The Man They Now Call Genius

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Piyush Mishra wanted one thing all his life. Then he figured it wasn’t enough

There are men who plan and plot their trajectory in life. Piyush Mishra is not among them. He is accustomed to life’s gentler tugs, and so he drifts. He paints, sculpts, flows into drama school and back out again into Mandi House with the tide, where he slips into theatre. This does not mean he knows why he painted, sculpted, acted, sang, created music, or wrote lyrics. He believes in an elemental pull that cannot be explained. Sometimes he tries, calling it madness. However, there is a pattern. Friends from his time in theatre say he offered them simple but potent advice: “Don’t act, react.” Mishra doesn’t look at life as much as feel his way around it.

Mishra has been around Indian cinema for a while, but he isn’t as famous as he would like to be. He isn’t as famous as his friends think he should be. And he isn’t as famous as film industry veterans believe he will be. But this is the busiest he has ever been. He’s in Varanasi these days, being filmed for a couple of Anurag Kashyap movies. There’s also Imtiaz Ali’s Rockstar. Sriram Raghavan’s next film might just happen for him, and so might Dibakar Banerjee’s next. Since 1998, he has appeared in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se.., Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, Shaad Ali’s Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, apart from Tere Bin Laden and Lafangey Parindey. He has written The Legend of Bhagat Singh and …Yahaan, a film about Indian soldiers in Kashmir. He writes lyrics, sings songs, makes music. “They’ve called me a one-man army. I don’t discourage them.” But it was his turn in Anurag Kashyap’s Gulaal as a half-mad, Lennon-obsessed bard that got him the recognition he desired so badly. He also composed the film’s music, wrote its lyrics—including the Ranaji track, about a man whose wrath was like America’s invading Afghanistan—and sang some songs. After two decades of his struggle for fame, filled with self-doubt and self-loathing and resignation, he found that being known brought him peace. “Gulaal was a blessing in disguise,” he says. “Saara ka saara kachra nikal gaya (all the garbage got purged).”

Mishra is 48 now, a full 27 years after he first took up drama. At the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi, he was quickly established as the resident genius. His rendition of Hamlet, first seen on 1 January 1985, was, by many accounts, among the finest anyone in India had ever seen. At the time, he was a third-year student. “You knew then that he was a star,” says Arvind Gaur, who directed Mishra at Asmita Theatre Group 12 years later. “That’s when he came into everyone’s view.”

For over two decades, inexplicably (to himself), Mishra struggled with theatre after leaving Gwalior, doing the odd film assignment in Bombay, but never being able to break in. He battled alcoholism and constructed an eccentric image. “Nobody understood me. Even at home, my parents never understood what I wanted to do.” He arrived in Mumbai to work for Naseeruddin Shah’s theatre group, Motley. The arrangement was terminated because Mishra came with baggage. “I… I… don’t know how to explain that time. I was unfit as a person. What I thought was communication turned out to be something else.” His insecurities stemmed from a lack of the recognition he believed was rightfully his. “I needed protection.”

More than a year now since Gulaal’s release, Mishra says he feels “lighter than ever before”. Which is not saying much, because Mishra has the appearance of a man with an impossible deadline. He grimaces often, lies down wearily, and smokes packs at a time. The film gave him what he desired. People called from everywhere with congratulations. His work had finally been noticed. Gulaal showcased what theatre folk had known for decades: Mishra could do anything. “That movie was like theatre,” he says.

“It was about doing things my way,” Mishra continues. That he was seen as an exciting discovery was lost on him. He was oblivious to everything other than himself. “I was restless about my art, my relationships, poetry, everything. I wanted to be known as a genius.” He likens his predicament to Karna in The Mahabharata. “His gift was his curse.” He pauses and then adds, “Little did I know that people outside were waiting for a man named Piyush Mishra.”
Dinesh Khanna, a classmate at the National School of Drama, remembers Mishra well, and with some sourness. “He’s not human. He’s superhuman. He doesn’t feel what you or I do, he doesn’t see what comes from my heart. Only his own feelings, only his own performances affect him.”

For three years after his graduation, Mishra lived the penniless existence theatre inflicts on those who help it flourish. NSD, with its harsh notions of what constitutes selling out—making money—had been an ideal home for him. Mishra believed in theatre with a passion, and his dreams were of fame, not money. He grew more obsessed with his vision of fame. By 1989, he was living on the streets. “I didn’t know how to survive, or how to present myself. I could not make friends or form relationships,” he says. “I began drinking.” He found peace in drink, at least at first. Friends noticed as one peg of Old Monk turned into two, and two turned into more than any of them could count. His friends and acquaintances received nightly phone calls filled with abuse, and morning-after calls filled with apologies.

