In an exclusive conversation with ETimes, Aanjjan spoke candidly about his 45 years journey as an actor, his personal experiences over the years and how he will be celebrating his 75th birthday on June 2.
Aanjjan ji, you will be turning 75 this year…
Banwa dijiye, 75 ka banwa dijiye humko buddha (laughs). I am not old. I am working at the age of 75, which means I am still young (laughs).
Let’s revisit those moments when you began your journey as an actor.
It so happened that Balraj Sahni had influenced me a lot. I had met him also. Sanjeev Kumar was a big idol for me. I used to watch Guru Dutt and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films. I dreamt big. Basically, I have been a theatre actor in Kolkata for 14 years. It was very clear in my mind that I don’t want to become the typical hero. I came to Mumbai with the same mindset and I have successfully achieved my target. It’s really been a long journey, from 1978 till 2023. It’s been 45 years in the film industry and 54 years in theatre.
I started enjoying doing characters while learning theatre. I got my first response from Hrishikesh Mukherjee. He was the associate director of Kundan Shah. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s was the only place where I used to get my food also sometimes, because I was unemployed at that time. I didn’t have a job. I had left the banking job. I had worked for 7-9 years. I had applied for a transfer. It was not happening. I was out of work for 6 months. I am not a money man. My father has also been a middle-class man working in the bank. He didn’t even send me money. Because he never wanted me to come to Mumbai. He allowed me after my sister’s death. He said that if you want to go, go and try your luck for 3 months.
After 3 months, I got the arrangement to work there. And then my struggle started in 1978. And the only place where I can look up to was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s office in Anupama building. We used to meet and talk but he didn’t motivate me enough to work at that time. However, he appreciated me for doing theatre and asked me to continue doing it. He said a very good line then. He told me that actors are not made by getting enrolled in institutes like NSD or FTII, you need several years of practice, your common sense and your instinct to become an actor.
So I continued doing theatre until IPTA pulled my attention. There is no bigger theatre group than this in India. It was a big cultural movement which arose during the freedom movement in India in 1942. Both NSD and FTII are child entities of IPTA. Big writers, directors, farmers, workers, all of them were involved in the establishment of IPTA. People like Hemant Kumar, Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Dada, Nadira Babbar’s father Sajjad Zaheer, they all have come from there.
We were all connected to the theatre. So many generations came and went. It’s been 80 years and it’s still going on. There are countless names in the creative art we are talking about. That is art. And then I joined IPTA, I met people like RM Singh, Naseer Saab and got the opportunity to work with big directors. What else would one wish for? With IPTA, slowly I started working in the film industry and television. I kept working parallely while doing my bank job. It was hard.
At 75, I have to say that many big stars, superstars, all of them supported me, and I survived. And I am very thankful to each and everyone of them. And directors Rajkumar Santoshi, Kundan Shah, Chak De! India director Shimit Amin and several others didn’t take long to recognise the talent. They kept giving me work. That’s why, today, I have a list of more than 180 films, 34 TV shows, and 54 years of theatre including several ads.
I have achieved a lot in my journey. On top of that, RK Laxman gave me Wagle Ki Duniya, which is still running on television. While I was shooting for Chandigarh Kare Aashiqui, they called me and said there’s a serial, we need you. After 2013, I stopped working on television. But Wagle Ki Duniya has been such a big brand that I couldn’t say no to it. Aatish Kapadia and Jamnadas Majethia convinced me and I enjoyed it for the first 3 months. Wagle Ki Duniya has grown. It’s a big family and it will keep growing.
The biggest thing is today, I am doing theater, film, television and web series. What else an old man like me would want in life? As an actor, if I am getting such opportunities even at this age, I can just say that God has been showering his blessings upon me. The only desire which is yet to be fulfilled, that I had always dreamt of, is to get a National Award. I had developed this desire after watching Sanjeev Kumar, feeling that a character artist can also win a National Award. That’s the only desire.
Do you feel tired while working at this age?
Yes, I do feel tired. I am taking a lot of medicines for blood pressure and diabetes. I have also been diagnosed with slip disc while working during the pandemic. I used to spray sanitizer a lot and I fell down while walking because of that. Then again, I fell down near the bathroom. After that, I found out in the third year that I have a slip disc. I have found a doctor named Santosh Pandey who has been treating me with accupuncture therapy. It has been very effective so far.
In old age, people usually suffer from dementia. But I have never been in the habit of remembering things. I used to understand how things are instead of memorising while studying in school. I am able to talk to you like this because I have everything in my mind. I don’t plan or think before saying. It’s a very natural reaction.
You said the industry people helped you a lot…
One superstar changed my life forever. My work was deposit mobilisation. Every 6 months, he used to help me complete my target in the bank. He used to deposit the required amount and my manager was more than happy. Then my manager also supported me and said that I can go for shoots during my working hours and you don’t have to come to the bank. Sometimes people used to make fun of me on the sets because I used to ask them shamelessly to open a bank account. But that was my job and I wasn’t ashamed to do it.
