Manoj Bajpayee is one of the finest actors of our generation. His foothold in Hindi cinema has spanned both the commercial and the independent. The most striking feature of his varied filmography is how well he consolidates the nuance in his body language even when the films he acts in are unquestionably mediocre. His voice modulation and distinctive style of delivering dialogues ensure that we remember the name of the character that he played. Recently, he mesmerized with his astute blend of a middle-class man’s mediocrity and the dark humour of a RAW agent in The Family Man, Raj and DK’s superb show in which he owned every frame with his masterful consistency.

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For me, great acting comes when the actor manages to move you through his quietude and the most unnoticed of sequences. I believe that an actor knows his craft if he makes you feel his character’s emptiness. Bajpayee passed that test more often than most of the Indian actors working today. But, he has also managed to do something incredibly unique through his sheer skill- to make us think through his humour. Here is the comprehensive list of my favourite Manoj Bajpayee performances. 

10. Special 26 (2013)

Manoj Bajpayee Special 26

In Special Chhabbis, filmmaker Neeraj Pandey recreated India of the 1980s and used the existent Bollywood tropes to tell an affecting story about a heist performed by con artists posing as officers from the Income Tax department. Technically, this film belongs to Akshay Kumar and Anupam Kher, who deliver surprising performances. CBI officer Waseem Khan is a very scanty (although relevant) appearance in the film. However, in the hands of an actor as exceptional as Bajpayee, such a clumsy character turns into something uniquely memorable.

The acting by Manoj is not something that we come to associate with him at his best. All he does is hunt these twenty-six thieves at a point when they are really out of his reach. However, he imbues the character with the banality of a regular man trying to do his job as earnestly as he can. It’s a failure on the part of such a skilled film that its makers couldn’t give much of an insight on such a compelling actor and such an intriguingly artless character. However, Manoj aces it to a point that even this performance looks like one of his absolute best. 

Watch/Stream Special 26 Online on Netflix

9. Pinjar (2003)

Manoj Bajpayee in Pinjar

Although both the melodramatic tone and the preachiness in Chandra Prakash Dwivedi and Amrita Pritam’s writing are a has-been now, the honesty and earnestness of Manoj Bajpayee’s terrific supporting performance have an undeniable superiority over everything else in the film. The actor plays Rashid, a Muslim man who kidnaps Puro, a Punjabi Hindu bride, only so that a circle of generational vendetta ends. He initially appears to be a villain intending to skin Puro of societal grace and her own family for his selfishness. However, he comes off as a lot more human and empathetic in the latter part of the narrative.

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A sense of weakness and desolation is what has invaded Rashid’s conscience. His family disowns him for he never tries to wear his religious identity as a cape. He is helpless and yet, the helplessness never gets exacted on the audience, thanks to the sheer mastery of Bajpayee. A ray of hope gleams through the character and his gentle touches. The performance is so poignant, it appears taller than the film where it marks its presence.

Watch/Stream Pinjar Online on Amazon Prime

8. Zubeidaa (2001)

Manoj Bajpayee in Zubeidaa

While one of the weakest films from Shyam Benegal’s expansive filmography, Zubeidaa featured some ornate acting performances from a talent-heavy ensemble cast. Karishma Kapoor clouds over everyone with her fantastic and quietly vulnerable leading performance as the titular character. But Manoj Bajpayee overshadows her dazzling energy with a performance brimming with more layers than it lets on. He plays Maharaja Vijayendra Singh, a simplistic Indian rajah who naturally doesn’t want to let go of authority and contests elections in a newly independent India. His marriage with Zubeidaa is his second, with him being happily married to Maharani Mandira Devi previously.

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Initially, what seems like a simplistic supporting character intended to throw a shade of romanticism in the gloom of a stately, desolate woman’s life, progresses to become someone a little more complex than what he seems throughout. On the surface, this is a righteous ruler who has political motivations and offers his first lady an opportunity to fulfil both of their political and social aspirations. However, he is also an exploitative man who has successfully tricked an innocent soul into wedlock and is toying with her. Bajpayee plays the Maharaja in such a way that his lust is veiled by false idealism. And this makes us doubt our judgements at every step because his character comes off as good-natured at every step.

