During his initial days as an actor, Sanjay Mishra would frequent a bus stop in Santacruz in Mumbai with another friend. Joblessness took them to many places, but this one was special as Mishra distinctly remembers the smell from the holy fires he believed were being lit somewhere nearby. “Mujhe uss hawa ki khushboo bahut achchhi lagti thhi, aisa lagta tha achchhi jagah baithe hain (I used to really like that scented air, I used to think we are sitting in a good place),” Mishra says, adding that it was months later that they realised they were outside a crematorium and the smell was of funeral pyres. If one attempts to define Mishra’s approach towards life, this stray incident is an appropriate reflection.
He came to the city 23 years ago from his hometown Benaras in search of work and saw the light through every hazy tunnel. When he was out of work, he taught himself the sitar. When there was no money, he pretended to rehearse for the part of a homeless man. When his friends and fellow actors were busy building their bodies, he discovered Raag Malkauns, composed and sung in 15 different styles by stalwart musicians. “Not that I never felt dejected; of course I did at times. But there was no fear. I kept doing something or the other. I never stopped living. Acting was just a part of my life, it wasn’t life itself,” says Mishra taking a long sip of his adrak chai. Sitting in his studio about five minutes from his sea-facing apartment in Versova, Mishra ponders how he has visited his past a bit too often recently. “Woh kya hai na, when people around start seeing you differently, they suddenly become interested in everything from the colour of your shirt to what you ate at dinner,” he says with a matter-of-fact smile, one that suggests that he’s just living and laughing through this experience too, like others in life.
His storytelling skills can hook anyone. Mishra narrates every small and big experience in his life with childlike excitement. There are times he almost jumps off his couch while talking. He speaks shuddh, impeccable Hindi. It has a rub-off effect, as you start to articulate your questions better . Every few minutes, he instinctively acts out the characters that have turned moments of his life into memories. Dressed in a plain white shirt and jeans, he performs, even when he isn’t performing, and comes back to the present moment almost organically.
“We don’t observe, we don’t listen. All we do is speak, and even in that we don’t listen to ourselves and our words and then we claim to want to become great actors,” Mishra says. It’s then that you slowly begin to understand why his performance as Bauji in Ankhon Dekhi (2014) was as relatable as it was.
From Satya (1998) to Dil Se (1998) to Bunty Aur Babli (2005), Golmaal (2006) and All the Best (2009) to Phas Gaye Re Obama (2010), Mishra is one of the few actors who have lived through the changing face of Indian cinema. The past 15 years have seen a serious shift in the very nature of storytelling in films in India, and Mishra has been part of that change, playing every role that came to him with utmost sincerity. Though he was mostly stereotyped as a ‘funny guy’ in many films, Mishra never lost confidence that there was more to be explored. “I had no reason to ‘choose’. I understand when people like Mr Bachchan or Shashi Kapoor say they choose their films. But for me, I took everything that came my way and enjoyed that work. Also, if somebody like me who doesn’t really look like a hero starts saying he will do only certain kind of films, I would find that pretentious,” he says. “I did an All The Best with as much passion as a Masaan. An actor’s work is not to judge. He must just keep doing work,” he adds.
However, like most performers, Mishra was also looking for roles that went beyond his dialogues, costumes, gimmickry, locations and the regular song-and-dance routine. “When I was growing up in Benaras, I used to sit right in the front row in a small room of 30 people and watch musicians like Ustad Bismillah Khan perform. My father was a music aficionado, so they’d entertain my antics. Sometimes I’d sit on their laps and watch the audience descend into a trance. That was when I realised I want to do something where a group of people feel affected by me,” he says.
Through every role he got, he knew he was preparing for a part that was yet to come. “Today sometimes I look back at some films I did and think, ‘Arrey, yeh kya kar diya’ (Oh, what did I do this). But then I also realise that things lying in my house come from the cheque that I got for this film. A piece of jewellery I gifted my mother comes from another film I did. So I’d better not cringe.”
