Is it possible to just be an actor without giving into the trappings of a celebrity, especially in the age of social media? What happens when a public figure has introverted personality traits? Decoding Vinay Pathak — the actor who has mastered the art of self-preservation — through his most personal work yet
By Ananya Ghosh
It is not every day that you watch a play for the seventh time and it still feels fresh. And it is not every day that you come across an actor like Vinay Pathak who ensures that. First staged in 2012, Nothing like Lear, Rajat Kapoor’s unique take on Shakespeare’s darkest play, King Lear is a one-man show where Pathak, dressed as a clown and spouting gibberish-spattered Shakespeare, delivers a tour de force performance every single time, sometimes twice in a day, in front of a live audience. “It’s like a musical concert/recital. I have to find my note every time and play with it according to how the audience is taking it on that particular day. The most exciting part of it is that it’s a different set of people every time, sitting there waiting for me to tell them the story. They don’t know the story I am about to tell.”
While mostly reliant on humour and comedy, something the actor is a pro at, it is also a nuanced exploration of aging, sibling rivalry, patriarchy, betrayal, and the disintegration of a father-daughter relationship. And Pathak plays it to perfection justifying his stalwart commendation.
In one instance, the mono act reimagines one of the cruellest scenes ever written by the bard, that of Cornwall gouging out Gloucester’s eyes, and here more than a Shakespearean clown, Pathak is closer to Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. Although known for his comic turns in now-iconic movies like Khosla Ka Ghosla, Chalo Dilli and of course, Bheja Fry, it is in the shades of grey, which he masterfully contrasts with his personal brand of genial charm, that he is exquisite. But, it is a space he explores sparingly on screen.
In recent times, Ramesh Gupta of Made In Heaven (2019) was one such character. Pathak, the endearing ‘common man’ of Hindi cinema, plays this vile next-door-neighbour with so much nuance that you almost start to hate the actor. But this homophobic character eventually gets a scene to redeem himself, where he admits to being a closeted gay man moonlighting as straight. His actions get a different layer of poignancy, when one notes how fear psychosis can cause a person to perpetrate the same atrocities one dreads becoming the victim of.
The same year, the actor was also seen in films as diverse as Chintu Ka Birthday, Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi, Axone, The Tashkent Files, and Luka Chuppi. Be it the cordial Madan Tiwari (Chintu Ka Birthday), an illegal immigrant and a doting dad trying to protect his family stuck in war-torn Iraq, while trying to bring some cheer by organising a birthday party for a 6-year-old, or the racist, casteist, bigoted, local neta Vishnu Trivedi (Luka Chuppi), whose daughter wants to be in a live-in relationship — the indomitable actor plays each character with earnestness and zeal, ensuring a memorable act in every single outing. Take the sample of this particular year and multiply it with a career spanning almost three decades that includes movies as varied as Hip Hip Hurray, Gour Hari Dastaan, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Dasvidaniya, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Island City, A Suitable Boy, and more recently, the two spectacular seasons of Special OPS, and that might give you some idea of this actor’s versatility as well as consistency.
However, there is one role that the prolific actor, who had started his career in 1996 with Mira Nair’s Fire, still finds challenging; and that is of being a celebrity. While he loves the attention on his characters, as Vinay Pathak, he can be a recluse. You will not find too many interviews of this man, and even if you do, you will mostly find him heaping praise on his colleagues instead of talking about himself — unusual for an actor as one assumes the tribe to be born with a certain amount of narcissism built into their DNA. In fact, a glimpse of his drawing room reflects his unwillingness of putting himself on display. Amid all the posters and pictures that adorn the walls of the house, one can hardly find pictures of him or his films. The one I manage to spot is a small framed one where he is gazing at a green room mirror — but he quickly points out that it is not the usual vanity shot of an actor as I had assumed, but it is him gazing at the reflection of the character he was playing instead.
