He astounded audiences with his first major role in Ram Gopal Varma's Satya where he stole the thunder from the lead actor, Chakravarthy.
A couple of films down the line, Manoj Bajpai has received his fair share of rave reviews and brickbats.
The actor, who won a National Award for his subdued performance in Chandraprakash Dwivedi's Pinjar, spoke to Vickey Lalwani about his new film, Inteqam. The film is directed by Punkaj Parasher and also stars Ishaa Koppikar, Nethra Raghuraman and Sushmita Mukherjee.
He adds, "I was clear from the beginning of my career that I will not play the goody-goody lover boy, conventional roles. At the same time, I don't want to play a totally black character. Yet, I want to play the central role. I have been lucky that I have got so many films which satisfied me in a manner that I wanted."
But one gets a feeling he has repeatedly done heavy-duty cinema so far. "I don't want to name him, but there's an actor who does nothing but romantic roles. Yet, people put malas [garlands] around his neck when they see him. I don't agree that I have done similar roles. My question is: 'Why am I treated indifferently if my roles look similar?' Am I a lesser mortal?"
But soft, candy-floss films sell like hot cakes, we argue. He shoots back, "It's just a matter of time. People will realise the futility of such films and go back to real cinema. It's a cycle."
On a different note, the actor talks about his latest film, Inteqam, after warning, 'if I tell you, it would tantamount to giving the story away.'
"Inteqam is a thriller. I play ACP Uday Thakur who gets charge of the murder case where the prime suspect is Avantika Suryavanshi [Ishaa Koppikar]. I am a hot-blooded officer feared by the underworld but criticised widely for ruthlessly killing criminals in encounters," he says.
Bajpai claims that the box office has never been his lookout. "That is the producer's responsibility. After a film is over, I move on. But yes, I think Punkaj Parasher has made a sincere film. I still can't forget Jalwa [starring Naseeruddin Shah]. Some of his latter films may not have created a stir at the turnstiles, but that does not take away his talent and class."
And how can we forget Bajpai's seductive song with Nethra Raghuraman? "I knew this was coming," he grins, "Nethra gyrates and does all the touching, not me. But it was fun shooting that scene with her. She is full of energy."
Apparently, the climax of the film had been draining, as most other actors of the film have claimed. How did Bajpai, a method actor, handle that?
"Yes, the climax of Inteqam was very hard on the mind and body. But it was a very satisfying experience. Punkaj, who was a constant source of inspiration and learning, has a fantastic end in this thriller. This is where Inteqam will score over other thrillers, most of which tend to end as a damp squib. I think Inteqam is the first hard-core commercial film I have done.
"Talking about me being a method actor, honestly, I never plan or decide anything in advance. I let the character guide me. All the roles I have done till now have been approached very differently. I like to be very open about my approach when I am dealing with a character. I don't say that spontaneity is not important, but spontaneity should be backed by a lot of research, reading and observing. Call me a mixture of method and spontaneity," he smiles.
The actor is tight-lipped about his cameo in Yash Chopra's much-awaited Veer-Zaara. "I play a rich man in Pakistan," he finally says. "I have scenes with Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and Rani Mukerji. I have only three scenes. I couldn't refuse Yashji. I have grown up watching and admiring his films."
His future lineup of films include Bewafa, a social drama. "It talks about family and relationships. I am also doing Deepak Tijori's Fareb, Amrit Sagar [filmmaker Ramanand Sagar's grandson] first film scheduled to begin early next year."
His other film, All Alone, opposite Diana Hayden, seems to have been stalled. "A month before my portions were to be shot, producer-director Ritesh Sinha informed me that he has entered into some legal hassles with the producer, due to which he could not go ahead with the project. He said the film has been postponed indefinitely."
The actor says that if the film is revived, he would not accept it, if any changes were made in the script. "I will check all the aspects confirmed before taking a decision," he concludes.
Inteqam will release on October 29.