It is impossible to miss Pankaj Tripathi. With an acclaimed body of feature films to his credit and memorable roles in recent web serieses like Mirzapur and Sacred Games, the nuanced performer will now be seen in upcoming ventures such as 83 and Gunjan Saxena. Whether his role is big or small, his screen presence is unforgettable. Even in his interviews, he comes across as someone intelligent and sensitive, who’s well-spoken, with perfect Hindi, and a dry sense of humour. In his own words, “Mein woh aadmi hoon jo ye chillane cheekhne lalkaarne ke daur mein baat karne ki koshish karta hoon (I am the one who in the age of shouts and chaos, tries to have a conversation).”
From the small village of Belsand, Bihar, Tripathi harboured a thirst to be an actor, and to travel. He’s accomplished both. For our interview, I’d asked for half an hour—this freewheeling conversation lasted double the time. It’s not every day that an actor begins an interview by describing the peaceful view from his [Madh Island] house, or saying how it’s worthy of National Geographic. Excerpts from a delightful chat:
In an interview, you’ve said it is the want to travel that made you move from Belsand to Patna, and then to Bombay. How has that yearning changed?
It hasn’t changed, it doesn’t change. I sometimes even choose films on the basis of where they’re being shot. If I
find out it is an interesting location, I do my research about the place beforehand so that I know what I want to explore when I get there.
Travelling for shoots is hectic. How do you make time to explore a place while there?
I explore a lot, to the degree that sometimes the production team worries whether I’ll show up on time! Though they never have to worry, I’m a professional. But I love to travel. Last November, we were shooting for the film Kaagaz (directed by Satish Kaushik, and produced by Salman Khan Films) in a small village in Uttar Pradesh’s Sitapur district. I found out that Dudhwa National Park is close by. So I wrapped up the hectic shoot schedule and went directly there. I had already arranged for a room inside the park, amd I stayed for four days in the jungle.
Is there a memorable location story that you’d like to share?
Last year, we were shooting for 83 in London. I went there 10 days prior by myself, and told the team I’ll meet them in London directly. I wanted to visit Scotland, so I went there with my wife and daughter. We stayed in Edinburgh for a day or two, and then went to the Highlands, in the interior of Scotland. We explored the region, soaked up nature. A while later, in the middle of the shoot, I attended the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with my wife.
See I’m a traveller through and through. If I see an old building, I want to know its history. I love architecture too. My father claims he was born in 1924, he’s very much alive and stays in the village. But every time I cross the JJ Flyover in Bombay, I see this building which has 1924 written. I look at it, and think of my father. I have hunted online for the building’s story, but I have not found anything yet.
What kind of travel do you prefer on personal trips?
I’m a nashidi (addicted) traveller. Without travel, I am lost. I can drive down to Goa for a plate of Konkani-style prawns. I visit Kolkata for fish—there’s a tiny shop that serves fresh, fried fish with steaming rice on a banana leaf plate. I eat there. With the onset of monsoon, and the first rains, I start missing my village terribly and land up there. This year though, I doubt I’ll be able to go.
My purpose of travel is to travel. There is a writer called Rahul Sankrityayan, who spent 45 years of his life travelling. Few people in the country know of him, but he wrote the book Volga se Ganga, and journeyed from the Ganga to Volga. Over the course of his life, he’s changed religions and married twice, and he used to say that to travel, a person needs to be chinta-mukt (tension-free). And to be tension-free, one needs to travel. (laughs). This is why I love to travel.
What kind of travel do you do with your wife and daughter?
All kinds of travel. I want to show my daughter jungles, mountains, rivers… I want to take her to the Ganga and the Brahmaputra. I want to show her migratory birds like flamingos when they visit, but I also want to take her to where they migrated from. It’s the same with rivers: I want to visit every river in the country from its source to its mouth. What I can’t visit, I map it out on Google! I want to show them everything, from landscapes to architecture, cities to art and music.
In India, there are two stunning landscapes that I feel every Indian should visit once in their lives: one is Leh-Ladakh, and the other Rann of Kutch. When I started travelling with my family, this is where I took them first. When I travel, I travel. I don’t spend evenings in hotels, I am out exploring. When we visited Kutch, we explored the interiors for six days. I distinctly remember visiting the Lakhpat Fort. It is in utter ruins, but has immense historical significance. The film Refugee was shot there too. Once upon a time, the river Sindhu flowed here, and the fort collected 1,00,000 rupees in taxes, giving it the name. An earthquake in early 1800s changed the river’s course, and it fell from glory. Today, you can walk through the old offices of workers, their houses and see the still-standing fort walls. It’s beautiful.
