Pankaj Tripathi on Playing Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Noted actor Pankaj Tripathi faced one of the toughest challenges of his career when he was asked to portray former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in biopic “Main Atal Hoon.”

Vajpayee (1924-2018) was a poet and a politician who served three terms as Prime Minister. He belonged to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the party, which is currently in power in India. Vajpayee, who presided over India’s nuclear tests, was also known as a diplomat who improved relations with the country’s arch rival Pakistan and introduced multiple reforms. He was popular across party lines.

“I’m not good at mimicry,” Tripathi told Variety. The conflict that the actor was how much of Vajpayee to mimic and how much to internalize his performance. “How much of his mannerisms should I keep and how much not,” Tripathi said.

Tripathi read several books about Vajpayee and watched news clips and speeches. In the end he decided to adopt the late politician’s body language and mannerisms for all his public facing scenes, especially the speeches, and deliver an internalized performance for the private sequences for which no video footage exists. Even for the speeches, Tripathi says that his aim was to get into what was possibly Vajpayee’s state of mind while he was delivering them.

“A person’s inner state of mind has no shape, so as to how I interpreted them and performed it, I have no words to describe them,” Tripathi says about his process. “But I felt something during the performance and hopefully that has been conveyed to the audience.” Reading Vajpayee’s poems also helped, Tripathi says, particularly the times and circumstances when he wrote them. “When you know the timing and thought behind the poetry, you understand the person behind them,” Tripathi said. “After performing Atal-ji, I became more democratic, more polite and a better human being.”

Tripathi studied at India’s prestigious National School of Drama. His breakthrough role was in Anurag Kashyap’s Cannes title “Gangs of Wasseypur” (2012) and also had a prominent role in the filmmaker’s hit Netflix series “Sacred Games.” Tripathi’s lead role in Prime Video smash hit series “Mirzapur,” which began streaming in 2018 and is now poised for its third season, made him a household name across India as did Disney+ Hotstar series “Criminal Justice.” He has won prizes at India’s National Film Awards twice, for “Newton” (2017) and “Mimi” (2021) and scored a major commercial hit with “OMG2” (2023).

Directed by Ravi Jadhav (“Natarang”), “Main Atal Hoon” is now streaming on ZEE5 Global and Tripathi says that he is receiving a renewed burst of acclaim for the film from audiences who missed it during its January theatrical release.


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