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Indian actor Pankaj Tripathi was born in the small village of Belsand in Bihar to farmer parents who remain blissfully unaware of his growing influence in Hindi cinema.

The actor, in an interview with Gulf News, revealed that his folks only acquired a television set last year and have never even seen his films in a theater. It’s not that they aren’t proud of him, but rather, his parents are far removed from the world of movies, with their priorities rightfully revolving around their provincial life.

“It’s an inspiring journey for others, and it’s been a fruitful one for me. But if you look at where I come from, it has been really tough. To make a career in Hindi films is next to impossible,” said Tripathi in Hindi.

Pankaj Tripathi
Indian actor Pankaj Tripathi

But the alumnus of the prestigious National School Of Drama cracked that elusive code in an industry that’s notoriously clannish and nepotistic by taking on roles – both big and small. This 47-year-old talent made fleeting appearances in several films before getting noticed in 2012 with director Anurag Kashyap’s gritty drama ‘Gangs Of Wasseypur’.

Bollywood folklore has it that he even played girl roles in amateur plays staged in his tiny village during his childhood.

“The deal with me is painfully simple: basically, I am a happy person. Even with a small role, I am incredibly happy. At no point did I insist on doing big, meaty roles alone during my initial days of struggle. I derived happiness from doing any kind of role. But I got lucky when I got interesting roles that surpassed my ambitions and expectations. In my eyes, sincerity and hard work are as important as talent or your command of your craft. Plus, the way in which the audience perceives you is a huge contributing factor,” said Tripathi.

His last sentence rang blissfully true when he stepped on stage in 2022 to accept an award at a star-studded ceremony in Abu Dhabi. The arena, filled with adoring fans, erupted in cheers that outshone the reception given to Bollywood A-lister Salman Khan at the same event.

He walked home that night with the Best Supporting Actor (Male) award for his turn in the wacky comedy ‘Ludo’, in which he played an eccentric gangster. Taken aback by the thunderous reception, Tripathi won everyone’s hearts with an endearing acceptance speech that went: “I had a speech ready, but you all snatched my thank-you speech by giving me such a warm welcome… You are my biggest support.” When this journalist, who was covering the awards night, reminded him of that glorious moment, Tripathi joked that all his friends from Bihar who are working in the UAE capital would have turned up if the entry to that awards night was free.

Bollywood actor Pankaj Tripathi.
Actor Pankaj Tripathi is the man of the moment at an awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi

“Just from my small village, there will be thousands who would have loved to see me take home the award… I am that common man that they relate to in every sense. One of the things that has worked in my favor was that relatability factor. They feel they know me and have met me. My characters are very close to what you see in real life,” said Tripathi. In his latest OTT outing, he plays the former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the biopic ‘Main Atal Hoon’, out on ZEE5 Global now. The movie chronicles the life of one of India’s most eminent statesmen from the Bharatiya Janata Party and his ascent amidst the shifting political landscape and evolving nation. Reviews have unanimously praised the actor’s remarkable performance and the gravitas that he brought to this role. Apart from being a widely respected parliamentarian, Vajpayee was known for his dreamy and vivid poetry. He was also a popular author.

“He was one of my favourite politicians, orators, and poets… I found his poems – lines that go ‘Haar nahi manunga, rar nahi thanunga’ [I will not give up] hugely inspiring… Both our journeys are similar. We both are from rural India and we both are ordinary folks,” said Tripathi. However, he was worried if he could convincingly pull it off.

“I was careful not to mimic and imitate him… Only during scenes around political rallies did I imitate him. In other scenes, I made sure I did not imitate his mannerisms because that’s a reductive way to approach such a role… While Indian audiences tend to look for similarities to the real person in a biopic, I was more focused on tapping into Atalji’s inner thoughts. I didn’t want it to look like a caricature,” said Tripathi. He also believes that audiences following Hindi cinema have begun liking stories that are considered off-beat and not just mainstream content. Playing a catalyst in his career were the numerous web streaming platforms.

Pankaj Tripathi in a still from 'Main Atal Hoon', out on ZEE5 Global now

“OTT has played a big role in my success… Every actor in Mumbai is busy doing a big show. The actors who work for OTT platforms are genuinely talented. Without talent, you cannot survive on those platforms. In fact, you are able to find out minute details like how many minutes a viewer spent on a series or show. With movies in cinema, you never can count how many exited the theater before the movie ended,” said Tripathi. Audiences being acquainted with content from around the world following the “internet revolution” has also made them more discerning, believes this actor. In the web series ‘Mirzapur’, he played the ruthless-yet-composed Kaleen Bhaiya with aplomb. He’s one of the few actors who can seamlessly transition from comic to intense roles. In ‘Fukrey’, he shone as the quirky Pandit while his portrayal of the dark and menacing Sultan Qureshi in ‘Gangs Of Wasseypur’ was his breakout role.

Pankaj Tripathi in a still from 'Main Atal Hoon', in which he plays the former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee

“Remember that story is far more important than the actors… I am a common man’s hero. I always think that I am an ordinary person in an extraordinary profession,” said Tripathi. But he doesn’t want to be a poster boy for anti-nepotism because he’s not into labels. But there’s one label that has stuck.

“I have become this reluctant motivational speaker. Many take snippets from interviews and turn it into reels that double up as life lessons… At times I feel I speak too much in interviews,” said Tripathi with a laugh. But the funny bit? He didn’t let us go without a life-affirming lesson.

“I was standing under my mango tree at home in Mumbai. I saw the ripe mango and marveled at how the tree lets go of its fruit once it’s ripened. But as humans, when we get the fruits of labor, we try to grab it and keep it close to our chests. We don’t let it go… The real greatness lies in letting go,” said Tripathi.

Don’t Miss It!

‘Main Atal Hoon’ is streaming on ZEE5 Global now.