7. Satya (1998)

Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya is perhaps the best Hindi film made in the decade of the 1990s. It is a terrific blend of a gritty gangster drama and a disarming journal of Bombay as a city. In the film, Manoj Bajpayee got his ultimately star-making turn as Bhiku Mhatre. Mhatre is a character who is written in the dingiest of strokes. However, Bajpayee’s skill to figure out a highly original tone of dark humour in the most complex of characters is what levitates the experience of watching him deliver crude dialogues. However, there’s a lot of compassion that Manoj bequeaths this firm, vigorous gangster with. There are flashes of self-doubt and anxiety which seethe through the constantly searing tightness that the screenplay outfits him with, right from the beginning.

What one needs to realise though, is that given this was one of the first acting performances from the excellent actor who we will come to see take form and function subsequently, there’s a lack of space for even the protagonist Satya to thrive. It’s so subtle and intermittently moving for a performance that the film it features in seems to be shining from the crack in the roof that Manoj is. And I’m talking about Satya. A film that rewarded an entire generation of storytellers who will go on to embrace discomforting honesty in terms of artistic flourishes. 

Watch/Stream Satya Online on Zee5

6. Shool (1999)

Ram Gopal Varma’s Shool was one of the first cop films which humanized the cops while remaining sound in a mainstream structure. While certain aspects of the film have aged unfavourably, the viewing experience remains emotional because it was one of the first instances when Bihar was really being put on the map of India in particular and the world in general. That too, before a year when Bihar got divided and Jharkhand was formed, a time when the whole identity of my family went on a startling revision. 

In the film, Bajpayee plays Inspector Samar Pratap Singh. Singh is a man committed in entirety to his family and characteristically honest and idealistic. However, unlike most illustrious and noble characters being written for Hindi films these days, the character never turns into a parody. If it wasn’t for Manoj’s persuasive leading turn, the film could have easily been forgettable with time. The robustness and excellent craft of Bajpayee make the film fascinating, a little more thoughtful. 

Watch/Stream Shool Online on MX Player

5. Kaun? (1999)

manoj bajpayee in Kaun

Ram Gopal Verma’s 1999 thriller Kaun is the kind of film that uses some of the existent tropes of Hindi cinema for a chillingly mysterious chamber piece. The strangeness tightens its fists around everything in the film- from its aesthetics to the performances, and also the jarringly loud background music which has aged a lot. However, what clutches you completely is the deranged funny energy that Manoj Bajpayee brings to the table. Playing Sameer A. Purnavale with a hysterical sense of humour which is so unlike the original humour of the actor, the film uses his sharp comic timing to instil both purposely pulpy effectiveness and a sense of dread into the viewer at the same time. The man played by Bajpayee shifts from one tone to another with an engrossing and almost nuanced tonality. So much so that the writing never feels broad in its cuffs.

The unpredictability of this man is attractive. Attractive because, as much as he champions the serial-killer sincerity and masculinity as a face of all evil and crime, he has a middle-of-the-road charm that is hard to resist. He doesn’t act in a way that’s casually indicative of entitlement. His jokes land even where they are not supposed to. His accentuated way of calling Urmila’s character “Ma’am” catalyzes the narrative in the most unexpected of ways. Watch him in the scenes where his darkly comedic dialogue turns unmistakably solemn in tone when the doors open for him into the well-lit bungalow with a bunch of spooky showpieces. The delivery, both in the action and comedy, cannot be more entertaining. It certainly is a divisive acting performance- but the inventive ingenuity and commitment are pretty apparent in its delivery.

4. Bhonsle (2019)

In Devashish Makhija’s unsparing and brilliant film about cross-cultural conflicts and the state of immigration in the great Indian megalopolis, Manoj Bajpayee plays Ganpat Rao Bhonsle. At present though, he is not the only Ganpat in his Mumbai-based chawl. The lately retired old man is seeking a revival of his term as a police officer. And the city behind him is drenched in the celebratory spirit of Ganesh Chaturthi. In a way, both of these have consolidated into one.

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Ganpat, like the more divine namesake, is a highly revered figure. But his identity is being forcibly integrated into a greater cultural identity. Bajpayee plays Bhonsle like a form in desperate need of function. The respect he has earned doesn’t get him a life of dignity. Most importantly, though perceptive and with the right stand on things, Bhonsle isn’t informed of cinema as a medium that is supposed to be his character study. Or if anyone of any social strata for that matter. He is a man with obstinacy in demeanour.

