Born in a farmer’s family in the small village of Belsand in Gopalganj district of Bihar, Pankaj Tripathi became a well-known name after his powerful performance as Sultan the butcher in the Gangs of Wasseypur film series.
Over the years his roles in Nil Battey Sannata, Masaan and Bareily ki Barfi has overshadowed his image as a ‘villain’, and his versatility has been deeply appreciated by viewers and the film fraternity.
Indeed, his recent performance as Assistant Commandant Atma Singh in the Oscar-nominated film Newton has made him among the best performers in the present film industry.
But things were not always so bright and starlit. Pankaj’s father was a marginal farmer in Belsand, on four acres of land. They would grow potatoes, sugarcane, wheat and tobacco to sell and some rice and vegetables for the family’s consumption.
Over an hour-long telephonic conversation, we here at The Better India discovered that this history remains at the heart of the grounded thespian, who believes deep inside he remains what he, and his family, have always been – a farmer!
So what acting lessons did the self-made star learn from ploughing fields and growing his own crop? We find out:
“A farmer’s job is the most unpredictable one because it depends on nature. One hailstorm destroys the entire tobacco crop. You can’t imagine the loss! No one cares about the farmer who gives his hundred percent to grow the potato used to make wafers. Farmers have to sell potatoes for Rs 3 to Rs. 4 per kg to the same industrialist who can hire a celebrity and spend crores on an advertisement to sell his wafers.” he observes accurately, reflecting on the fate of farmers in the country.
His background makes it unsurprising that he knows about all this. Pankaj was the youngest of two brothers and two sisters. He helped his father on the farm until he left Belsand for further studies.
“I remember my father took a loan of Rs 5000 from a cooperative bank to buy a small five-horsepower tubewell pump. A certain part of it, which cost around Rs 500, was easily detachable. Thieves could steal it easily. To save that Rs 500, my father and I would have dinner early and reach the farm by 8 pm. Every day we would sleep near the tubewell to save Rs. 500.”
With current events on his mind, he added a bit humour, pointing out how people did not seem scared of running away after taking a loan of Rs 11000 crore, but his father would always remain fearful until he returned the Rs 5000 to the bank.
By the time Pankaj was in class 10, he had decided that he was not going to be a farmer. Neither was he interested in a 9-5 job. But cinema was still not on his cards.
“We didn’t have a TV at our house, and there was no question of a theatre in such a small village. None of my family members, even far off relations, had any connection to cinema or art. So I was completely unaware of cinema or theatre as a career.”
For a man who has made such a strong mark on cinema, it was a surprise to learn, as he said, that the first time he saw a TV was when the 1988 TV show Mahabharat was telecast.
“There was this small video shop in Madhavpur, three kms from our village, where every Sunday we would pay Rs 1 to watch Mahabharat. It was a small room where 200 people would sit on the floor and watch it on a TV.”
Pankaj’s first brush with acting came when an actor who usually played the female lead in a local village drama was not available.
“Those days only males participated in such dramas. Men also played the female characters.But those who played that character were teased for the rest of the year. So no one wanted to take up that role, and I got to play it. I was hardly 16 at that time, and it was a completely amateur sort of drama.”
That first brush did not really stick to the young Pankaj, who continued his studies. After failing to secure a medical seat, Pankaj pursued a BA in Hindi Literature in Patna.
Although Pankaj does not believe in destiny, he feels something quite like it propelled him towards theatre.
“It was 1994-1995 when I watched theatre for the first time. It was a drama titled ‘Andha Kuan’ by Laxminarayan Lal. Parineeta Jaiswal was playing the lead role. I was so involved in her acting that I started crying. That is when I realized that acting is such a powerful medium.”
After this play, Pankaj did not miss a single drama in the Kalidas Ranagalay theatre of Patna for the next one year. He became a known face in the place and eventually ended up doing proxy rehearsals with them in the absence of any actor.