How do you decide where you want to go as a family?
It’s a collective decision. Sometimes I suggest a place, and they go along because they know I’m a hardcore traveller who does his research. Sometimes my daughter wants to visit a place, and we go there.
Do you consume a lot of art on your travels?
There has been a lot. In the interior of Maharastra, in the Konkan region, there’s a dance form called Dashavtar. It is an amazing folk form from the Malvan region. It is mostly a mythological performance, where the boys dress up as girls. I stayed there in Walaval for a month to learn the form, back when I was studying in the National School of Drama.
I’ve always been moved by local folk artists. In Rajasthan, there are the amazing Manganiyar and Langda folk musicians, and I always make it a point to listen to their music when I visit. Wherever I go, no matter which city or country, I ensure I look for the local cultural activity around me, and try to attend the performance. Opera, folk and classical music, it could be anything. For me, whether or not I understand the language, I’m going to sit back and enjoy the performance.
See, we have made the word for our convenience. Science, medicine, is all there for our comfortable lives. But it is art that we live for. I have always said if governments increase the budgets for art and culture, those for law and order would reduce by themselves.
Where would you like to revisit in India?
I’d like to go everywhere again. Rajasthan, Kerala with my family, Arunachal Pradesh. We had visited Meghalaya last year, and the Dawki river too. I recently saw a post on social media which said that Dawki is India’s cleanest river. I wondered how little do we know of our own country. All children of India should visit the Dawki river once, to see that rivers can actually be this clean… you can see the 30-feet deep river bed also.
Food has played an integral role in your life—from your time as a chef, and even now when you continue to cook at home. Is there a dish/dishes that has stayed with you from your travels?
Back in 2008, I was travelling from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur by road with my wife. We had left early morning, and by 10 a.m., I was hungry. The driver suggested we stop at a dhaba ahead. I looked around, spotted a tiny hut with a matka (earthen pot) outside. In Rajasthan, if there’s a pot outside, you can expect food and drink at the place. Despite the driver’s objections, I asked him to take us there. At the hut, we found an old lady who said she could offer us bajre ki roti, ker sangri sabzi, and could quickly make green chillies sabzi, with the chillies growing in the farm behind. We immediately agreed. She made the vegetable, and heated up the roti, dipping it in a small earthen pot filled with ghee before serving it to us. I will never forget the taste of that food. Even the driver was shocked, said he always took guests to bigger dhabas, but will change that now. This is is what life is, exploration. For the outside, you travel. And for the inside, you break your own prejudice apart.
In my interview with Varun Grover, he had lovely stories to share about Benaras. How was shooting there for Masaan?
It was excellent. One day, after packup, Varun, Richa (Chadha) and I decided to return to the hotel by boat instead of car. We went to Raj Ghat from Kashi Railway Station where my scene was being shot, and took a boat to Assi Ghat. Varun took a few photos from his camera, and those I still have with me. We even stopped along the way to visit Thatheri Bazaar at Varun’s recommendation. We explored shops packed with all kinds of murabba, achaar, papad, malai, and had glasses of thandai. I enjoy Benaras, I have shot eight films there, and it always feels like home.
Most recently, you were in Lucknow for Gunjan Saxena. What stood out for you?
Lucknow of course is famous for its food, its galouti kebabs and biryani. And then there are architectural spots like Hawa Mahal and Bada Imambara. I like Lucknow for its tehzeeb, I smile because I am there. It’s a beautiful amalgamation of old and new. The new part of Lucknow has grown tremendously, has big chain hotels. The old city, however, is as is. I went to Hazratganj and found the same old gullies. I attended a majlis, ate samosas, and even visited an old attar shop which bottled the scent of wet earth.
I read that the pandemic has forced pause into a hectic nine-month-long work schedule. What have you been doing in the lockdown?
I’m not doing anything. I had hurt my spine, so have been doing physiotherapy, taking care of my health, looking out of the window. You know, in front of me, I can count 13 big boats in the sea, including a cruise ship. I look at them everyday. Now I want to go to the boats and look back at my house from there. I am the kind of person who likes to see things from both ends. I can’t go however, I don’t have a boat!
Did the pandemic change any of your travel plans?
Vienna, Prague, Bratislava are on my list, I want to go to these places. Hungary, of course, has tumultuous politics, and a fantastic history. Par ho gaya rona, corona. (But of course, there’s corona). How will we travel the world now?
