Although it is a celebration of entertaining global cinema, this month’s BFI London Film Festival will also have thought-provoking films that will cause plenty of debate.
One these is much-talked-about movie Aligarh, which stars Manoj Bajpayee in the lead role and is based on real-life events. Never one to shy away from a challenge, the acclaimed actor plays a professor in India who loses his job for being gay and fights in the high court to get it back.
The entire team behind the powerful Hansal Mehta-directed drama, including co-star Rajkummar Rao, hopes the movie starts a healthy debate about homosexuality, which is still illegal in India.
Eastern Eye caught up with Manoj to talk about the fascinating film, acting, his love for normality, acting and more.
Everybody wants to work with you right now. How are you selecting your projects?
Asjad, I’m just taking things slowly and just measuring each step. After so many years in this industry, nothing seems to excite me too soon and that becomes quite a problem. Also I keep myself updated with world cinema and what is going on. So if something really interesting and exciting comes, which is doing something new, whether it’s mainstream or a very niche project, I would love to do those kinds of roles and films.
So you prefer projects that are out of your comfort zone?
This is what I am saying. An actor’s job is to act and not repeat himself, and also to keep challenging his own range or limitations. Also to keep breaking all the disadvantages that keeps on piling up in terms of your performances. These are challenges that excite me quite a lot. They put me in a danger zone, and to come out of that whirlpool is something that is very exciting for me.
How did you feel when ace director Hansal Mehta approached you with Aligarh?
Hansal has been a friend of mine for a long time. I mean, he did his first film with me around 14 or 15 years back. Hansal could not solidify his base in the industry for a very long time. However, recently, in his last few films he has been exciting people with his thoughts, cinema and his political views. I know him so well and we interacted closely not only in a professional manner but also as friends, we have been very close. But Hansal was very apprehensive about contacting me initially for some reason.
Why was that?
The casting director told me Hansal was quite apprehensive and thought I may say no to him, so he was not coming straight to me, but asked me, ‘why don’t you just go through the script?’ I spoke to Hansal and (laughs) I abused him. Then we went through the script and I said, ‘let’s do it’. I knew the society that we live in here in India is quite homophobic; not only this society, in fact, the world generally is largely homophobic. But in a society like India, which is quite traditional in many ways, I thought it would be quite a job for me to do. That excited me.
But were you worried Aligarh was even too risky for you?
This is what I’m trying to tell you – if you give me anything risky, I get very excited. I love to do that. Like I said, I love to put myself into a zone which is very scary. Just to think what will come out of what seems impossible is something that excites me a lot.
The film is based on a real story. How aware were you of that?
I must admit that I had very little idea about it. As soon as Hansal spoke to me about it, I Googled the gentleman’s life and I got some pointers from there. Then I spent a long time with Hansal preparing for it. This is the first time that I’ve actually conducted a workshop for myself for preparation. Usually what happens is that there will be workshops for all the other actors, but here I was the only one. I wanted to be fully prepared when I went on the sets, prepared fully with my own interpretation. For 10 to 15 days, I gave myself four to five hours every day, just doing something with the help of an assistant director.
We associate you with intense and powerful roles, but in Aligarh, you had to play someone very sensitive. Was that a challenge?
I have done softer roles too, but that was quite long back. Recently, yes, I must admit I haven’t done anything on the softer side, but this is the softest role I have ever done. This man improved me as a human being, I would say. Just by playing him, just by knowing him, just by being with him for so long, I came out as an improved person. Today I feel like I am a much better person than I ever was before shooting the film.
You must be very happy the film has been selected at this year’s London Film Festival?
I am overjoyed and so pleased that the film is doing the festival rounds. It is exciting each and every person, including the London Film Festival people who have seen the film. I am very excited that I have started to hear positive words and am excited for the audiences who will be privileged to watch the film for the first time at the festival.
Do you have a favourite moment in the movie?
There are too many, actually. There is one whole sequence when this young journalist is asking my character questions, but he is just looking at the river, its beauty and nature. He is in such a spiritual zone at that point of time. I think that was the most difficult scene to perform for me. To get into that kind of a zone, to get into the character and feel him. That moment was very difficult for me.
Are you hoping this film starts a debate about homosexuality in India?
That is the motive. If it really starts a debate in a very healthy manner in our society, that will be the real success of this film.
You have played an incredible range of characters in your career so far. Is there one you haven’t played but would love to?
I always say that I don’t have any role in my mind. I am keeping my choices open and wait for the scripts to come. My mind is completely free of any character all the time. I’m just ready for a great role that falls in my lap.
I think you’re the finest actor in India right now. What is the secret of a good performance?
First of all, thank you very much for this huge compliment. If you ask me the secret, I keep myself away from the industry all the time. I stay away from the whole race; the race to achieve glamour, the race to achieve stardom, the race to be the best looking guy or best party man. I try to be with real people most of the time, the real people outside the industry. I love to drop my daughter at school, I love taking her to the activity classes and I love to shop for vegetables. These are the things I enjoy the most. If you ask me what I enjoy most after acting, it is this, to be with real people.
Finally, why do you love cinema?
This is the only way I can express myself, this is the only way I can voice my opinion, this is the only way to be somebody else. If you meet me in person, without two glasses of wine, I don’t open my mouth. That is the kind of reserved person I am. I find my expression in cinema.
Aligarh is being screened at The BFI London Film Festival, which starts next Wednesday (7).