After grabbing attention and accolades for his heart-wrenching character Natha in Aamir Khan’s production Peepli Live, actor Omkar Das Manikpuri is back with his second film MLA, which is releasing across India this Friday. We caught up with the unassuming actor on a sweltering May afternoon to learn more about the fascinating shades of his interestingly quirky personality, his unease about facing the media glare and his journey from a dusty village in Chhattisgarh to the silver screen
With a nervous smile plastered on his wrinkled face, Omkar Das Manikpuri’s hesitation in doing an interview is palpable. Natha of Peepli Live fame doesn’t hate the media, but the sheer thought of talking to the ‘snobbish’ English-speaking Indian press makes him uneasy. Thankfully, we were warned about his Anglophobia before this interview, so we mindfully put the mandatory ‘Hi’ on the back-burner and reciprocate his toothy grin with a warm ‘Namaste’! And yet the hush in Manikpuri’s voice and the stiffness in his body language refuse to go. After the initial casual questions and Natha’s hesitant monosyllabic replies, we decide to call off the formal interview and choose to have a friendly chat with the 42-year-old actor (in pure desi Hindi). And that decision works magic; it calms Manikpuri’s frenzied nerves and helps him open up. After a while, words start flowing….
“I feel I am the chosen one. After 12 years of struggle on both the professional as well as on the personal front, I bagged Peepli Live. Main Bhagvaan ka bahut aabhari manta hoon. Woh jaise humein chalata hain hum chalte hain. Hum toh katputli hain. Zinagi ho ya film, sab uska khel hain ( I am very thankful to the Almighty. He controls everything, we are merely the puppets. Life or a film, it is all driven by Him),” philosophises the God-fearing actor who has been a member of folk theatre doyen Habib Tanvir’s The Naya Theatre company for several years.
Ask him how he got the call for playing Natha, and Manikpuri gives a full-length account of his journey from a dusty village in Bhilai, Chhattisgarh, to the red carpets at film festivals. “Actually, humein toh Natha ke role ke liye bulaya hee nahi tha na! ( I was not chosen for the lead role) I auditioned for a character named Machua and I was supposed to mouth just a single line in the film. I was happy to get a film even for a single line. But Anushaji (Anusha Rizvi, director, Peepli Live) asked me later if I would like to stay throughout the film. I was over the moon!,” he recounts the life-changing incident with childlike enthusiasm.
Manikpuri’s performance in the film was appreciated as journalist-turned-filmmaker Anusha Rizvi showed the grim reality of rural India’s parched landscape and the hardships of Indian farmers in her debut film Peepli Live.“ I loved being on the stage. I liked the thrill of being someone else. I have been doing theatre for the last 10-12 years. But I had no clue that a small role of a farmer in a small budget film like Peepli Live will give me recognition.” And in his second film – MLA, which releases this Friday – Manikpuri plays a villager yet again. “Yeh film kaafi dheet hain ( This film is very brave). I play a farmer once again. But unlike Natha, who was very submissive and docile, my character in MLA dosen’t hesitate voicing his opinion. The film is about politics and I can’t tell you much about the story. But my character in the film plays a pivotal role in bringing a suitable candidate ( played by Mukesh Tiwari) to power. I influence the situation to bring about a positive change in the rural land that dabbled in dirty politics, hooliganism and poverty,” he explains.
His very first film threw Manikpuri into the limelight straightaway. As the face of Peepli Live, Natha went to every film festival where the movie made its rounds. The massive shift in his changing reality seemed surreal to the actor “Itna sab itni jaldi hoga socha hee nahi tha na. Ki filmein itni badi hoti hain aur itna paisa bhi hota hain. (so many things have changed in my life very quickly after the film, it is unbelievable. I didn’t know that film-business is this big) I don’t understand how the media functions or for that matter how the business of film marketing functions. Woh toh humein sabhi jagah leke gaye hum bhi gole chalo bhai chalte hain. Khud Amitabh Bachchan ji ne jab humari kala ko saraaha hum behad khush huein (The makers of Peepli Live took me everywhere and I happily obliged. When Amitabh Bachchan himself appreciated my craft, I became really happy).
Ready for his second outing MLA and with a few other projects in the pipeline Manikpuri says that though films are interesting, theatre will always remain his first love. “In theatre you perform in front of a live audience, so you have to remember your lines. There’s a flow and there’s enough time to get into the skin of the character. As a play develops and as the story moves forward, your emotions as an actor move along with the storyline. It’s a natural process. In films the continuity is broken, so a character takes time to react to the stimulus. Saala, har take main nayi story banti hain jo ki ek adchan hain (every take has its own story and that is the biggest hurdle). In theatre the storyline itself is a stimulus. I like theatre more than films. Arey stage ka toh nasha hee alag hain. Filmein toh tookdon main banti hain (Theatre has its own charm, films are made in cuts or retakes). But people want to watch movies, so I am in this business now. Soon you will see me in good films like Aalaap and Kasam Se Kasam Se,” he signs off on a promising note.