That year, he decided to try his luck in Bombay. “I don’t know what I did here. I had no contacts. I didn’t know whether to do theatre or cinema. All I knew is that I wanted mental peace. I could not understand myself.” The constant uncertainty led to an internal inquisition. “I questioned myself all the time. What will happen with acting? Why do I need to act? I would spent time at Gulzar saab’s home. He would offer me tea and I would sit and complain to him. I have no idea why he gave me time.” Mishra ended up acting in three episodes of Discovery of India and in a play with Naseeruddin Shah before returning to Delhi.

On his return in 1990, Mishra came together with his colleagues Manoj Bajpai and Ashish Vidhyarti, and a director named NK Sharma, to form a theatre group called Act One. Mishra speaks of the period wistfully. “Those were golden days, and those nights were of silver. Girls were crazy about us, there were parties everyday. Romance, romance, romance!” Here Mishra wrote a play called Hamlet Kabhi Bombay Nahi Gaya. (As of now, he’s writing a novel of the same name. He says it has nothing to do with his own life.)

Still, happy as those days were, Mishra was anxious. “At Mandi House, I got admiration and love, but it was all so personal. I wanted it on a grand scale. If 400 people came to watch a play, you thought God had been merciful.” By 1995, after a series of incidents that ended with actors resigning, Mishra left Act One (members attribute the departures to misunderstandings). Gaur approached him soon after, wondering if he would join his Asmita, then a promising theatre group.

“When he first arrived and became the lead actor, we wondered who the fuck he was,” says Manu Rishi, at the time a young actor with Asmita. “We didn’t know why Gaur sir gave him so much space.” Soon, they fell in line. He narrated a story about stage positioning. Mishra was asked to enter stage left. “‘Bhenchod!’ he said, ‘I’m not coming from there, bhenchod! I’m coming from the sky.’” All this sounds rather diva-like, but Rishi says that Mishra brought spontaneity and a real feel to the theatre group. Before him, the group spoke quietly and moved deliberately. Mishra energised it with noisy passion. But he maintained that the art of acting was actually a science. “You should be able to summon a mood as and when you want, and should be able to use it well.”

Rishi says Mishra also helped foster an air of teamwork, often resolving money issues by asking one colleague to lend to another. He spoke freely with his juniors, like Rishi, imparting advice they would have taken years to learn. “He told me to put down my words in ink,” says Rishi. “I had not written before. I wanted to be an actor. But he thought I could write. He told me to have the patience of an actor, but to keep moving and exploring what I was capable of in case something did not work for a while. I don’t know how he knew.” Rishi won a Filmfare and an IIFA award for the dialogues of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!.

Even as he helped others, Mishra continued to question his own place. “Life can be important and purposeful, but everything I did was done purposelessly. The acting, the performing, the drinking. My memory was going, my reflexes were going, my appearance was shot. People were happy with the image of me as a drunk genius, sleeping anywhere I could find space.”

His luck soon turned. He returned to Mumbai to work on Dil Se.. after Tigmanshu Dhulia recommended him to Mani Ratnam. Then came the script of The Legend of Bhagat Singh. The production house invited him to Mumbai, and he was put up at a lavish flat. “He phoned me one day to ask if he could live with me,” says Rishi. “They didn’t understand his thinking. He’s not like those writers who need a home in the mountains. He needs noise and a suitcase on which to place his writing pad! The more people there are around him, the better it is.”

Growing responsibilities persuaded him to cut down on drink. In time, Mishra says, he began to see himself clearly, and understood that the boredom he felt so often came of emptiness. He saw what he had to set aside in order to be productive in Mumbai. It wasn’t much. He had to start, as they say, getting out more. Inevitably, work came.

Mishra is still obsessed with fame on his own terms, but is less vocal about it. “I started to become a celebrity before Gulaal. I… I’ve craved being a genius. To be known as one. But now… I now realise there’s so much more I have to do. I’m happy about the fact that I now know what I have to do. I work because it gives me money. I work because I don’t know how to do anything else.”

“He still lives the way he used to. He still believes in the same things,” Rishi says. “If I call him up and suggest we go shopping for new clothes, he says ‘Bhenchod, bakwaas band kar!’ One of these days, I’ll take him out. We’ll go to a mall and buy him a jacket.”