WHEN VINAY PATHAK first auditioned for a role in a Shakespeare play, he was 24 and a student at State University of New York. It was for The Tempest, and Pathak was the only Indian in a room full of student actors, patiently awaiting their turn. Much to his surprise, it happened to be a singing audition, and one that he was not prepared for. “I told them that they wouldn’t understand the songs where I came from because I do only Hindi songs. The composer said, ‘We don’t need to understand it, you just sing’.” Pathak sang Mohammad Rafi’s popular Tujhko Pukaare Mera Pyaar. The director went on to use the song in the play. “So when Ferdinand and Miranda meet for the first time in the play, there is a Sufi guy in a kurta pyjama who walks onto stage and sings Tujhko Pukaare… and that was me. Every time I did it, I knew exactly the number of Indians in the audiences saying ‘Neel Kamal, Neel Kamal’,” says Pathak.
Pathak discovered Shakespeare with Mohammad Rafi and one can safely say he is the only actor to do so. It is to the credit of Shakespeare that his work allows for multiple interpretations, but few actors could pull it off like Pathak. Perhaps that is why it isn’t just a coincidence that most of Pathak’s work in theatre stems from this legendary writer’s stories. Sitting in his charming little pad in Versova, laden with pop art and countless Marilyn Monroe portraits, Pathak brims with rehearsal memories of the four Shakespeare plays that he is touring the country with. He is a part of Rajat Kapoor’s Shakespeare Comedy Theatre Festival and calls it the one space where he doesn’t have to be married to the words on paper.
“We never tried to ‘understand’ Shakespeare. When you hear Shakespeare you think it’s sacrosanct, but the exciting part of his plays is how much we have made the plays our own. He was like the Manmohan Desai of English theatre. Be it family feuds or lost- and- found tales, his plays had so much drama in them,” he says.
For Pathak, the scope to discover the drama and agility of the characters (in King Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet and As You Like It) is what he enjoys most. “King Lear was my first Shakespeare play here in Mumbai, and all three of us, Rajat (Kapoor) Atul (Kumar) and myself decided to focus on the father in Lear. We all have daughters and we feel we are better fathers to our children than our dads were to us. The emotion is so universal,” he says. Interestingly, both Vinay and Atul’s performances as Lear in this one-act play have been applauded, and despite most of the script being the same, their performances are distinct. “We brought in the modern father, the common man, the middle-class man who is the king of his household but the loneliest man when it comes to his children. After a certain age when he has to give up on his authority, it’s like a whole lifetime of something has been denied to him. He is broken, pathetic, senile, all the adjectives when it comes to his children. It was a process to discover that and it’s really heartbreaking,” he adds.
Shakespeare was like the Manmohan Desai of English theatre. Be it family feuds or lost and found tales, his plays had so much drama in them
Just as he says this, Pathak’s younger daughter Sharinee takes a quick peek at us and disapprovingly glances at the cigarette he is holding. “She doesn’t like it when I smoke,” he confesses. “They were watching me perform the other day, and I quickly sneaked out for a smoke and she caught me,” he adds.
He is theatrical even in his storytelling and it’s interesting to see Pathak perform even when he is not really performing. He does a quick imitation of his friend Gaurav Gera as Chutki for us. His thighs are crossed, chest is upright and voice squeaky, and for a minute you wish the lights in the room were just on him. The person sitting across him becomes his audience, and you’d better be prepared for him to switch roles every time he narrates an incident from his life. “Theatre keeps me on my toes and most of the time actors are not on their toes. They are on their heels. I firmly believe an actor should do his riyaaz just like a musician or a painter. Acting is a very fragile craft and it’s so easy to see when you are not on top of your game. Theatre keeps me in practice, keeps me very happy. I get very excited to be on stage. I still feel the vulnerability of a character,” he adds.
