Tell me Manoj, all these times, we’ve been reading all about Covid, the pandemic etc. But when it came really close home and you tested positive, what was your reaction?
For me what was the most helpless situation was that we got tested on the shoot because our director (Kanu Behl) was showing all the symptoms. We paused the shoot and got ourselves tested. The director came positive and I was negative.
Since I was not staying at home for this film because the film was demanding and I knew I’d disturb the schedule of my family, I was staying in a hotel. I could’ve easily quarantined myself in the hotel. But because I’d tested positive, I went home.
When I went home, my wife (Shabana/Neha) got infected. And we had a 10-year-old child in the house (daughter Ava). So the most disturbing and difficult part was to keep her away from us. And still provide for her. That was a difficult task for both of us. But our daughter has been so miraculously mature. It was not a matter of 15 hours but 15 days. But the manner in which she took care of herself was really remarkable. That side of our daughter we’d never seen before.
When you are one of these numbers of infected people now, it’s painful. Because it leaves you with no energy it leaves you feeling as if you have no life or energy left in your body. And every day is different with Corona. You can’t say, today I’m feeling all right and in the evening also I’ll be all right. No. It suddenly drops and it suddenly gets all right. So unpredictable when you’re going through it.
So you also started showing signs of it?
I started showing signs right after I tested negative. First I started showing symptoms. Then Shabana started complaining of body pain. We got ourselves tested and both of us were positive.
What were the symptoms you had?
This time the symptoms were red eyes, burning eyes, watery and massive body pain. As if somebody has beaten you up badly. It was unbearable. Mine was much more pronounced than my wife’s. And I had fever.
Did you have to go through medication for 10-15 days?
My family doctor was treating us over the phone and we were getting our medicines from outside. It was a five-day course that we were on and after that it was mainly monitoring our condition, checking the oxygen level almost every two hours. Which is very important.
I suppose every time the oxy level went up, one was relieved?
Relieved, yes. That’s one thing you have to be very careful about. And steam inhalation. Even if you do it 10 times a day, the more steam inhalation you do, the quicker you’ll feel better.
So your main takeaway is steam inhalation?
Yes. Even if you don’t have Corona, if you do steam inhalation in the morning and evening, it saves you. Or even if you get infected, it keeps your lungs and windpipes clear.
Manoj, do you think you picked this up because you went back to work?
I finished three projects before this. Nothing happened. I would say, it was just one of those bad days. My director got infected from somewhere and I got infected. Between director and actor, it’s always without a mask. You don’t really know where it comes from. I really don’t know whether I have given it to my director or my director has given it to me (laughs). Who knows?
Which film were you shooting for?
I was shooting for Despatch (an OTT thriller) when I got infected. That’s Ronnie Screwvala’s production. Right now I’m in the mountains shooting for a film which we had started but had to stop because of the lockdown that happened a year ago. So I’m back to finishing this film. This is Ram Reddy’s film, his next after Thithi.
I’m near Pithoragarh (Uttarakhand). Back to work and completely away from civilisation. Nobody’s coming in and nobody’s going out (laughs), so feeling quite safe. In a bubble.
For anybody who tests positive, is there anything you’d like to say to them, having gone through it yourself?
All I’d say is, don’t panic. Lead a healthy lifestyle. As I said, steaming and gargling are things you must do. And if you’re not used to doing pranayam, start doing pranayam. The more breathing exercises, the better it is.
I was promoting Silence (the cop thriller on Zee5) at the same time. No matter how bad I was feeling, I was still working from home. The promotion of Silence was very difficult for me because I was the main face, so I had to be a part of all the interviews. I was feeling very weak, completely down, but I still had to it. And that kept me away from my own condition.
So after the initial shock of testing positive, you had other concerns like your daughter and so on?
There were so many other concerns. And when you’re distracted from your condition, it’s better.
And try not to move too much. You’re feeling dizzy, you’re feeling weak. You’re sitting on a sofa and feeling dizzy. So it’s a bizarre thing I experienced.
