By AKSHAY MANWANI | 1 November 2012, The Caravan
Piyush Mishra in the title role of Hamlet. Directed by Fritz Bennewitz, the play marked Mishra’s acting debut at NSD in 1985.

ACTOR, MUSIC DIRECTOR, lyricist, singer and scriptwriter Piyush Mishra finds it difficult to explain his famously limitless talent. Depending on how he is disposed on a given day, the answer can range from a dismissive “Main ghanta struggle nahin karta (I don’t struggle at all)” to a spiritual “Pata nahin, shaayad koi karwa raha hai (I don’t know, perhaps there is a higher power at work)”. But the longer you persist, the more aware you become of anger as a driving force behind his art. “Jo bhi create hua, usi gussey ke wajah se hua aur jo kuch destroy hua, woh bhi usi gussey ke wajah se hua, (Whatever was created, it was due to that anger, and the same anger was responsible for all that was destroyed),” he said in the midst of one of our many conversations.

Our first conversation—agreed to after some persuasion on my part because Piyush feels there isn’t anything more to add to what has already been said or written about him— was at his house in Mumbai’s Goregaon East on a Saturday evening in August.

His three-bedroom apartment is located in a typical middle-class Mumbai housing society, bereft of any grandeur, the kind of place where most residents are supposed to have bought homes with a lifetime’s earnings. Overlooking the verdant Aarey Milk Colony on one side and close to the sprawling Oberoi International School on the other, the apartment complex stands for the constant conflict between Mumbai’s shrinking greenery and the rapidly expanding concrete landscape of the recent decades.

We were seated in his study, with his writing desk at the far corner of the room and a bookshelf, with a glass façade, in the corner facing the entrance. Between those pieces of wooden furniture was a single bed, indicative that the room was occasionally used for hosting guests as well. Piyush lay on the floor in front of the bed on his side, with his right arm cradling his head. Portraits of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Marlon Brando lined the wall behind him. At first, he was particular about wearing a newsboy cap for our photo shoot and interview. A few minutes into the conversation, though, he tossed the cap aside and spoke candidly, his distinctively coarse and raspy voice betraying years of smoking. His comments are frequently interspersed with the choicest expletives in Hindi, invoking relatives long gone. It is part of his charm, his no-holds-barred style.

PIYUSH MISHRA IS WELL KNOWN TODAY for the seemingly effortless fusion of range and depth in his art, from the stinging music he composed for Gulaal, to his portrayal of the sombre, self-persecuting Nasir in the two-part Gangs Of Wasseypur, and his rendering of the haunting song ‘Husna’, also composed by him, for MTV’s Coke Studio Season 2. He is happy that his talent is finally acknowledged, even if it is late in his career. Coming from what he calls an “unremarkable childhood”, he still remembers a time he doubted he would get very far.

Piyush Mishra was born in 1962 in Gwalior as Priyakant Sharma. He grew up as the adopted child of his bua Taradevi Mishra, his father’s eldest sibling and a fierce woman with no children, who had brought Priyakant’s father, a young Pratap Kumar Sharma, along with her to her marital house to help reduce their family’s financial burden.

After her husband’s death, Taradevi Mishra established her absolute, authoritarian rule on the household. “She was against everything. Everyone was afraid of her and nobody really knew what would upset her,” said Piyush. “She would just have to utter a word and everyone would cower in fear.”

According to him, it was a “very boring house”. His parents admitted him to a “wrong school” called Carmel Convent with the notion that, “A child is like raw material. If you put him in a convent, he will come out ready for IPS, IAS or Medical.” Priyakant, though, had no interest in academics. It was the extracurricular activities at school that appealed to him, such as singing, acting and painting. “It [art] had been bestowed on me in a strange way,” he said. “I was compelled towards it and whatever I did, I found success in it.” He remembers making an oil painting to help his friend, who had boasted to a girl he liked that his friend was a very good painter. “I had never done it before, but I did a landscape and it came out really well,” Piyush said. He remembers taking to the harmonium and the mouth organ, and even sculpting in those years. The anger he felt at Taradevi’s oppressive behavior shaped his earliest approach towards art—his first sculpture, made as an eighth standard student, was a large fist emerging from a stone.

However, because Priyakant fared miserably at academics, his family members thought of him as a complete failure. “My father could see my artistic talent,” said Piyush, “but he didn’t want me to take it up as a career option.” Ajit Lhane, Piyush’s friend from his college years, explained that this was the usual mentality of the middle-class in a small town like Gwalior, “In every house the thinking was that if the child did not turn out to be an engineer or a doctor, then the child was useless.”