Pathak has been performing on stage for over 20 years now, and like a true thespian, it’s a medium he always returns to. However, his journey began differently, and had little to do with stage. “When I first came to Mumbai, it was with a return ticket six months later. ‘Kuchh nahin hua toh return ticket hai hee.’ I used to go for every audition. My mentors taught me work is work and you should do anything that comes your way. If you have to put on a clown’s mask and stand outside McDonald’s, do it. And I have actually done it. There was a chain called Pudgy’s Chicken where I’d be in the chicken costume standing out for a few hours, play with the kids and get paid $150 for the night. So I had no qualms about the kind of work I wanted to do here.” But Pathak bagged a TV show with Om Puri within his first six months in Mumbai. He would go to New York, do two-three jobs, earn money and return to India and work here again. “I had the best time in my struggling actor phase. I can’t tell you how fantastic it was. Nobody knew me. Looking for work was an exciting process and auditioning for it was even better. Films, ads, I was ready to do anything that came my way.”
Theatre keeps me in practice, keeps me very happy. I get very excited to be on stage. I still feel the vulnerability of a character
His big break came when he was hired as a VJ for Channel [V] with Ranvir Shorey. At that time, VJs were as popular as well-known young actors, and it was the best thing that could happen to him. “I got a job with loads of money every month in my account and all I had to be was ‘cool’. I used to make fun of that job, a lot. Ranvir and I were celebrities within six months. We hosted a show called House Arrest and we’d do crazy things like play French ‘artists’ at the start of the show and end it with just one dot on the canvas.”
Few know this, but Pathak’s first acting gig in a feature film was for Mira Nair’s Fire (1998) where he played a tour guide at the Taj Mahal. One distinctly remembers him as the hilarious NRI cousin in Sanjay Bhansali’s Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), and it was evident that comedy came naturally to him. “The funny thing about our industry is that if something works, they all want to repeat it. If my role as the hero’s cousin worked, that was all the roles I was getting. After Jism, where I played a cop, everyone started offering me the role of the lawyer or the doctor who is guiding the hero or heroine. After a while, I decided I did not want to do it, because it just stopped exciting me.”
The role in which he really proved his versatility came to him eight years after Fire. It was that of travel agent Asif Iqbal in Dibakar Banerjee’s Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006). Pathak was utterly convincing as the honest hard-working Delhi man looking for revenge against a builder who’d duped him. His impeccable comic timing and ability to own any role made him stand apart.
Of course, only a year later came Bheja Fry (2007), which made Vinay Pathak a household name. Even in this one, much like his Shakespeare plays, he played ‘the fool’, one who laughs at himself more than at the world. “It was the film that catapulted me to fame. It came in 2006 and after that people started writing films keeping me in mind. When Bheja Fry worked, everybody wanted to make a Bheja Fry. You need to have a script, a story to back the common man, the idiotic guy. For me, the story was always the guiding force. But there were very few stories that really made an impact.”
He was the kind of actor who would shine even if you put him in a bad film. He did all kinds of movies, but with films like Bheja Fry (2007), Dasvidaniya (2008), Mithya (2008) and even Chalo Dilli (2011), Pathak became the face to look out for in off-beat cinema. Sometimes the films worked, many a time they didn’t. But he was always hopeful. He is one actor who is underrated for his intensity and overrated for his humour. He says, “I don’t know where the humour comes from. Many a time I’m speaking because somebody else is listening.” His most serious role, as Gour Hari Das in Gour Hari Dastaan (2015), won critical acclaim but was not watched by many. “Gour Hari Dastaan is not a popular film, it’s not a deliberate comedy, and it didn’t sell. It was the most serious part I’ve played. It won awards.It makes you happy, but it remains a niche,” he adds.
Pathak’s balcony is stashed with scripts, some read and some unread. Even after all these years, he says he is still waiting for the right part. “I guess I will be waiting for the right role all my life. Maybe I feel sometimes it’s high time I told my stories my way. I do want to direct eventually. Now everybody is making short films. Many people have different ideas of where I come from. I don’t know who thought what when they were casting me. Good for you, me and the film. You bring all your toys and play. Playing a part is the best part in film or theatre.”
(The Shakespeare Comedy Theatre Festival will travel to six cities (Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Jaipur and Delhi) from March 4th to April 16th)