In 1999 he started applying for the National School of Drama (NSD) every year – until he qualified for it in 2001.
“There were only 20 seats back then, and I think now there are 26 at the all-India level. Qualifying for the NSD is not that easy when lakhs dream of becoming an actor every day. But that’s the only place where you can learn acting for free, and you get a stipend to manage your expenses. What could have been better than that?”
For the next three years, Pankaj learnt some serious acting. He swears by the amount of knowledge one can get at NSD.
“People think that you don’t have to study if you want to become an actor. But one can’t imagine the number of books one has to read at NSD.”
He passed out of NSD In 2004, and he kept taking up roles. Year after year without any particular choices. And thus began his eight years of ‘background’ work.
In the meanwhile, he also met Mridula in a train to Kolkata and fell in love with her.
“I had two things in my mind when I left my village. One was that I am not going to do a routine 9-5 job and the second was to have a love marriage, which also happened when I married Mridula,” he laughs.
He continues his humour by talking more about his wife, “Very few people know that Mridula is my brother-in-law’s sister. In Brahmins, we do not marry in a family where our sister has been married so was again a big deal for everyone. Toh ab main apne hi saale ka saala hu (Now I am my brother-in-law’s brother-in-law.”
But on serious notes, Pankaj gives the credit of his success to his wife, who was then a teacher and a strong support system for him.
“If you ask me for my struggle, I don’t have any sad details like sleeping on a footpath or starving for days. That’s because my wife, Mridula, had taken over the entire responsibility of the house. In fact, I tell everyone that she is the man of the house.”
Pankaj’s spark finally lit a fire in audiences through his character of Sultan in ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ in 2012.
But how were those eight years? Did the thought of leaving this profession to come to his mind after almost a decade of struggle?
“No! Never even once. Basically, I am a farmer. And there’s this inbuilt patience in a farmer. A farmer sows and waits for the first leaf for days. He then nourishes the crop for months to get the final result in the form of fruit. Sometimes the seed doesn’t even grow, but the farmer again makes his land ready for another seed. I knew I had sown a seed and it might take time to get the fruits. Until then all I could do was to keep putting effort into it.”
After ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, there was ‘Fukrey‘ and ‘Nil Battey Sanatta‘. He also got to work in a lead role in ‘Gurgaon’ in 2017. And of course, there is the massively acclaimed ‘Newton’.
But his favourite film as an actor remains ‘Masaan’ where he played the character of ‘Satya Ji‘.
“Though I was never choosy, I also wanted to play various characters. For me, every middle-class parent deserves a story. Have you ever seen the crowd entering a local train? The same crowd comes out, and everyone in that crowd is just a crowd for us. But every individual of that crowd is someone very important in their own world. I want to play that common man and yet become uncommon.”
Another favourite of the actor is the role of Naved Ansari in the crime television series ‘Powder’.
“Many people missed Powder, which according to me is one of the best TV series out there. But I am glad it is going to start soon on Netflix, and many people can catch it again.”
Life hasn’t changed much for Pankaj with the fame. He still goes to buy vegetables and walks to the nearest shops. He still visits his village once in six months and feels proud when his 11-year-old daughter Aashi spends time with the cattle at home.
He is still striving hard to get his village well connected with roads and says that his mother waits for the day when a road will be connected to his house.
“Nothing much has changed for me. Yes, people ask for a selfie now. But I know that there was no one to take a selfie with me ten years ago, and there might be no one willing to take one ten years from now. So this is all illusion. I am here to do some good work that makes me happy, and I will continue doing that.”
“Youth today look for a star everywhere. They think success is an instant thing. But all you get in two minutes is Maggi – which is not good for health. What I have achieved today has taken almost 20 years.”
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A Mechanical Engineer-turned-writer, Manabi finds solace in writing stories about unsung heroes. Nothing makes her happier than the impact emails from her readers. Other than writing, she loves listening to the stories told by her six year old daughter. Manabi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find her tweets @manabi5