“I was terribly confused, like a torpedo without a target,” said Piyush of his childhood. “I would leave things without seeing them through to completion.” Gradually Priyakant also began to question his parents’ unwillingness to stand up to Taradevi. Piyush recalled the matriarch yelling abuses at his mother if there was even the slightest hiccup while preparing food for the house. “Why did they tolerate her?” he asked tersely as he recounted the time. His frustration with their subservience is clear in the very first poem he wrote, again in the eighth standard:

Zinda ho haan tum koi shak nahin, saans lete hue dekha maine bhi hain

Haath aur pairon aur jism ko harqatey khoob dete huey dekha maine bhi hain

Ab bhale hi yeh kartey huey honth tum dard sehtey huey sakht see lete ho

Ab hain bhi kya kum tumhaarey liye, khoob apni samajh mein toh jee lete ho

Yes you are alive; of this there is no doubt. I, too, have seen you breathe

I, too, have seen you move your hands and legs and body perfectly

Although while doing this, you sew your lips shut and suffer the pain

It is no minor achievement for you, after all, to feel so very alive in your own perception

Piyush remarked that when he was slightly older, “I had no regard for my parents. I didn’t speak to them for the longest time.” The resentment was particularly directed towards his father. “I would address my father as ‘sir’, a habit I continued with until about a few years before his death. I felt that he should have said something [to Taradevi] when he could see his son had an artistic streak in him.” After suffering his aunt’s whims for a few years, Priyakant began rebelling openly. “I started going against her and my father as well.”

To start with, he changed his name. “Main tenth mein gaya, maine kaha, behnchodh, bahut ho gaya yeh saala Priyakant, Priyakant. Kya hai yeh saala Priyakant Sharma, chutiya naam hai. (When I entered class 10, I realised I was fed up of being called Priyakant Sharma. It was a stupidname.) People even started calling me Priya, Priya.” Sometime after class 10, Priyakant Sharma filed an affidavit in the district court to change his name to Piyush Mishra. “When my marks sheet came home with my new name, my parents asked me whose marks sheet is this? I showed them the affidavit, ki yeh lo behnchod, aaj ke baad, I will be known as Piyush Mishra.”

“In a sense, Priyakant Sharma was like the life I had put behind me,” said Piyush.

AROUND THIS TIME, Piyush began to be drawn to theatre—it was at places like Kala Mandir and Rangshri Little Ballet Troupe in Gwalior that his talent for the medium was first identified. While Kala Mandir was a small cultural institute located on Nayee Sadak, meant specifically for theatre, the latter was an offshoot of Mumbai’s prestigious Little Ballet Troupe, and had a space on the outskirts of Gwalior. It was founded by eminent dance personality Shanti Bardhan, and patronised by the royal family of Gwalior.

Piyush’s first significant role in theatre was of Hakloo, a character who stammered, in a Kala Mandir production based on the uprising of 1857 called Dilli Teri Baat Niraali, which was directed by the then National School of Drama director, BM Shah, a regular figure on the Gwalior theatre circuit. Shah, who had earlier cast Piyush in the Sanskrit play Bhagavadajjukam while he was at Gwalior’s JC Mills school, where he had moved for high school after Carmel Convent, had been impressed enough to seek him out. “It was a small role, but it made a huge impact. It was BM Shah’s favourite character,” said Piyush, the pride discernible in his voice. From Kala Mandir, Piyush went on to Rangshri Little Ballet Troupe, where he was cast as the lead in Arre! Shareef Log!, a social satire written by the late Marathi playwright Jaywant Dalvi and directed by local Gwalior theatre personality DK Jain. “It was a huge hit,” recalled Piyush.

He was getting hooked to theatre. In his own words, “I could dictate terms to the audience. If I told them to cry, they would cry. If I told them laugh, they would laugh.” Theatre was also a medium through which Piyush could calm the restlessness that was constantly simmering within him. “Perhaps, it was because of the fame. I came from an ordinary family where nobody really bothered about us. Theatre gave me a sense of importance, something which painting etcetera did not give me. When I performed, the whole world was tuned in, with me as their sole point of focus.” There was also, he admitted, a false sense of intellectuality associated with being recognised as a theatre artist, an aspect he enjoyed in those years. “It was shallow, but I found myself indulging in it readily. I would tell people how much I had to immerse myself in the character. Ek inch, do inch ya paanch inchYeh sab baatein main uss waqt karta thaa. (One inch, two inches or five inches—that is what I talked about in those days). But I enjoyed it. It gave me the opportunity to feel like an intellectual,” he said.

