I don’t fear losing everything that I've earned: Manoj Bajpai on signing the risky Aligarh

Updated 10 Mar, 2016 05:41pm

Sheharyar Rizwan

In Aligarh, Bajpai plays a homosexual professor persecuted for his sexual orientation

There’s no denying that Bollywood actor Manoj Bajpai is a powerhouse of talent.

He may not be your typical masala film hero, but his performance in films like Shool, Satya, Pinjar, Aks, Zubeidaa and Tevar linger in public memory. It helps that his two Filmfare Awards and two National Awards have put him on everybody's radar.

His latest film Aligarh, released on February 26, has received an overwhelming response. Critics and cine-goers, gay allies and activists hail it as a milestone movie, which brings to screen the trials of a real-life homesexual professor, Dr Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, whose sexuality is outed through a sting operation, after which he loses his job and allegedly commits suicide.

Bajpai talks about Aligarh in an exclusive conversation with Images.

“The film is about [an incident] that took place five, six years ago and went completely unnoticed by most people [in India] and could not even make headlines," he begins.

"When this story was narrated to me by the director (Hansal Mehta), I somehow felt here is somebody who’s been pushed into a battle, he is 64 years old, he’s reluctant and not interested in fighting. The conflict itself was the making of a great tragedy.”

Bajpai is known to seek out powerful characters, which explains why he signed on to play the beleaguered professor. What goes through his mind when he's considering a role, we wonder.

“It’s very organic. I don’t think any actor in this world can put his finger on it. Too many things work together: it could be the director-script combo. For me, sometimes the moment I read a script, I see the character in flesh and blood. So it’s very natural.”

But the 46-year-old actor admits that the endeavour to play diverse roles has been a conscious one. “I have always tried to move away from my previous films. It’s been my passion to explore different aspects of a human being and other humans inside me. It’s a passion for acting and portraying people from our own society who are so amazing. I don’t judge them, but find them quite interesting.”

Becoming the professor

In Aligarh, Bajpai is joined by Rajkumar Rao who plays the journalist Deepu Sebastian
In Aligarh, Bajpai is joined by Rajkumar Rao who plays the journalist Deepu Sebastian

Decades of experience in film and theatre have made Bajpai the versatile actor that he is. Still, preparing to play Prof. Siras in Aligarh took some doing.

“It took me 15-20 days to prepare for my role," he shared. "I have done theatre for so long and been in the industry for 20 years. After all these years of [acting] and watching films and watching other people act, my craft keeps on changing with every character I play."


"When this story was narrated to me by the director (Hansal Mehta), I somehow felt here is somebody who’s been pushed into a battle, he is 64 years old, he’s reluctant and not interested in fighting. The conflict itself was the making of a great tragedy.”


"But I always come up with a way of approaching a role," he reveals. "Like, in this film, I didn’t want to focus on his homosexuality, because that’s just a sexual orientation. For me he was a great poet, a lonely man, somebody who loved Lata Mangeshkar songs and his whiskey. And someone who was not confrontational; he was a very reluctant man when it came to interacting with society. So I had to bring all that into my personality.”

Was he apprehensive about signing the film, given the taboos surrounding homosexuality in India?

“I’m not a judgemental person. I don’t judge anybody, I don’t judge the character. I just look at the strength of the script and then don’t think about what will people think or what will happen to my career. This is the core element of my personality - I don’t have the fear of losing everything that I have earned.”

This fearlessness, Bajpai says, comes from his mother, whom he describes as a very strong woman.

Reactions to Aligarh

While his peers have been vocal about politics, Bajpai maintains that he makes his statement through his performance in films like Aligarh
While his peers have been vocal about politics, Bajpai maintains that he makes his statement through his performance in films like Aligarh

Despite the sensitive nature of Aligarh, Bajpai’s performance as a gay man has earned praise not just from his peers in the film fraternity, but also politicians like Shashi Tharoor. For him, this is the true representation of India.

