When Manoj Bajpayee, star of the swashbuckling show The Family Man, meets us on Zoom around dinner time for a conversation, we are granted access to a side of him that is tucked away securely as he dons the skin of Srikant Tiwari " the conflicted, loveable, and believably flawed secret agent who moonlights as an average Joe in the show.
Bajpayee is an actor who shines the light on the extraordinary in the Indian everyman quietly, convincingly, resolutely, and when behind the scenes, takes us through what equips him to mine his calibre with just as much sincerity.
The actor talks to Firstpost about the foibles of Srikant Tiwari, and why there are no villains (but only heroes) in The Family Man.
You have been with the character of Srikant Tiwari for a couple of years now. What according to you has changed most significantly in him through the course of the two seasons?
Look at the two seasons " in the first season, he was all over the place. He had a sense of freedom even when he was dealing with a very demanding family. He was truly in his elements " doing the job well, lying so well, and behaving freely. But suddenly, if you see in Season 2, he becomes somebody who is trying to hold his family together, and is trying to save his marriage. He is somebody who is completely troubled; is not getting to do what he wants to do and make his family happy. Srikant has to make some sacrifices, and with those sacrifices, he is not left the happiest person.
But at the same time, when he gets back to his job, he is still not a happy person. Somewhere, the family problem is always lingering in his head, and he is completely in disarray and in a very tattered state of mind. So the difference is quite significant.
We have seen how Srikant uses work to escape from the pressures of a demanding family life, and is always trying to fit into the role of the 'family man,' in a way. But what do you think is his central conflict in life?
Srikant's central conflict is the same in this season, as it was in season 1 " he doesn't really know how to satisfy both the worlds, or excel in both the worlds at the same time. So that is his central conflict. He loves his family, and he wants to be a very good father and a very good husband. But at the same time, he also wants to be a very good professional, because he loves his job and is quite passionate about it. Even in season 1, his brother mentions it during the house party that this guy was an intelligent student in college, and each and every girl was all over him. And because he was so intelligent, he could have been an IAS or an IPS officer " he could do a job that was far more secure. But Srikant chose to be in this area of serving the nation " and it is such a thankless job " because he is so passionate about it, which you have to be to choose that field.
However, at the same time, he does not want his family to go away from him. So that conflict is quite high all the time, in his day-to-day life.
I do not mean to compare the two professions, but you are an actor in real life, which is also a physically and mentally demanding job on most days. Do you draw any references and inspirations from your own life then, while playing such a character?
I mean, definitely. You take a little bit of it but mostly,
Srikant Tiwari is every middle-class person, and that is why his character has become so loveable to people.
It is not because of how he responds (to situations) and how those responses make you laugh, but because when people are laughing, they are actually laughing at themselves because they think it is a part of their lives. So this is everyone's story, you know.
As far as I am concerned, I am not...well, maybe (draw) a little bit (of inspiration from myself), but I am mostly very clear about where I would go and where I would not go. I don't party at all, because I want to be with my family. After work, family is my priority. So I am a very different person (from Srikant), and my priorities are compartmentalised. That conflict is never there in my mind. To understand Srikant Tiwari, you will have to understand the middle class of our country and the struggles that they go through " both inner and outer.
Even though you did not get to share a lot of screen space with Samantha Akkineni in this season, what about Raji's story and her struggle, do you think, made it the focal point of this chapter?
Why Raji works is not only because of Samantha's amazing performance, but it stands out also because the character has been written with a lot of humanity and empathy. Her character is completely humanised " this is the beauty of Raj and DK's creation. No character is good or bad; all of them are heroes in their own stories, and Raji is the hero of her own story. You can see the empathy that the writers and directors carry. So that is why people root for Raji too, because they are with her and understand the trauma that she has gone through. They completely understand the reason for her being and what and how she is, and that is why Raji is loved so much.
When she kills the molester, or the factory-owner, people root for her. So I think Samantha, the writers and the directors should be given all the credit for this.
The Family Man is a show with characters and threats who have their equivalents in the real world. In the past season, we saw the show portray characters from the Muslim community and Kashmir; this time, we have Tamilian characters. As the actor headlining the show, do you ever worry about it succumbing to caricatures or stereotypes of people from the various communities?
You know what I am confident about? As I said earlier " and I give all the credit to the writers and the directors " I am very confident about the principles and the creative ethics that the writers and the directors have in this show. They are not judgemental people; they are not here to say things in order to grab some eyeballs. When they are writing, they are writing characters without making any judgement. And that is why, all questions that people have get answered when they watch the show.
That is why we were confident that once the show starts streaming and people watch it, all the apprehensions and questions will be answered because it is a truly pan-India show, and the characters are all humanised. Like I said, all the characters are heroes of their own stories, and there is no judgement about anyone. We, as creative people, when we are a part of this kind of a show, it also talks about us and how we completely believe in and respect the diversity of this country.
What about Srikant do you really like, and what about him do you not like?
I don't like him lying. But what I like about him the most is that he wants his family happy.
I felt that the makers of the show have dealt with Srikant and Suchitra's (played by Priyamani) marriage very maturely, factoring in their individual circumstances and mind-spaces without vilifying or being judgemental about either. Do you think their relationship, in any way, steers the direction of the show?
I mean, that is one of the things, it cannot be everything. Srikant is who he is not only because of his family, but also because of where he comes from. His back-story is always there when I am performing the role. There is something called characterisation that I always do, and that is based on the back-story that we have created for Srikant " where he comes from, who his parents are, how he was as a child and all of that. That is something which is not shown in the series, but that is how the characterisation is done, and that is why he is somebody who is so open to each and every culture. He fell in love with a girl from the South, and both of them love each other. But at the same time, there are certain unresolved issues which they both don't know how to fix. When one of them reaches an answer or wants to correct something, the other runs away from that solution, and that is the story of most marriages with conflict. The love is there, but they don't know how to resolve the conflict.
In the last few scenes of this season's final episode, we see new threats looming over the horizon for India in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Could you tell us what you know about a Season 3 of the show, if at all there is one?
I asked the writers and directors the same question, and they said wait for the script.
So there will be a season 3...
Well, now when I asked them, around three days back, if there will be a Season 3, they said, "Let's wait for Amazon's call." So the mystery persists not only for you guys, but for all of us as well (laughs).
The Family Man Season 2 is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.
All images are screengrabs from Amazon Prime Video.