Despite the sustained appreciation in the small theatre circle of his hometown, he recalled being forced by his family members to stop doing theatre. “I was asked to concentrate on my studies, with the message that theatre was not for me.” It was a message Ajit Lhane recalls resonating throughout Gwalior because, “People thought Piyush had strayed. Gwalior was a small town where people were totally alien to the idea that a career could be made out of theatre.” By this point, in 1981-82, Piyush had enrolled himself in the Government Science College for his graduation, but he had no intention of sticking around. Unable to bear the pressure, he even slashed his wrists with a blade before his second year examinations, not with the intention of committing suicide, as he insists, but as a way of registering his protest. “I just wanted to tell my family members that I WILL NOT STUDY. I didn’t know what I would do, but I just didn’t want to study,” said Piyush as he showed me the fading scars on both his arms.

Finally, he decided to leave Gwalior. He took the entrance test to the National School of Drama, Delhi in 1983, but not with any particular desire to study there. “I wanted to get out of Gwalior. By then, I was tired of my loneliness as well,” he said.

He landed at NSD at a turbulent time, with a students’ strike shaking the institution to its core. “There was a lot of vandalism which took place because of the strike. It cost BM Shah his position as director of the institute. I hadn’t come to NSD for this,” he said. Piyush also found the big city culture intimidating. “Ladki kandhey pe haath rakh de toh pareshaani hoti hain (If a girl placed her hand on my shoulder, I would feel awkward),” he said, recounting the kind of pressures he faced in his first year in Delhi.

But towards the end of the first year, when the strike at NSD had ended, things gradually fell into place. It started with Piyush composing music for a Parsi play called Mashreeki Hoor. “It happened by accident. The music teacher, Mr Mohan Upreti, was unavailable. The students were getting impatient, so I took on the job.” It was the first time Piyush had composed music; his only previous experience had been fiddling with a harmonium left behind at home by his aunt from Bhilwara. “Bajaaya maine usko, bajaaya toh woh baj gaya behnchodh! (When I tried, I realised I could play it and how!)” he said, vehemently dismissing questions about formal training. Piyush continued to use that harmonium until very recently, when he had to replace it with a newer one. “The harmonium was of German make from the 1930s. I often say that Hitler must have touched it, because the only music that has emanated from it has been rather explosive in nature,” he said.

Although Piyush mentions Mashreeki Hoor in passing, his knack for music didn’t go unnoticed at the school. Anuradha Kapur, current director of NSD, who taught Major Movements of World Drama at that time, recalled, “He would work a lot on student projects which involved music, [such as] projects in the Parsi theatre which involved students to sing individually or in chorus. He was very good at that. His ability with music and lyrics was quite apparent.”

His acting breakthrough at NSD had to wait until the start of his second year, when he played the title role in Hamlet, directed by Fritz Bennewitz, a German-born theatre personality known for his productions of Bertolt Brecht and Shakespeare. Bennewitz had been associated with the NSD since the 1970s and his involvement with Indian theatre, across the country, continued into the late 1980s. Bennewitz cast Piyush in the title role based on the inputs of teachers and his own observations during reading sessions of Hamlet.

To Bennewitz, then, goes part of the credit of turning Piyush’s fortunes; Piyush called him the “cork opener”, the one who introduced him to technique. “Initially, I didn’t understand anything. I didn’t know that acting could be done with technique as well.” But Bennewitz pushed Piyush to deliver, often by being condescending to him. “He would tell me I didn’t deserve to be an actor, that I should go back to Gwalior and join bank service. Finally, when we had the last rehearsal, on Christmas day of 1984, he told me ‘Whatever you have performed today, is like a Christmas gift for me.’” Piyush said that he had no idea what Bennewitz meant until the play opened.

Piyush now refers to Hamlet, which opened on January 1, 1985, as his “first tryst with stardom”. “That turned the tide and ignited my passion for acting,” he said. Mohan Maharishi, then NSD director, said, “It was one of the finest Hamlets we had seen on stage in India.  Fritz challenged him as an actor.” Piyush agrees: “I thought acting happened just by getting into the mood. He taught me how to get into the mood. He taught me how to interpret each and every sentence in a play.” To this day, a black and white photograph of Bennewitz stands on Piyush’s study. (Ironically, Bennewitz and Piyush’s father, two men with vastly different influences on Piyush’s life, died on the same day—September 13, 1995.)

