Vinay Pathak blames it on a play he saw years ago in New York as an MBA student. That\'s when he decided to ditch his future as a moolah-making Wall Street executive, and turn to acting. Yes, the man who played the part-bumbling part-annoying, fully relatable Bharat Bhushan in Bheja Fry, was almost done with his management degree in the US when he decided to veer off and dive into the Bollywood pool.
Not only did he opt for -- to put it mildly -- an unstable career trajectory, Pathak carved out his niche in comedy. From Bharat Bhushan in Bheja Fry, to Ram in Mithya to the titular character in Gour Hari Dastaan -- Pathak has experimented with most shades of satire and comedy. Now, he\'s set for yet another intriguing role in debutant director Ruchika Oberoi\'s Island City, releasing in India on 2 September.
The film had its premiere at the 72nd Venice Film Festival 2015 in the Venice Days section, where it won the FEDEORA (Federation of Film Critics of Europe and the Mediterranean) Award for Best Debut Director. In Island city, which strings together three stories, Pathak plays a middle-aged man who wins a "Fun Committee Award" in his office. How he reacts to situations of mandatory fun is what Pathak\'s episode is all about.
In this interview with Catch, Pathak talks about what really got him to ditch his green card for the struggles of Mumbai, his fascination with playing the Fool in theatre and movies, and why the future is still a bit bleak for comic actors in India. Pathak also clarifies that in real life he\'s too boring to actually be an intellectual clown -- all he needs is his favourite food and sleep.
On stage you've played the clown multiple times, and in films you've explored the darker shades of comedy or fun - what's with your fascination here?
Hahaha. I don't think it's always the humour or shades of fun. For me it's always the story and the humour is usually incidental. Dasvidaniya was, for example, not a haha-comedy but a poignant satire -- it was all about who we are, which we forget in the humdrum of daily life. It's always the story which really attracts me. So if the story is well written, and cinematically effective, then those characters will never be weak - and these characters do fascinate me.
Any specific clown role from your theatre productions you've enjoyed playing the most?
All of them, otherwise I wouldn't have been able to do them. If I get bored, be it a small cameo on TV or a role in a film, I move on from it right away. In theatre we've been doing Hamlet for a while, we did a Lear production recently - the 100th in fact, in Dubai. Lear is a one-man performance art piece. It has certain qualities of a stand-up act, though it isn't strictly a stand-up either. It still has the theatrics of a Shakespeare play. It's challenging because it's one performance in front of 500, sometimes 1000 people - but it's definitely very exciting for me. I wouldn't have said that for the first 50 shows we had because it was terrifying! But I can say it now.
You get used to playing the same role by then...
Because only now it's setting in and one realises what the jester or the Fool is trying to say! In Lear all the characters are there including the Fool, and how the Fool becomes a father and a bastard brother and so on. I think for all these reasons Lear would be something that stands out for me personally.
In what ways would you say you are the Fool in your own life?
I'm a very plain, boring, unintelligent sort of person in real life, trust me. I won't be able to sit and intellectualise about anything. If I get my favourite food, I'll be happy with that and sleep all day!
Favourite food being?
I'm a vegetarian to begin with. I'm from Bihar so cuisine from that part is always good for me. But I can be happy with most good veg fare say, a Japanese sushi platter to Andhra meals.
How receptive do you feel the Indian audience is to subtle or dark humour?
Uss hisaab se Indian audience ki baat na karein toh hi achha hai! Based on the statistics we have, it's clear that pop culture is huge in India, be it literature or any other art form. For example, how many of us listen to classical music? It'll always be niche. How many of us understand art, or even a dance form? Fact is, we love reading books by #$% ^@t (please don't quote me on this guy!) because it's easy to consume and it doesn't challenge you much! Anyway I'm just trying to make a point.
The audience hasn't evolved much then...
Even in the early days, a Gulshan Nanda sold much more than a Premchand. But it definitely says something about us as a society. A Sultan will never have a problem releasing, but an Island City will struggle. Especially when I am confident that as far as storytelling is concerned, Island City is not lacking anywhere.