Mishra bagged his breakthrough role after over 95 films and 20 years of acting: in Ankhon Dekhi. It was a film where the story rose beyond the script and the characters were real and flawed. Mishra as Bauji, the head of the family, going through an existential crisis, was a familiar character few had ever seen on screen. Young daughters saw their anxious fathers, middle-aged wives saw their tired husbands, young boys saw a teacher who asked them to constantly question life, and older men saw a friend who coaxed them to look at the larger picture in Mishra’s Bauji. He was universal and yet so personal that he came across as someone everyone knew. “I did not understand Bauji till I saw him on screen. After the screening, I saw someone was crying in the bathroom; a few others wanted to hold my hand and cry. It took me 30 minutes to leave that room that day. I kept asking myself ‘Yeh kaisi picture banayi hai Rajat ne’ (What kind of a film has Rajat made)?” says Mishra. Only after the release of the film did he realise that here was a part that changed a lot within him and even within those who watched it. “I had gone to visit my dadi just before the film’s release. She was 94, she couldn’t speak and was very fragile. She used to keep raising her arm and everyone around her would misinterpret it [to mean] that she asking for water or calling out to someone. One day, all I did was observe her keenly and I realised she was saying she had a headache. I applied some balm on her forehead, and there was relief on her face after months. That was the day I saw Bauji’s character outside the film for the first time.”
It was a part so profound it spoke to Mishra long after the film’s release. “Bauji is a social character. He is universal. When a 50-year-old father asks his 25-year old daughter to eat some dinner, there are only those many ways he will do it. “‘Beta khaa le, subah se bhuki hai’ (Eat some food, you’re starving since morning.) There’s nothing personal about it. What makes it personal is what you bring to the character with your life experiences and the things you have observed.”
It’s what has kept the actor in him alive all these years, his yearning for life’s simple, holistic experiences. From Benaras to Mumbai, even after nine years of joblessness, Mishra did not give up on his craft for this reason. “When I did not get work, I used to listen to music, discover a new place to watch the sunset. I read, I observed, I spoke to people. I never knew how to take the actor in me seriously. It wasn’t ever the be all and end all for me.” as he puts it. The actor in him thrives because the person in him thrives. “Every day, we fill petrol in our bodies. You can’t let your body be stationary. So keep doing something or the other. If today I learnt a new raag because I made an effort, I can hum that raag for the next two days till I get more work.”
It was an attitude reflected in his work from the very beginning. After graduating from the National School of Drama, his first major break was in Adi Pocha’s Sorry Meri Lorry (1995), a live show on Zee TV where Mishra along with Guddi Maruti and Vrajesh Hirjee would do both scripted and improvised comedy in front of an audience. His uninhibited ways of laughing at himself and having himself laughed at made Mishra an instant hit.
Those growing up in the 90s will also remember Mishra as Apple Singh from the World Cup commercials, the village cricket buff who travels all the way to London for the 1999 World Cup and has illuminating adventures in the process. “I remember being so nervous the first time I had to go on air, there were so many teams and I had forgotten the names of all the players. It’s when Sunil Gavaskar told me that I was here because I deserved to be. Uske baad toh koi bhi ball aaya, main chhaka marne ke liye tayyar thha (I was ready to hit a six after that).” He did television shows like Office Office and Hip Hip Hurray before venturing into cinema, but Mishra insists that he made sure he did not get lost in the stardom TV brought. “Both Apple Singh and Office Office got me a lot of attention, but I did not want to get stuck in any rut. The minute I’d get a break, I’d take my car and drive to a hilltop in Ooty or Himachal. I’d listen to Raag Darbari in the mornings and cook my own food and think about life,” he adds.
Today, he is one of the busiest actors around, playing parts that are a lot closer to his sensibilities. This year, his performances in Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Masaan have stood out. “I judge myself by people around me. If my light man is enjoying my performance, then I might be doing something good. If four spot boys stop and watch me do my scene, it’s a win for me,” he adds.
Mishra usually creates his own little world on his film set, inspiring not just himself but everyone around him. “Today I can do the things I want a bit more leisurely. I carry a stove and a cooker on set, cook some hot spicy mutton and in between I go give my shot. Kalakaar ko kala dikhaane ka mauka chaahiye, bas (An artist just needs an opportunity to show his craft, that’s all)”, he adds.
Few actors are as detached vis-a-vis their craft as he is. Perhaps, that is what makes his performances so honest. “When my father passed away, I left everything and started making omelettes at a dhaba in Rishikesh. During the shoot of Masaan, I revisited the ghats I would spend time on with my father. It’s that experience I cherish.” He believes being ready to let go is an actor’s biggest strength. “I know when I’m ready to leave the world, I’ll have my favourite people around me. We’ll watch films, I’ll get a boy to cook some good chicken, and before I leave I’ll make sure I’ll plant trees dedicated to all my different friends. We’ll sit under a neem tree and listen to an afternoon song. And if I still can, I’ll act a little bit too.”