Vinay Pathak: The Genius From Bheja Fry (Who Ain’t No Bheja Fry)

Playing Antakshari with poems, knowing verses from Rashmirathi by Dinkar and Madhushala by Harivansh Rai Bachchan like the back of his hand, and being a constant friend of the stage during school – it was only an impending plot twist that Vinay Pathak shifted gears midway his MBA and went on to pursue theatre instead. And how.

A fresh faced Pathak went to Stony Brook University, New York to get a Master’s degree in business, but the latent love for acting persisted. “Subconsciously, the dream to become an actor had been very strong within me, but at that time I didn’t even know how to address it!,” he says; with a Fine Arts post-graduation being a rare phenomena at the time, Pathak struggled with even voicing his aspirations, “I couldn’t even say it out loud – what would people think? So I always kept it inside me.” That was until he watched the play Equus.

“Watching the psychological thriller all I could think was, ‘God! What am I doing with my life?’ Pathak exclaims, adding that the spectacle changed his thinking drastically, driving him to change his course of study despite being in the top 10 of his class at B-school. “I didn’t tell my parents about the change for the four years, informing them only days before my graduation. My dad just didn’t comprehend what I was saying!”. However, once the initial shock passed, his father was nothing but supportive, unknowingly helping build one of the country’s most versatile actors.

Fast forward 18 years and Pathak has steadily built an exemplary body of work, giving gems like Bheja Fry, Dasvidaniya, Gour Hari Dastaan, Badlapur, and more. With his focus on cinema beyond the mainstream, we discuss the industry’s evolution, “In the last decade we’ve started telling the ‘other kind of stories’ a lot more. Still not enough, but at least we’ve begun, thanks to platforms such as multiplexes,” he says about the developing branch of counterculture films. “Storytellers can today come up with stories they want to tell, and not force-fit their perspective into the commercial Bollywood structure. Also why I believe I came in at a very right time – 25 years back my genre of movies would’ve had no platform!” he adds.

Not just films, Vinay’s oeuvre extends to television (think Hip Hip Hurray, Ranvir Vinay Aur Kaun?) and vastly into theatre, case in point Rajat Kapoor’s ongoing Shakespeare Festival that has the country enraptured. In an industry where long lasting associations are akin to unicorns, his close friendship with comrades Rajat Kapoor and Ranvir Shorey comes as a refreshing change. Talking about whether these personal & professional equations ever collide, “On the contrary, it helps us improve. Working with Rajat gives me huge security, I can fall on my face and it’s OK. Such a working relationship is very difficult in any field, where you’re openly critical of the work and the person doesn’t come in between. For us, we’re established as friends and nothing’s going to touch that, hence the criticism is free flowing and well received.” On a lighter note, he laughs about people’s interest in their friendship, “It’s an open relationship, we see people outside of us also, nothing to hide!”

Whilst performing is an exhilarating experience, the profession comes with its own uncertainties. “That struggle is still on. It doesn’t affect my work, but my peace of mind – why am I reading 300 scripts and liking 1.5?!” Calling it an inevitable process, Pathak says he turns to theatre whenever such a phase strikes. Having performed extensively throughout India & internationally and currently on tour for the Shakespeare Festival, where he’s performing in all four clown plays, we touch base with the much debated topic of the city with the best theatre culture. “We love performing in every city, and I’m not just being diplomatic. But over the last few years Bangalore’s theatre fraternity has surprisingly become ‘the’ place to be! So, in a Delhi or Bombay if your play doesn’t have a famous face you struggle to open, but Bangalore’s infrastructure & audience have come together to support new, avant garde theatre in a big way. It’s almost as if they’re hungry for good art!”

As the film & theatre industries open up to unconventional ideas, there is still a long way to go before such productions can bear the ‘commercial’ tag. On the change he’d like to see in the industry, Pathak opines, “Not many will agree with me, but I think our industry has more jobs for an actor than there are actors. We churn out movies in bulk, but lack enough skilled actors for this amount of work.” He also points out a need for more writers for both cinema & theatre. Moving to the opposite side of the stage & screen, we talk about how the audience can evolve, “I would like our audience to be more educated and literate about art. It’s not that we don’t have talent, but in our country any art that’s not mainstream struggles.” Though Pathak says the new generation is changing this, with new forms of media helping people become more aware of the art world; it’s still a long haul before children are encouraged to pursue art forms as careers.

 

 

As the country moves towards being more art-appreciative, we at the DSSC HQ move on to mark our calendars for April 15 & 16, when the Shakespeare Festival arrives to enthral the capital with some top-notch theatre.

Caffeine cues in tow, we down our kaapi and rev up the signature DSSC rapid fire before the actor rushes off to don his next mask.

One thing you love about Delhi?

Vinay: The food & friends here!

And the one thing you hate?

Vinay: Again, there’s two – the pollution and disdain to discipline.

One challenge you faced when you set foot in the industry?

Vinay: The fact that I was not conventionally good looking. They couldn’t place me!

Most memorable performance till date?

Vinay: C For Clown.

One pro-tip for those looking to enter the industry?

Vinay: Not just to the film & theatre industry, but to anybody, there’s no substitute for honesty. It’s so refreshing when you’re honest to your job, it gives you another kind of strength – that high is something else.

One movie that you can watch on repeat?

Vinay: The Godfather.

Which genre of Indian films needs to pick up pace?

Vinay: Horror and animation.

Films or theatre or TV – choose one.

Vinay: Depends which has the best script! But if I have to answer it, it will definitely be a toss between theatre and cinema.

If DSSC were to invest Rs. 10 crore in brand Vinay Pathak, how will you utilise it?

Vinay: I’ll make two movies, of course!

This conversation is a part of the DSSC Secret Conversation Series, where we get candid with the ace folks of their industry who map its course one stroke at a time.