“It feels great and just proves my point when I say that the majority in our country is accepting of the community and it is the need of the hour that we change the law. The Supreme Court has referred the petition to a five-judge bench; those judges are experts, wise men, well-versed in the law. So it’s up for reconsideration and I’m very sure a constructive verdict is going to be out any time.”


I just look at the strength of the script and then don’t think about what will people think or what will happen to my career. This is the core element of my personality - I don’t have the fear of losing everything that I have earned.


He continues, "The beautiful part of a democracy is it can only be vibrant when governments are constantly questioned and the opposition reminds the ruling party of where they’re going wrong or lacking. Whether the debate is fierce or calm, it should keep happening and that should not be taken as disturbance. You can’t be taking fringe elements as the truth of the country,” says the actor.

While his peers in Bollywood have been vocal about politics of late, with movements like ‘Award Wapsi’, for example, Bajpai maintains that he makes his statement through his performance.

“Actors are not activists. Our activism is only reflected through our work. Hansal Mehta has shown great regard and dignity to the gay community by making this film. People are being moved and shaken by this old man’s journey; it is making them think about their own prejudices. This is a very creative way and that’s how we can only serve our society, by making films, moving people and creating debate through our work.”

Quick questions with Manoj Bajpai

Bajpai knows he's not the kind of actor who'll earn millions - and he's okay with that
Bajpai knows he's not the kind of actor who'll earn millions - and he's okay with that

On the 100-crore (and up) clubs:

“Actors, who do the kind of films I do, can’t be number one and earn millions of dollars. It’s my conscious decision to do the films I have done. I’m proud of my filmography and the small fanbase I have around the world because it gives me a lot of strength when someone talks about my performances and its minute details. I’m a simple actor who does his work and comes back with a small cheque, and I’m happy with that.”

On his favourite directors and actors:

While Bajpai says he’s been lucky to have worked with “superlative” directors like Shekhar Kapur, Anurag Kashyap and Shyam Benegal, it’s Ram Gopal Varma (RGV) who has utilised his full potential as an actor:

“Without a doubt he’s someone who kept throwing challenges at me. He never let me sleep peacefully. I’ve done six films with him, including one in Telugu,” says the actor about his mentor.

On his favourite stars:

Bajpai says he has found good friends in some of his co-actors, like Tabu whom he calls his “bum chum” now, Nawazuddin Siddiqui whom he’s worked with in theatre and Rajkumar Rao, his costar in Aligarh and Chittagong.

On most promising actors:

Bajpai says he doesn’t look for a star when he looks at actors:

“I look for pure actors. I’m completely [removed] from that mainstream industry. I think Rajkumar (Rao) has great potential. Nawaz [Siddiqui] is doing a great job, Vicky Kaushal has received a lot of critical acclaim all over the world. These are fantastic actors.”

On Pak-India cultural exchange:

Bajpai feels governments on both sides should encourage and facilitate cultural exchange and people-to-people contact.

“It’s the beginning of extending relationship between the two countries. We should work towards consolidating our relationship. I haven’nt been able to watch TV much but have seen an episode or two of Fawad’s plays. I met Junoon band, they’re very nice and talented people. I’ve also met Ali Zafar at a few parties. They’re all very intelligent people.”

On the block on Pakistani films in India:

Bajpai says he’s seen Khuda Ke Liye and Bol, but doesn’t know why Pakistani films aren’t released in India:

“Now that you’ve asked I’ll find out what the reason is. The two movies I’ve seen were really nice. I would love to work with the director, I was impressed with his skill. I would love to be part of the kind of storytelling and direction that was Khuda Ke Liye.”

His message to Pakistani fans:

As a parting note, the brilliant actor had a message for his Pakistani fans:

“My love to all the Pakistani people. I really hope Aligarh releases in Pakistan and people who love my work get to see it.”

Email