Actor Pankaj Tripathi has been in the industry for over a decade. He has played performance – driven roles in movies like Gangs of Wasseypur, Fukrey and the much-acclaimed, Masaan, to name a few. In his upcoming film, Nil Battey Sannata, Pankaj plays a simple school teacher, a stark difference from his previous dark roles.

Here are some excerpts from an interview with the actor, where he talks about his humble roots and how films like Nil Battey Sannata will help him change his onscreen image.

Pankaj Tripathi

Pankaj Tripathi

Tell us about your character in Nil Battey Sannata

The story revolves around a government school, where the mother-daughter protagonists come to study. My character is the Principal cum mathematics teacher in the school. He comes into their life to help them out, because theirs is a total hopeless or ‘nil battey sannata’ case. Maths teachers are usually boring. But my character is not boring at all. He is funny and entertaining. There is a comic edge to this role but it is not mimicry or buffoonery or slapstick comedy that we usually see in films. I myself have been a government school student. So for the preparation of this role, I tried to recall the mannerisms and sentences of my own teachers.

There is a comic edge to this role but it is not mimicry or buffoonery or slapstick comedy that we usually see in films

When you were offered the role, did you immediately agree to do it or did you take your time to think about it?

Prior to this film, I have mostly done negative roles. My onscreen image has been that of a gunslinger or close to that. Gangs of Wasseypur was a major factor that made me reach the audience and create that image. At the back of my mind, I had a resolve to break that image, but at the same time I feared whether the audience will be able to accept me in this simple positive role of a teacher. I told Ashwiny (Iyer Tiwari, Director) that I am ready to do the role, but am also a little scared about it. She asked me not to worry and got me on board.

The first thing she asked me was to get rid of my beard. The unique thing about her is that she gives her actors a lot of freedom to perform. She told me that she had written the script, and now it was up to me to perform it in the way that I wanted to. I added some things to my character that initially weren’t a part of the script. When Nitesh (Tiwari, Director & Writer), her husband, saw the first cut of the film, he was thrilled to see my performance. He complimented me by saying that I had taken the character that he’d written to a next level! I had a great time shooting with the kids and Swara (Bhaskar, actress). She had immense faith in me as a co-star. We have another movie coming up together called Anarkali Arawali. Anyone who sees Nil Battey Sannata, will be shocked to see our characters in Anarkali Aarawali as we are poles apart in that movie.


Do you like surprising your audiences with your choice of roles?

Absolutely! There is no fun in playing similar characters. I want the audience to take back something new from every time that they watch me on-screen. Even though my character was small in Masaan, people were surprised to see me in that role of a railway employee. The ones who weren’t too observant of my characters before, couldn’t believe that it was the same person who had played the character of Sultan (Gangs of Wasseypur). I want to give the audience something new and unique compared to my previous films. Nil Battey Sannata is a film where one will laugh, cry and even get inspired towards the end. The characters will stay with you for sometime.

I want to explore the different characters that are within me

You have worked across different genres. You have played a villain, done comedy, and will even play a dancer in a forthcoming film. Is there any preferred genre that your most comfortable with?

All the genres are my favorite. It is like I have five daughters. So I cannot possibly say that any one is my most favorite. I want to explore and push my limits. I didn’t know that I could dance. In my next film, I have to do an erotic dance in some of the sequences. And Shabina Khan teased me about it. I want to explore the different characters that are within me. There may be a Hitler or Gandhiji within me, or a good father, sensible husband, supportive brother, teacher or a totally unscrupulous man. If I was good then to what extent, if I was bad then to what extent, if I was a teacher I would probably like my character, Srivastavji, in Nil Battey Sannata. These are all parts and pieces of me. For this character, I have borrowed some elements from my childhood teacher, but at the same time I have added things of my own. I have added my own physicality, which is very peculiar to only the character. The way he walks, the way he stops, etc. But of course, it all has to have to be in sync with the cinematic angle also.


The Cast and Director of Nil Battey Sannata

The Cast and Director of Nil Battey Sannata

In reality, are you close to any of the characters that you’ve portrayed?

This is a very difficult question to answer. In reality, I am closer to the positive characters that I portrayed. Hopefully, after this film, I’ll get to play more positive characters, like in Masaan and Nil Battey Sannata. I like to explore the human angle of my characters. If I am playing a butcher, I will try and establish his roots. That helps me play the character better. It is very difficult to say how I am in real life. But I am not filmy. I am very sensitive to what happens in the society.

Commercial cinema is very important, but at the same time, films like Nil Battey Sannata are essential too

Which is the one character or subject that you would like to explore?

I am a farmer’s son. And the condition of farmers in the country has saddened me. I have also done farming and grown my own crops. And now, there are so many issues that affect our farmers, and there is a lot of politics involved with them. I would love to play the role of a farmer’ son. I am in talks about it with a very good filmmaker. I love the character of Hiraman from the movie Teesri Kasam. I love the film’s writer, Phanishwar Nath Renu’s stories. I like to read Hindi literature. Uday Prakash is another writer whom I love to read. There is a need for more such stories in cinema. I don’t oppose commercial cinema. Commercial cinema is very important, but at the same time, films like Nil Battey Sannata are essential too. It is a very relatable film. You will feel that it depicts either your mother’s or your own struggle. Good cinema is only that which is relatable.


Do you think that the Indian audience is evolving to accept different kinds of cinema? 

Definitely! With the Internet, our audience has become much more mature. They now have access to films made in France, America, Iran and other places. They know what storytelling is. Commercial cinema is an integral part of films too. Without commercial cinema, all the cinema halls in the country won’t be able to survive, and will have to be converted into cold-storage! (laughs) They pump money into the industry.

You cannot judge an actor’s talent just by looking at him

Would you also say that the industry is now more receptive to outsiders?

It is receptive to outsiders. And I am an example. It took me ten years to reach this stage. If my father was in the industry too, I would have been given a chance in three years itself, but at the same time, I would have been rejected in the fourth year if I didn’t have the talent. These days packaging is also important. If you go into any product industry, you judge the product just by looking at it. But the same is not true of an actor. You cannot judge an actor’s talent just by looking at him. You will have to see him perform.

Sometimes, a particular role attracts as many as ten thousand people who audition for it. If the person, who gets selected, proves his worth in his very first chance, then his career-train is set towards the right path. That is luck. Others have to wait for their chance.The number of people looking for a job in the film industry is so much more than the actual number of roles. This disproportionality sets back many people, whether they are so called outsiders or insiders. It takes time for a person to be given an opportunity to prove his mettle.


-Transcribed by Shikhar Goyal

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Pankaj Tripathi
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