This is a man who resists believing in constraints that affect a person’s body or his identity. He is not protective enough. But then, he is not reckless enough. There is not a grain of fatigue in his conscience even if the tired expression acutely reflects on his face. His solitude is coiled into the embraces of mundane life. This is the isolation that has no cadence, no melody, and certainly no poetry.

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Bajpayee plays out each of the projectile points with correctness that feels rehearsed yet torturous to watch. I feature Bhonsle as an idea, more than as the protagonist. Makhija’s screenplay makes him the protagonist of circumstances. He structures the film like every frame was born out of Bhonsle’s desperation. Without Bhonsle or Bajpayee to be precise, the film is quite an uneven narrative that doesn’t set out to accomplish much beyond its socio-political pertinence. With Bhonsle and Bajpayee both, the film delivers an excellent mastery.

Watch/Stream Online on SONYLiv

3. Sonchiriya (2019)

Manoj Bajpayee sonchiriya

Sonchiriya was a phenomenally rooted epic that aced so many things of value. The film was a resolute action thriller. It was also a very sturdy western. It made for a terrific period drama. However, I choose to view the film as a poignant examination of humans and their virtue, the complexities they hide beneath their blacks and whites. The film’s moral conscience was a character- Daku Maan Singh, an upper-caste dacoit from Chambal. This is a film where the dead haunt the narrative by their hauntingly life-like presence. And the living is tired, the burden of a dual morality affecting the core of their very soul.

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Manoj Bajpayee plays Maan Singh in a way that feels both profound and painful. His interpretation of a world-wise but world-weary man whose reflections often turn against him moved me more often than I moved from my seat. There’s a beating heart to his uniform, his moustache, and his distinctly believable Bundelkhandi accent. He sings a lullaby to the relentlessness of melodrama and sweepingly succumbs to the grief of reality. His Maan Singh dies before the first hour of the film comes to an end. But his presence informs the film’s strengths.

Watch/Stream Sonchiriya Online on Zee5

2. Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)

In the first part of Anurag Kashyap’s masterpiece, Manoj Bajpayee plays Sardar Khan, a prominent mafia from Wasseypur. He, in a way, forms the nucleus of the narrative. His pursuit of retaliation makes the Khan family worth rooting for. While being invariably committed to the cultural landscape, Bajpayee’s delivery is marvellous. This is because he compounds sensitive energy with a cold form of black comedy.

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There’s a lot of crackling electricity that he offers from his entire physical diction. Here, he makes even enmity look attractive on-screen. Other than that, he manages to be quite successful in his interpretation of a toxic male in an India where there’s no scope of looking beyond patriarchy. He humanizes an entitled, brash middle-aged man who is adulterous, without making it problematic. In the film, Manoj is just the right amount of wicked. His appetite for vengeance and lecherous nature compete with each other. However, he sustains an earnest and consciously subdued tone in his voice. This tone in itself gives his fierceness an entirely new hue. A hue that is unmistakably unfamiliar to the audience of Hindi cinema.

Watch Gangs of Wasseypur Online on Netflix

1. Aligarh (2016)

Manoj Bajpayee aligarh

Hansal Mehta delivered one of the most deeply controlled character studies in Hindi cinema with Aligarh. The film is a beautifully performed ode to the conviction and restraint of Professor Ramchandra Siras, one of the many offerings to India’s unsparing conservatism. In the film, Manoj Bajpayee plays Mr Siras. A Marathi-language educationalist working for a reputed university based in UP, there is so much that’s quite unconventional about him. Yet, he doesn’t want the civilisation around him to put labels on him. He appreciates the freedom to love and the Indian government’s acknowledgement of diversity in relationships but hates being called gay. His pursuits and interests, indeed, should be no concern for the workings of society.

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Manoj Bajpayee combines his voice modulation and an acquired body language to gift the audience with an unmistakably affecting character in Siras. He conveys the pain that lies engraved in this man’s heart through the alcohol that he drinks. And the poetry that he has composed and the people he makes love with. A sense of longing and displacement becomes too evident through this man’s all-consuming effectiveness. Especially when he recommended a young journalist to find the poetry between the interludes, the silences, I knew what he meant. It is the most profoundly moving and impressive character the intelligent veteran has played. 

Watch/Stream Aligarh Online on Zee5

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Manoj Bajpayee Links: IMDb, Wikipedia

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