But after all of this, you start shooting, you come to the mountains, your condition, your weakness, you start recovering fast. And when your film is being appreciated, people are watching it (laughs), you recover even more quickly.
The success of Silence has really done wonders to my condition.
How does it feel? To have Silence right on top of the ratings?
It’s amazing. It’s a first-time director (Aban Bharucha Deohans), we shot it during the lockdown with all the protocols in place and in limited days. In 35 days, the film was complete. But when you see the film, it doesn’t look like it’s been shot in 35 days. It’s my first whodunnit and it has done well, it gives me a great feeling.
One of the good things about the lockdown was that a lot more people got acquainted with your work through OTT platforms.
Yes, during the lockdown, my films have been entertaining people quite well (chuckles). 1971 which didn’t get a great release some years ago, was released on YouTube in the initial weeks of the lockdown and it became a digital blockbuster.
Then people have watched Bhonsle on SonyLiv in numbers. They liked it and they brought Bhonsle into the reckoning.
After that, Suraj Pe Mangal Bhari was the first film that was released in theatres with 50% capacity. It ran for more than 50 or 100 days, then it came on OTT and it has done extremely well there. I shot a Bhojpuri rap with Anubhav Sinha that has been lapped up by people. And now Silence. So yeah, I have been very lucky. That all the projects I have worked on during the lockdown, people have watched and made them really successful.
And Family Man 2 will be streaming soon?
We’re going to get a release date from Amazon very soon.
You’ve finished your work in it?
Long back, last year itself. But the lockdown has really slowed down the post-production work.
Manoj, at one time you’d go ‘wow’ at the sight of Mr Bachchan. Today, younger actors go ‘wow’ over you. How does that make you feel?
That makes me old (laughs).
It’s humbling, Bharathi. I have been a part of those many great projects directed by some really fabulous directors. The filmography I’m very proud of has been created with a lot of care and it really feels good that the younger generation watches my films and gets inspiration from them.
As for me going ‘wow’ over Mr Bachchan, even a message from him enquiring about my health, I still go ‘wow’. Though we’ve worked together in four films, I still go ‘wow’, I can’t be blasé about it. When I get messages from him on different occasions, I still find it dreamy. Mr Bachchan, my childhood hero.
I must mention that people like Farah Khan, Abhishek (Bachchan), Anupam Kher, Neeraj Pandey, these are the people who have always enquired about my health almost every day. Farah is my neighbour. She’s been sending food and enquiring about my health. Really taking care. Anupam, Abhishek Bachchan, Neeraj Pandey. Our fraternity has really been very caring during this Corona time of mine. You feel there are people who care about you, who’re concerned about you.
Finally, you Bihari boys have done really well here. At one time, we had only one Bihari Babu.
Shatruji? Shatruji, we can’t beat him. He’s somebody who has taken this journey when there was not even a direct train to Bombay (as the city was then called).
Prakash Jha, Prakashji, went to Delhi, and has become a director to reckon with.
Shekhar Suman has done so well on TV.
When I left my village in Bihar, believe me, I had to change three buses and spend two nights to reach Patna to take the train to Delhi. For all of us, just reaching Bombay was so difficult.
Pankaj has just come, just 10 years back. I would still say that he had information on how to go about his journey. Then the National School of Drama or the theatre, he had so many things to look at, so much information available. I didn’t even know about National School of Drama, I didn’t even know what theatre was all about, what happens in theatre. For me theatre was only Ram Leela which used to happen in my village. So the journey was one of learning. When Manoj left his village, at every stop he was learning about the outside world, learning so much about English, about theatre, about big societies, the behaviour of urban cities…I was not only coming out of my village, I was coming out to face a world that never existed for me.
It’s not been just a journey, it’s been work in progress, it’s your life.
It’s a miracle. I don’t give credit to myself. I really feel that some divine force has always been there with His hand on my head. It’s nothing short of a miracle that a boy from Belwa has got three National Awards and a Padma Shri. I can’t believe it.
May the forces always be with you. Congratulations. Wish you the very best and take care of your health.
Thank you. And you take very good care of yourself, the situation’s (precarious) in Mumbai…