Omkar Das Manikpuri is the man of the moment with his debut movie Peepli [Live]. Tanushree Ghosh traces his journey from a small village in Chhattisgarh to Bollywood.
There’s a rather cute story doing the rounds in the media about how Omkar Das Mainkpuri, or Natha as his character in the film Peepli [Live] is called, wanted to meet Katrina Kaif. He was dying to meet the lead actress of Om Shanti Om, he told his producer Amir Khan and asked him to arrange a meeting. But wasn’t that Deepika Padukone, a befuddled Khan asked, not realising that Mainkpuri’s exposure to Bollywood was so patchy that while he knew the lead actresses by face and film, he wasn’t very well up on who was called what.
Which makes it all the more ironic that Mainkpuri is now the man of the moment, being feted and courted by TV channels and newspapers in the run-up to this Friday’s release of Peepli [Live]. Already the accolades are piling up for the film. It previewed at the Berlin International Film Festival this year and is the first Indian film to be nominated for the World Cinema category at the Sundance Film Festival.
The son of a day labourer at the Bhilai steel plant, Manikpuri says that for a long time he felt it was all unreal. Born in a village in Durg district of Chhatisgarh, the family was poor and lived in a single storey "kareli ghar, khapra ka chhat aur eenton ke deewar" (). He dropped out of school in class two. When his family shifted to Bhilai in 1981, he was re-admitted in class one at the age of 11, studied till class six and dropped out again when everyone started teasing him about his age. The pressures of earning a livelihood hit him young, he says in his rustic Hindi, "Farming was not common in the area and Loknatya didn’t pay enough. I even sold vegetables and worked in shops." In 1987, he got married and two years later became a father.
It was as a young boy in his village in Durg that Manikpuri started performing the traditional Nacha dance and singing the lok geet of the area. In 2000, Manikpuri and his group performed a "nukkad natak" in Chattisgarh where Habib Tanvir was the chief guest. Later at a workshop Manikpuri acted in Tanvir’s play Sun Bairi which impressed the veteran director so much that he asked him to join his Naya Theatre troupe.
At Naya Theatre, the 40-year old has acted in classic plays such as Charandas Chor, Agra Bazaar, Jisne Lahore Nahin Dekhya, Kamdev Ka Apna Basant Ritu Ka Sapna, and Sadak. "Omkar is a very simple man, and that simplicity reflects in his acting as well," says Ramchandra Singh, who runs Naya Theatre now and has directed Manikpuri in two of his plays
Performing on the big screen was, however, a distant dream. Amitabh Bachchan is his idol and Das had the word mard carved on his forearm with a knife, emulating a scene in the film Mard where Bachchan has the word tattooed across his chest.
But it was theatre that brought about the chance to act in Peepli [Live]. "I have been closely following Habib sa’ab’s theatre and had often seen Omkar perform," says Anusha Rizvi, the film’s debutant director. Theatre has taught him a lot, says Manikpuri, from learning the proper way to stand to delivering dialogues.
Peepli [Live] is a story close to Manikpuri’s life, though he has not witnessed farmer suicides. For instance, just like Natha, Manikpuri had run away from home in 1997 to Surat where he worked on a construction site for 15 days.
This, however, is certainly not a rags-to-riches story. At Naya Theatre, Manikpuri would get paid anything between Rs 3,000 to Rs 8,000 a month and a room to stay in. For the film, he was paid Rs 200,000, a large chunk of which has already been spent.
But Manikpuri is not despondent. Films such as Peepli [Live] should be made more often "so that actors like me can get some recognition" he says. Manikpuri, who desires to play comic as well as villainous roles, ends jokingly, "After all, with the way I look I am not likely to be get a hero’s role, am I?"