a small role. From thereon, things got slightly easier.

Ramgopal Varma happened to see it and I don't know what he liked about me but he cast me in Daud. And because of Daud, Satya happened. After that, I was exposed to public life in a big way," says the man low on airs, high on modesty. Now wistful, now happy, he is honest.

Then came the long road, the highway to more than moderate success. After Bhatt's Dastak and Tamanna and Varma's Satya, happened Kaun.

"Yes, after this, things have moved better and media seems to know better than me," he says tongue firmly in cheek at this dig at yellow journalists. From there to Road, again with Varma, with whom Bajpai seems to "vibe well. He understands me". "I play the surprise part in the film," he reveals about the film.

In between, there have been various experimental and commercial films like Fiza, Aks, Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar, Ghaath, Zubeidaa and Shool. Now, he awaits the release of Kaante, Sanjay Gupta's long-delayed, long-awaited film.

"People are free to draw their own conclusions but I feel that Bollywood is just a journey.

I started out with the aim of making a livelihood out of acting. I am able to do that. My kitchen runs due to my films. To that extent I am happy. I am able to do what I set out to accomplish. But things are not so well either. I would like to get back to theatre. However, I am not established enough in Bollywood to take off for a month yet." Meanwhile, even as he longs to join Barry John and company on the Delhi stage, he has a date to keep with the silver screen.

Being readied to release this year are J.P. Dutta's LoC, Panchhi and Pinjar. The journey goes on even if he asks: "What's so spectacular about my career?

It is the story of any guy who comes to Bollywood." Willing to be a companion?

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