It happened while he was working on his latest film, a psychological thriller Gali Guleiyan directed by NRI Dipesh Jain. Playing the complex character of a man who rapidly loses grip over reality, Bajpayee came dangerously close to a breakdown.
Recalling the incident, the method actor says, “We were shut in the claustrophobic gullis of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi. I play a man who is deeply troubled to the point that I no longer can tell the difference between make-believe and reality. On the 20th day on location, I asked my director Dipesh to shut down the shooting, because the role was affecting me deeper than I expected. I was on the verge of a mental breakdown.”
Luckily for the film, the director refused to listen to Manoj. “Dipesh would shoot another traumatic sequence and then lock me in a room where I had no choice but to sleep. I’d come out refreshed and then do another scene that knocked me out psychologically. So it went until the end of the shooting. By then, I had a tough time drawing the line between the character and me. I didn’t know where one ended and the other began.”
The first thing that Manoj did after the completion of Gulli Guleiyan is get rid of all the physical traits of my his character. “I shaved off all the facial hair, trimmed my hair and generally discarded the unkempt dishevelled look of a man who has stopped caring about how he looks. Then I looked at myself hard in the mirror for days reminding myself that this was the real me, not the man I played in the film. At the after-party on the film’s completion, I guzzled down a whole bottle of wine. It helped me forget the man I had just become.”
But then leaving behind the character is not easy. “Somewhere these characters of traumatized disoriented misfits that I play have stayed with me. When people meet me after some years they say I look older than I should. That’s because I carry all these existentially burdened character within me.”
Manoj describes his character in Gali Guleiyan as his toughest role to date. “He is not only the toughest character I played but also according to me the most complex written in Indian cinema. The challenge here was not only physical but emotional.”
And yet it is the commercial roles like the one in Satyameva Jayate that get the audience.
Manoj stoutly dismisses this line of thought. “That’s a very pessimistic view of my career. If I start thinking like that, I’d never be able to give all of myself to films like Aligarh and Gali Guleiyan. And who told you Satyameva Jayate is not challenging? The challenge is to not get sucked into the system, to be part of it and yet remain detached from it and fight it. Because you know that the mainstream cinema will never accept you. It will only use your talent. So you use that reality of that situation to fuel your idealism. Every Satyameva Jayate that succeeds gives me the power to do three Aligarhs and Gali Guleiyans.”