The biggest thing is that I had taken voluntary retirement in 1989. The entire staff from the head office of Kolkata came to Mumbai to bid farewell to me. Again, all artists contributed there too, right from Danny Denzongpa, Shatrughan Sinha to Amrish Puri. They also turned up at my daughter and son’s wedding.
When I invited Danny for my birthday celebration, he told me, ‘We never go to any party but Aanjjan I will go for you and I will stay overnight.’ This is what I have earned. I have 6-7 films with Rajkumar Santoshi. I asked him, ‘Who will cut my cake?’ and he replied, ‘I will.’ I am sending invitations to each and everyone of them. Several journalists have also showered their love and affection. Maybe that has also helped me a lot. I am highly indebted to all of them.
It is also because of your talent…
An artist like RK Laxman chose me. There are numerous talented artists in every small part of this country. Where did he find me? The Almighty is there for sure. I am not talking about superstition but faith. There is a small difference. The universe is inside you. You have been given the power. That power comes out and helps you. You have to have full faith in your work and do it with honesty, you will get your result. It can be late. I started acting at the age of 20. I came to Mumbai from Kolkata at the age of 31. I worked hard for 10 years. God gave me a job in a bank because I am an engineer. I had a different profession. How did I come to this line? Who decided this? We decided it? No, no, no. The power inside you decided it.
People who you have worked with, like Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan, have become big superstars. Tell me how they have treated you…
I met Shah Rukh Khan after a very long time when we came together in Chak De! India. Before that we have worked in films like Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani and Chamatkar. When I came on the sets, Shah Rukh stood up for me and left everything he was doing at that time. He greeted me, asked me about my well-being. It shows you what kind of respect someone has for you.
Similarly, Salman is also a gem of a person. During the premiere of Yuvvraaj, he stood up and greeted me with a smile. When he got up, everybody followed suit. People like Subhah Ghai, Dharmendra, I had met them after a long long time. They also treated me with respect. I had a good relationship with everyone be it Aamir Khan, Vinod Khanna, Manisha Koirala. Even the new generation actors sometimes come and touch my feet out of respect.
They say that the bigger the superstar, the late they come on sets. How true was that?
Even if they came late, they used to be completely ready for the scene. For example, Sanjeev Kumar. They used to shock everyone on the sets. People used to say that Shatrughan Sinha used to come late. But before 2 pm, he used to take care of his health. So he used to get his shift after 2 pm. I have seen Amjad bhai shooting for his films. He used to deliver 2-page dialogues without any hassle. In those days, it was not a normal thing. It was their speciality those who used to come late. They used to make a lot of scoops in magazines and people would enjoy reading them. But it has stopped now.
You have seen the evolution of the Indian film industry. What kind of difference do you feel today?
Star oriented thing is over now. Subject is the hero today. Right now, even if you’re not an actor, they are being cast. They just follow the script, put everything in their characters and present it on the screen without making any impact on the audience. Just being pretty and good looking is not enough. No one is going to say that he was very handsome and she looked very beautiful in the movie. Times have changed. Audience has changed. Now, you will also have to change. You will have to show the real stories of our country that are well-rooted.
In India, there are so many stories. There is a lot of literature even if it is in different languages. There’s a lot of masala in our surroundings. And people often complain that they don’t have stories to tell. Today’s lifestyle has affected it actually. Parivaar hi nahi banega to kahani kaha se banegi. People are focusing more in the West rather than in the east. For example, Rani Mukerji’s Mrs Chatterjee Vs Norway, that story is so beautiful. I liked it. It is a masterpiece. Make it like this. Everybody should see. More such stories of India should be told.
Which era was best for artists?
Every person says that our time was good. But the world is changing. Development is happening. What is good and what is bad is what you have to decide. You should not break what was good earlier and you should pick up what is new and good today. It is okay if you have advanced tools and machines at your disposal but you should have a desire to use it and churn out something that you want to achieve. Some directors are good. When I worked with Tigmanshu Dhulia, he changed the script on the spot as per the new requirements. And it came out well. In the earlier times, good things were made. Even today, good things are made. But it is a matter of your passion and how effectively you’re doing it. You can’t make Mother India today because you don’t have the passion. If you outright reject old things, then you can’t make new things good. If you mix the old style with the modern style, I don’t understand why today’s children will not like it.
What if China Gate is being made today?
If someone comes to me with an idea, I would be happy to do it again. At that time, Rajkumar Santoshi had worked on 10 different characters. All of them made an impact. They had their own backstories and emotional connection with the audience. It takes a lot of effort to do that. Our directors were not our own but they liked my work. Kundan Shah had once told me that he can do any characterisation with me, be it positive or negative. So, it depends on the director who really wants to make it.
Before we sign off, tell me about your birthday plans.
Actually, I was not ready to celebrate it on such a big scale. My son said, ‘Daddy, it is your 75th birthday. Let me do it my way. You can celebrate it later in your own way.’ They will be screening my movies. Rajshri Productions have made a two-day digital film. They have also done several interviews of mine. Maybe they will shorten it and put it on display. I have invited everyone who I have worked with. The list is pretty long. I hope everyone will join me at the celebration (smiles).