I’m equally restless about visiting Kerala. I found out that the government is planning to build a dam at the Athirappilly waterfalls. Similarly in Arunachal Pradesh too, the government is building a dam. I am worried for these places. I often wonder why we can’t find a way to not destoy nature in a bid to fulfil what human development needs? What is the world we’re leaving behind for future generations? Without oxygen, riddled with viruses and illnesses? I don’t understand. Development is necessary, I know. We can talk about it, write about it, be sad about it. And only hope that someone reads, understands and does something about it. Otherwise… nature is already giving us a small example of what can happen.
How do you feel travel will evolve from here?
I was listening to a doctor who said if humans found a way to control their heart beating and breathing, if it were truly in their hands, they would have paused that too, to make money. Breathe later, make money now. I think post the pandemic, people will value their lives, and focus a lot more on it. I know you need money to survive, but you see, you can build a palace, but you still sleep in one room on one bed. And that’s all you need. The world will focus on love, and we’ll work on building a better life, a better society and focus on coexistence. The world doesn’t just belong to humans. Travel will also change, because people will want to make the most of their lives.
I always say that the Fixed Deposit (FD) you have in your bank is a myth, you will leave it behind after your death. But the FD that you grow when you travel, jo aankhon se dekha aur zubaan se chankh liya hai (the one that you experience with your senses), is what you take with you. I cannot pass on to my daughter my experience of travel, of art, of music, of food. I just hope that people too, focus on the travel FD post the pandemic.
Which place would you first like to visit, pandemic allowing?
My village. And if I manage to do that, then somewhere else. I really want to visit Kerala, just rent a boat on the backwaters and stay there for a few days.
What are your travel essentials, something you never leave home without?
There’s nothing that essential. If its cold weather, I’d pack a jacket. All I really need is my card and my mobile phone.
Do you like clicking photographs of your travel?
Only with my eyes. We leave Instagram behind, but the photos in my mind, I take with me. My family likes to take photos, however.
Would you say that seeing the world made you a better actor?
Definitely, definitely. 100 per cent. It has made me a better actor, a better human being. When we travel, we understand the world, our place in it, and where we should be. Bahut saare bhram tootte hai (A lot of misconceptions were cleared up). So naturally, travelling makes us a better actor and human being. As an actor, we spend a lot of time playing other roles and characters. Out of 365 days, we either think about ourselves, or about the roles that we have to play. When you think of another so much, it makes you a better person, because it helps us understand their difficulties.
How would you say your childhood has shaped the kind of journeys you undertake today?
Behind my house in my village, there is a small river flowing, called Choti Gandak. It’s a monsoonal river, with the larger river originating in Nepal. That is where I learnt to swim. There was no bridge to cross the river, nor a ferry. If you wanted to go to the other side, you had to swim. At that time, I never thought that a boy from this village, a farmer’s son, would one day sit beside the Thames River in London or swim in a pool in swanky Beverly Hills in U.S.A. While swimming in the pool in Beverly Hills, I could see the Hollywood sign. I thought to myself, zindagi kahaan kahaan ghuma rahi hai (life is taking me places).
I think I am the only actor who has travelled in a metre gauge train, and who has travelled in the most luxurious modern transport offerings of the world. Every time I return to my village, it is still that wooden bench in the train that I sit on in my journey. Just yesterday, a good fellow called me who reminded me that he met me in a public transport bus from Belsand to Patna. I was on my way to Patna, peacefully sitting in the bus, not a soul had recognised me, till this fellow came. He too asked me how come I travel in public transport, and whether I do it regularly. I told him I still do—I take the ferry from Madh Island to Versova Jetty regulary in Mumbai.
Experience is essential to a person, and an actor. I have amassed a wealth of experiences of life. I have met sadhus intellectuals, thugs and thieves, visited red light districts, and have learnt from them all. I have travelled in that public train compartment with a few people and a few goats also (chuckles at the memory). That is a different kind of fun.
For all my visits to the village, I actually prefer sitting on the roof of the bus. I know it is not safe, but from the roof, you can see the greenery till afar. Dono taraf khet ho, chhat par baithe ho aur evening ka samay ho, toh mujhe kuch kuch hota hai. (If there are fields on both sides, I’m sitting on the roof of the bus, and its evening time, I get chills). Whoever I am today, I am due to these experiences in my life, and these are what I try to find in the roles I play.
What is the food that you would travel for?
I love rabdi and jalebi. Give me good biryani, the less-spicy kind from Lucknow. Or the kachoris from Benaras, I had eaten them with Varun Grover, you only get them early morning. I seek local cuisine on all my travels, no Indian restaurant in Thailand for me. All global food has evolved through centuries to be what it is today, the journey of food is remarkable. Of course, our tongues are not familiar with the taste. But that for me is purpose of life, to develop new tastes.
Lubna Amir travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.