“I don’t want to lose myself. I don’t want attention on Vinay Pathak… what he is or what he wants to be. Even when I get it, it scares me. Maybe I am still that frightened boy inside. I don’t like to talk about myself if it’s not in the context of a job. For example, I am very happy to speak about my attempt and movement as an artiste when I am approaching to understand Hamlet and how I’d like to imbibe him, the challenges that would baffle me and coax me every time I confront his dilemma, how would I make them my own, while trying to bestow a glimpse of his traumatic soul. But the moment I have to explain Vinay the mortal, the uselessness of that information starts to grow in my mind,” he says as we sit down for a rare freewheeling chat at his Andheri home, where I attempt to talk to the private person behind the public figure.
The actor known for playing the various shades of the common man on screen seems keen on holding on to that man off screen. Being an actor, especially of his calibre and credentials, essentially, also means becoming a celebrity. But he is reluctant to embrace the trappings that come with the tag. It is a commendable attempt at self-preservation, but one wonders if in today’s age of social media and selfpromotion is it a viable choice?
“True. An actor has to satiate the public even when he’s not in the midst of telling a tale. But, I don’t feel the need to be in the public eye all the time. It takes away my ordinariness and I find it very gratifying to keep my ordinariness intact, or at least not to lose it completely. I don’t have a PR or a publicist because I don’t feel the need for them. In such scenarios, I feel embarrassed very easily. And that is why I stick to what I know best; I play characters and tell stories that don’t put onus on speaking or disclosing my personal self. I am very boring otherwise anyways!” he guffaws.
If one attributes his vehement reluctance of being in the eye of the public to his introverted traits, it becomes more interesting to view him as an actor doing a play like Lear, which sees him in a solo act and has the eye of every audience present in the theatre transfixed on him for the entire duration. “Stage could be very terrifying with the theatre full of audience’s gaze stuck on you. And it is more so when one is acutely aware of the spotlight. The idea is to go beyond that. You realise that you are the process, that the audience is there for a reason, and that the spotlight is there as a technical reminder of your limitations— you step out of that sphere and you’re in darkness, and all that you’re doing will lose its shine if it’s not within the radius of it. In front of the camera, it’s a different process but somewhat similar. You learn to understand the frames, your parameters and your spotlight. It has a whole lot less to do with if you are looking good. It’s still as challenging though. I get a bit of a stage fright every time just before the show, and then the process of building from that starts. It’s really something, how every time I have to work towards getting into the rhythm of Lear,” reveals Pathak. Maybe he feels too naked and vulnerable in front of people until he puts on the garb of a character; maybe a tinge of fiction makes him feel safe in his reality, or maybe he is a man too consumed by his craft — something that lifts him above the ‘ordinary’ and hence his reluctance to slip into the mundane. Why settle for the prosaic when you can create poetry through your work?
Lear also happens to be the most personal of his works. Over the years, the play has not only evolved along with him but, even if unintentionally, has also seen the intensely private person bare a side that forms a huge part of his personal identity — it is that of a doting dad. It isn’t rare for an actor to draw inspiration from life experiences to create a character. Pathak had done the same during one of his recent outings. In Special Ops he plays Abbas Sheikh, a loyal and sprightly sub-inspector with the Delhi Police. It is a character and a world he is too familiar with. His father was a diligent police officer and having seen that life up close definitely helped him create such a delectable and nuanced character on screen. But it didn’t entail this kind of baring one’s soul as playing Lear.
“At the core of the play is a father’s relationship with his daughters,” says Pathak. “I have two daughters, one of them was just 9-years-old when we had opened the play; she is now 20 and left home to study abroad. Earlier, while doing the play we would speculate about the day when she grows up and leaves for higher studies or to pursue a career. The pathos of that was in the imagination, until it happened last year. Now the emotions have become so real that it takes me 10 seconds to gather some control over my faculties, when I am acting as Lear on stage.” But that’s where he draws the line.
The thespian, who will be next seen in Shiladitya Bora’s directorial debut, Bhagwan Bharose, set to release in July this year, is looking at an exciting calendar having wrapped up shooting Sriram Raghavan’s Merry Christmas, Zoya Akhtar’s The Archies and Rajat Kapoor’s Everyone Loves Saurabh Handa. But chances are this will probably be his only interview in some time where you manage to get a fleeting glimpse of the mortal behind the iconic; the person behind the persona.
Reproduced with permission from Mansworldindia.com