No one knew my name before Ankhon Dekhi – Sanjay Mishra
The National School of Drama trained actor never fell short of appreciation and applause. But Ankhon Dekhi brought Sanjay Mishra out of the shadows of Shukla, Qureshi and Raghu. In an exclusive chat the versatile actor talks about life post the wonderful whimsical plot about existentialism.
Ankhon Dekhi was a surprise winner at the awards this year. It won awards at Filmfare as well as Screen. Did you expect the movie and your role to be appreciated to this extent?
No. I am like a T20 match player – I come, do my work and go away. When I read the script I knew I had a powerful character and it was a good film. As an actor I felt Ankhon Dekhi was like a test match for me, I had to sustain for long, and bat and ball. Of course, one wondered if the audience will like what Rajat sir was making. But I think the team (costume designer Darshan Jalan, Production designer Meenal Agarwal, Cinematographer Rafey Mehmood) has created magic and proved that magic can be created from a small house in Delhi too. Why should one have to shoot a song in Switzerland if it isn’t required?
How important are awards?
Making a movie and making pickles are two different things. Pickle is for personal consumption and film is for public. When a good film like Ankhon Dekhi gets good reviews, films like Dum Laga Ke Haisha that are in the same milieu benefit. It is a different matter that Ankhon Dekhi didn’t make so much money, but the people who saw it liked it, which is good.
Neither was Raje Bauji a regular character nor was Ankhon Dekhi a typical Hindi film. So, what was your reaction when you were offered the film?
Rajat sir and I were shooting for Phans Gaye Re Obama. Both of us are from diverse acting schools, he comes from an English theatre background and I am from National School of Drama. Yet, we clicked. One day, Rajat sir told me that he will write a role for me. I had met many people who made such false promises. But once the film is over or association ends it is forgotten thing. So, I took it lightly. When I was in Delhi I received a call from Rajat sir. He told me that he had written the script and wanted to meet. I was pleasantly shocked but was busy and forgot about it.
Then, one day I heard that he approached Naseeruddin Shah for the role, who had liked it too. That’s when I realised and called up Rajat sir. He told me that he had already offered AD to Naseer. I was disheartened. A few days later Rajat sir called me and told me that he spoke to Naseer. Naseer told Rajat sir: ‘If you had got anyone else for this role I would have deleted your name from my phonebook. But if it is Sanjay Mishra I know he will do a good job.’ After watching the film, Naseer saab messaged me, undersigned as Naseer. I thought it must be someone so didn’t reply. Next day he messaged me back: Prabhuji, aap mujhse baat kar sakte hain? (Sir, can you please call or reply to my message). This time he undersigned Naseeruddin Shah. He said he cried a lot while watching the movie and wanted to cry again. I had to push Om Puri to go watch the film. When he met me he hugged and held on to me for long. It’s very humbling because back at NSD we looked up to these actors. Even Anupam Kher told me that he loved the film. I have received such unexpected love and appreciation for this film. Elderly people have come and touched my feet. This doesn’t happen for a T-20 match player. I have cried at every screening of AD.
Were you apprehensive or nervous to play Raje Bauji, who almost drives the film forward?
Once Makrand Deshpande told me that I am like whiskey, it needs to be mixed with something. But he wanted to see my coca-cola version, an undiluted performance. I think Ankhon Dekhi was my coca-cola. I was also surprised to be offered the role and a little scared. I am happy that I carried the film with support from the team. But then I have also carried All The Best. Creatively AD was very satisfying.
Even Dum Laga Ke Haisha was widely appreciated. Tell us how that role came to you?
I knew director Sharat Katariya from earlier. We had worked together on a couple of projects. He comes from the Rajat Kapoor clique and I always liked Sharat’s way of thinking. I liked the story. Again, it was the same milieu as AD but a different character.
As an actor what kind of roles draw you?
I am like a sitar that needs a good musician to bring out the melody. I just want a good director who properly utilises my talent in the film. The film can be in commercial space or off beat zone, as long as it surprises and impresses me, I will do it. I need a good unit to work with. It isn’t difficult to do any role and its length doesn’t matter.
Character roles in most regular mainstream films are half-baked and superficial. Do you enjoy doing such work?