Comedy in our literature is rich and nuanced but it also has authors who are "commercial." However, when it comes to Bollywood, the commercial quotient goes up abnormally high...
I'm sorry to say this, but almost our whole life revolves around Bollywood. Majority of people would probably relate to a Bollywood song or a situation. Ever since cinema has come into our lives our senses and sentiments have been greatly influenced by the medium - happiness, anger, sadness - whatever the case may be, it's often cinema which is our go-to platform. Compared to that, reading Premchand is hard work. Reading RK Narayan is hard work too.
Who are the comic actors you've admired?
Lots of them actually. Mehmood saab, Sanjeev Kumar, Deven Verma who was one of my favourites, Ashok Kumar, even Dilip Kumar - I think he's a very underrated actor when it comes to comedy, Bachchan saab also in the late 70s/ early 80s was quite good with his timing!
You were born in Bhojpur district and went to Allahabad... any flavours from your past that you've tried to bring into your acting?
My early childhood was actually spent in Dhanbad - Wasseypur was my backyard - but I didn't grow up with a fascination for guns! I had 9 siblings and we lived in a joint family - we still do. Imagine how many cousins we have! I suppose my love for being around people and observing them can have something to do with my background. I was always a sucker for stories. From Chanda Mama to Enid Blyton to Alberto Moravia later, I read a lot.
You went to New York for an MBA... did you drop off the course for drama school? What was that experience like?
It was freaky! I realised I was a darn geek! I was quite good academically as well. But frankly, it was easy to be good in your studies in America. I was en route to Wall Street when something happened - I went to see a play. It was Equus by Peter Shaffer. Soon after I realised, in a span of a week, that I was wasting my time doing what I was doing. I was actually taking a course that semester on play analysis - you had to take different courses as part of the programme irrespective of your specialisation. I thought what's easier than watching a play? It would be fun and writing about it would also get me marks! I saw the play and was so impressed by it that I went back to the theatre and offered to be the usher there because they get to see the plays free. I ended up seeing that play 8 nights in a row, every night more fascinating than the other. I finally consulted my programme counsellor. She said that I could do a double major if I was that interested, which I was definitely not. I was advised against switching courses as I had finished a year and was actually good at what I was studying but I decided to discontinue. Next semester I formally joined drama school.
It must have been a big decision for you - were your parents supportive of the switch?
I didn't tell my parents I switched until a week before I graduated from drama school!
Haha, yes! Needless to say my parents were very disappointed. My father's first question was whether I'll get a degree. When I told him I would get a BA degree, he asked what job I could expect to do after that. I told him there's no guarantee of employment and he was sad and surprised. He'd wonder what kind of study I've done that doesn't have a job at the end of it. When I moved to Mumbai for 6 months after that, I could see how tragic it was for him!
When did you land up in Bombay?
I was shuttling between US and India. Doing odd jobs there and coming back with that money to Mumbai. It was '97 I think when I landed up in Mumbai with a proper job with Channel V. That was my first proper job which paid regular money that could sustain myself. So I moved properly in '99 to Mumbai, and gave up my green card too! I don't regret it, Trump would've thrown me out either way!
Was it difficult to get roles that weren't in the binary of hero/villain only?
Are you kidding? It's still difficult, I mean look at the movies I've done! Most of my films are first-time or second-time directors. In fact, I don't think I've ever done a hero film in the conventional sense. Even a film like Bheja Fry, where my character is the main protagonist as it were, is still part of an ensemble cast. Which is something I like personally.
Villains and anti-heroes have started getting relatively more prominence in Bollywood these days. Do you feel comic actors can also hope for meatier roles finally?
There's never been much of a landscape for comic actors in India. One does feel there's some saleability for comic actors these days but it isn't really as much as it should be. When it comes to the genre of comedy, it's still a niche and it's still a struggle.