I learned the word chirkut (moron) from Sanjay Mishra. The fever of the ’99 World Cup was at its peak – and the usual commentary box of Harsha Bhogle, Navjot Singh Siddhu and Geoffrey Boycott had an unlikely companion in Apple Singh (played by Mishra). Underlining the stereotypes of an ‘Indian-according-to-a-foreigner’, Mishra managed to fill the caricature with surprising warmth. He not only became the mascot for the Indian campaign, but where the team barely made it past the preliminary stages, Apple Singh was one of the few bright spots of that English summer.
This was nearly two decades ago and the actor continued to play the butt of ‘Uttar Pradesh Ke Mishraji’-centric jokes for a long time, until Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi came along in 2014. A surprisingly introspective film about a middle-aged man’s ideological crisis post retirement, it single-handedly changed Mishra’s image. Suddenly, he was more than a stock character in a Rohit Shetty film with a strangely comic name.
Since then, while Mishra has appeared in Dilwale, Great Grand Masti and Golmaal Again, he’s also done films like Masaan, Kadvi Hawa and Anarkali of Aarah. “See, one is a T20 match, while the other is a Test match. But you have to be on your A-game in both,” says Sanjay Mishra, reviving shades of Apple Singh and his eccentric cricket analogies.
Currently shooting for Inder Kumar’s Total Dhamaal, he says, “In a Kadvi Hawa, the film entirely depends on me. So you have to be physically, mentally present all the time. But in a big film like this, there are so many other actors so even if it doesn’t do well, I know I’ll escape with only a few scratches. There’s less responsibility, obviously. Haan, make-up dono mein karna padhta hai.” Like the life of any character actor in Bollywood, Mishra is between independent roles that few people end up watching, and the big Bollywood spectacle that makes little use of Mishra’s skills.
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The conversation eventually moves to the lack of roles written for middle-aged/non-hero actors. “Are they written at all? When was the last time a film like Saraansh was made?” Mishra asks. He is 55 years old, born only a couple of years before the Khan troika. And only Aamir has played a father, along the lines of Mishra’s Baauji in Ankhon Dekhi. If this doesn’t highlight Bollywood’s #Forever28 delusion, then nothing will.
And that’s why Mishra welcomed the story of his forthcoming film Angrezi Mein Kehte Hai – “I hadn’t been offered a role like this – a man above 50 rediscovering the love in his marriage. This, and I discovered that my director Harish Vyas and I had similar taste in music . He belongs to the school of the Basu Bhattacharya and has a slight Gulzar influence, in the way he weaves music into the movie.”
Angrezi Mein Kehte Hai stars Sanjay Mishra, Pankaj Tripathi and Anshuman Jha as the film’s male leads. While the former two actors have finally found fame and glory after decades of struggle, Jha still seems to be on the periphery of recognition. The youngest among the three actors, Jha made his debut in Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD) in 2010. While his colleague from that film, Rajkummar Rao has gone on to build a legion of fans, Jha is still relegated to bit-roles in films like Pari. Does Mishra have any words of wisdom to help his co-star get through this period? “I would tell Anshuman, that the last decade he’s spent after LSD, it’s been a nice rehearsal for him. The good roles will now start knocking on his front door, he’s not one of those overnight sensations. And after having been around for so long, he needs to understand that he has what it takes to survive over here. It’s just getting started for him.”
Looks like the Kadvi Hawa actor has been managing his expectations for a while now, when he says, “Imagine if I hadn’t starred in Ankhon Dekhi, *does a gibberish expression from a comic role* – I was getting a lot of love from these quarters too, and I guess I would have continued to do these roles. The kind of variety that I’m being offered today, is something I never imagined. I didn’t know I would have the luxury of choosing an Angrezi Mein Kehte Hai and a Total Dhamaal in the same year.”
He insists that one of the most important qualities of a good actor is to remain ‘contemporary’. Living in a bubble, it is quite easy for any Bollywood actor to lose touch with how the audience is evolving. He talks about being thankful to get paid to do, something he himself would have paid to do. “At least, I don’t have to go to an office and sign my attendance every day” – says Mishra and Apple Singh flashes before my eyes. This one’s been a long journey.