Has the doctor ever said that this patient doesn’t look good so I won’t check him/her? I am an actor so I will do every role that appeals to me irrespective of the commercial trappings. One should also remember that I can’t make a century in every game. Some matches are for my rehearsal. I need to do some films for rehearsal. I can’t sit at home. Now, of course, I have to keep my audience in mind. But they should also realise that I came to this city with Rs 500 in my pocket and I have a family that I need to take care of.
Have things changed post both the films?
I don’t know market-wise. But internally and the way I live life has changed a lot after AD. My 93-year-old grandmother was serious around the time the film released. So, I went to visit her and just two days ago I had watched the film. I was seated next to her bed in the room. Everyone was thinking she will die, but I started reading her, wondering if she wanted to do something or drink her favourite soda. I have never been so intense and deep. So, maybe it was a big change for me.
What kind of roles do you want to do, now?
I am doing Rohit Shetty’s film and Sooraj Barjatya’s Prem Ratan Dhan Payao. I am also doing the Telugu film, Kick 2. It’s my pagalpan to do a film in a language that I don’t understand. I feel like an illiterate because I can’t talk the language, can’t read the poster or anything. But that’s my way to challenge myself. And it’s your typical south film acting, loud and lots of dialoguebaazi. I am here to enjoy my work and have fun. For all you know one day you may find me playing a sitar somewhere, so there is no set plan.
Are there any directors you wish to work with?
I have worked with directors from all different schools of filmmaking. I have done commercial, intellectual and not so intense films. So there’s no particular person I want to work with. One person I wish I could have worked with is Satyajit Ray.
Is there a genre you enjoy most?
I want to work with good people.
You are an ace at comedy. Common belief is that it’s toughest to act funny. Comment.
I think films have been dissected too much. There is no such thing as comedy, drama, etc. People have formed opinions and concluded that laughing means comedy and crying means tragedy. As an actor I do my job and make it as real as possible. I don’t differentiate it as comedy or tragedy. If you are an actor it can’t be difficult. Yes, timing and playing off co-actors is crucial in comedy.
As an actor do you like to rehearse or prefer to be spontaneous?
I did a TV show called Office Office that also had Pankaj Kapur, who is an acting school itself. We used to have dialogue readings 15 times. We were constantly reminded that we aren’t allowed to change it. The show’s writer was Ashwini Dheer who wrote good dialogues. Initially we rehearsed 15 times, then 10 times and eventually five times. Over a period, all the actors were on the same page and knew when and how much to pause. I like to rehearse for every role. I am going to do Rohit Shetty’s film with the mind-set of AD and vice versa. Every actor needs rehearsals. I have watched big actors constantly busy on their phones on the sets, and just before the shot, they will check their face in the mirror and are ready to roll. I think one shouldn’t cheat the audience so much.
Which film / role is closest to your heart?
Charas. I had a small role in it. Tigmanshu Dhulia was my batch-mate and room partner at National School of Drama. One day he called me and said he has a role for me. Tigmanshu said that there is only one memorable blind man in the industry, AK Hangal’s character from Sholay. He wanted me to be the second best. I agreed to do it provided I could reach prior to my shooting dates. I went on the sets, enjoyed myself, ate, chilled and basically had a good time. On the day of shooting, I got loose motions. I somehow managed it but it was an anti-climax. In fact even at the dubbing I was in bad shape. Sadly, the film didn’t work. But I remember I got messages from people who had watched it saying I had done a fab job.
Do you worry about the commercial success of the film you take up?
No, that is not my headache. My part is to support the people who are thinking about the business with my performance. I am concerned with who is shooting the film and what is the location, commercial matters are not my concern.
You have been in the industry for the last two decades. Are you happy with your growth and journey so far?
I don’t know if it is a good or bad thing, but earlier people have never known me by my name, they have always known me by my character. This means that people liked my worked. But now (after release of AD) people know me by my name. It is a big thing and doesn’t happen to everyone. At last, mujhe ‘naam’ mil gaya! Workwise, I am satisfied. I am not seeking a particular role. I want to work with people who will bring out my talent and I can bring out their talent. That will be such a wonderful harmony.