“I carry a part of Atalji at home and in my heart” says Pankaj Tripathi

Even before he was offered a role to play the late political leader and India’s former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on screen, Pankaj Tripathi was a “dedicated” fan of the late leader and his poems. Both Vajpayee’s philosophy on life and the way of living resonated with Tripathi and the latter even nurtured a collection of the former PM’s books and writings, that continue to don his shelves to this day. In a telephonic conversation, Tripathi enthusiastically recited a few of Vajpayee’s poems which he said he loved the most.

Over a call that went well over 45 minutes, it was a treat to listen to the ace actor reciting ‘Kadam Milakar Chalna Hoga,’ and ‘Geet naya Gaata hoon,’ over the phone in a powerful baritone and an impeccable finesse. We began talking about his last film, Kadak Singh, in which he was simply required to be himself on camera in order to get into Kadak Singh’s shoes. As against that, ‘Main Atal Hoon,’ directed by Ravi Jadhav and produced by Bhansali Productions, required him to completely forget himself and get into the shoes of a multidimensional and widely loved political leader who was known for being a true visionary and taking the country on the path of progress

It definitely wasn’t easy but at the very beginning when he was approached for the role, Tripathi knew that he had overcome the main challenge which was to ‘look the part,’ that is, to come as close as possible to being Vajpayee. How? Because Singh, the producer, had shared with him an AI-created image of him as the character (Vajpayee). So convincing was Tripathi’s look as Vajpayee, that the actor said yes to playing the role though the script wasn’t ready by then.   

“I have grown up watching his political rallies. In fact, his (Vajpayee’s) is the only rally I ever attended back in my hometown, during my college years,” says Tripathi. For this role, Tripathi underwent rigorous research and training, because this is the role that he will be most remembered for down the line when he looks back at his filmography and the contributions he made to cinema. “It is an absolute honour and a delight to essay the life and times of Vajpayeeji, who has in a way also been my role model, especially as a poet,” Tripathi tells THE WEEK. The actor’s affable and headstrong personality combined with a calm and self-assured demeanour, make him the right choice to play the political leader who, too, has been known for his calm, yet, determined disposition. 

Tripathi’s own filmography reflects diversity and experimentation, especially so in the past few months, with two very diametrically opposite films – Kadak Singh and Main Atal Hoon. While the former was a quick project that was over and done within a month, prep and research into Main Atal Hoon went on for months on end.

Over the course of almost half an hour of our conversation, Tripathi talks about his veneration of the man about whom he’s been reading a lot, lately. “I have his books of poems at my home and I’ve read them over and over again,” he says, delightfully. Tripathi made it a point to interact with journalists who had interviewed Vajpyaee during his PM days, so as to understand the latter’s body language and more about the causes he espoused. “The point is to be Atal Bihari, from within, not just from the outside,” says Tripathi. Does he also believe in his politics and principles? “Well, that is a discussion for another time,” he says. 

The film, Main Atal Hoon, which will be released tomorrow, starts with Atalji’s childhood and traces his journey through his days as a political figure and then culminates 1999, with the Kargil War. Meanwhile, Tripathi, who has seven to eight projects to work on, back to back, including Gulkanda Tales, Stree 2, Mirzapur 3, Metro in Dino, Murder Mubarak and Criminal Justice 4, is “striving to life a slow life, to really channelise my energies. And in that sense sometimes it is essential to watch a slow-paced movie in order to enjoy it to the fullest and take back maximum joy from it,” he says.

But just how does one hope to live life in the slow lane, when juggling over seven to eight projects?  “I’m trying to find my own pace. Soon, I will streamline it all and take up less work in the coming years. Sometimes, when you’re really hungry, you tend to overeat. I didn’t even realise when I became so busy, but I realise that one cannot and should not be working 365 days a year. I want to slow down now,” says the national award winning actor who was most recently seen in Kadak Singh with Sanjana Sanghi, Mimi with Kriti Sanon and OMG 2 with Akshay Kumar.  

The first time Pankaj Tripathi saw a professional camera in operation was on the set of Kannada film Chigurida Kanasu (2003). The 26-year-old National School of Drama (NSD) graduate played a cameo as the hero’s friend. A year later, he came to Mumbai with his wife, Mridula, looking for work. In an industry where everyone has a story of struggle to offer, Tripathi talks about his wit and wordplay, acknowledging fortunate strokes of serendipity.

Upon arriving in Mumbai, he noticed that “the doors to the Who’s Who would not open easily”. So, Tripathi formulated what he calls his “ingenious access trope”. He would gently tell the security guard outside a studio that he had been sent in by “Ishwarji” to meet the assistant director. Soon the trick started working. While conversing with the person that he got to meet, if he is asked who Ishwarji was, Tripathi would smile and point up, saying that he was referring to God. With an unwavering belief in his craft and a strong determination to succeed, Tripathi made inroads as an outsider.