His next big role came through veteran theatre director and scriptwriter Ranjit Kapoor, who directed Piyush in Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nekrassov. Kapoor had been impressed by Piyush’s intensity in Hamlet. He wanted an actor who could display a similar energy with Nekrassov, which was a farce. Piyush managed to exceed Kapoor’s expectations. “He had charisma. The moment he would start speaking, he had the audience by their throat.” Piyush also started to be recognised for his creative range.  “His ability with music and with acting was very clearly etched. It wasn’t so usual to get students whose various facets are apparent when they are students,” said Anuradha Kapur.

Yet, despite the high praise he received, Piyush remained oblivious of the effect he had on people. “I couldn’t get a sense of my achievements. I just wanted to get away,” he said. Ranjit Kapoor admitted to having noticed this troubled side to Piyush’s personality, “Sometimes, he came across as very disturbed and irritable. There was a lot of anger within him. Nobody knew towards what his anger was directed, but it was there.”

It was perhaps this internal strife that led Piyush to ignore producer Raj Kumar Barjatya’s movie offer in his final year at NSD. According to the story that has hounded Piyush Mishra through his life, Barjatya—a name to reckon with in Bollywood—visited NSD in 1986 to find an actor to star in his son Sooraj Barjatya’s directorial debut, Maine Pyar Kiya. Mohan Maharishi recommended Piyush, who was about to graduate from NSD, to the filmmaker, but Piyush didn’t show up in Mumbai despite Barjatya giving him a written invitation. “I don’t know why I didn’t go,” said Piyush. “Even when I got to know later which film it was, it didn’t matter to me.”

When he finally got to Mumbai in 1989, realising that there were few opportunities in Delhi besides repeating his college performances at NSD’s repertory company and unsubstantial roles in theatre and TV, he returned within a year. His only noteworthy stints in Mumbai from this time were an appearance in Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj and a role alongside Naseeruddin Shah in an adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame. Piyush blames these unsatisfying years on his muddled state of mind.

Tigmanshu Dhulia, filmmaker and 1989 NSD graduate, offers a more plausible explanation. Having known Piyush well while he was at NSD, Tigmanshu recalls his senior being constantly surrounded by people at the institute or at Mandi House, which was the nerve centre of Delhi’s theatre community. “You don’t get that kind of attention in Mumbai because everybody is so busy. Probably, he felt alienated when he came [to Mumbai] initially.” Sudhanva Deshpande of the Delhi theatre group Jan Natya Manch, who has known Piyush for two decades, sees his discomfort with Mumbai as the consequence of the decline of Hindi cinema. “It wasn’t a very creative industry. The high of the ’70s was gone. I remember there was this feeling when Piyush came back to Delhi from Mumbai that, look at our film industry, what a useless industry it is, it has no place for a man like Piyush Mishra.”

PIYUSH’S RETURN TO DELHI, then read as defeat, would go on to have a definitive influence on his artistic style. While in Delhi, he had been good friends with NK Sharma, a well known theatre director. NK, as he was known, had first met Piyush at a performance of Nekrassov. “We used to hang out together. We had a shared interest in theatre, we used to talk about the plays we had seen together,” said NK of his bonding with Piyush between 1986 and 1988. When Piyush came back from Mumbai, NK asked him to join his new theatre company, Act One. The early 1990s were notable years for a pronounced churning in Delhi’s political and social theatre, predominantly a response to market liberalisation, and the communal environment marked by the Babri demolition and Bombay blasts. The theatre groups significant for their engagement with the national discourse were NSD’s Repertory Company, Ebrahim Alkazi’s Little Theatre Group, Barry John’s Theatre Action Group (TAG) and Sakshi Theatre Group. NSD faculty members Robin Das and Devendra Raj Ankur were running their own companies, while Jan Natya Manch had continued performing street theatre after the murder of founder Safdar Hashmi. Habib Tanvir’s Naya Theatre Company was a regular presence with its productions like Ponga Pandit and Dekh Rahey Hain Nain adding to the vigour that characterised the theatre scene in Delhi at the time.

Act One was trying to find its niche in this charged environment. “Those were very dynamic days. The country was in the midst of communal tension. A few very dynamic, conscious people joined the group and we did some great work,” said NK. This marked the beginning of a productive, rewarding phase in Piyush’s career, one which he terms his second stage of stardom. Working alongside peers like Manoj Bajpai, Gajraj Rao and Ashish Vidyarthi, Piyush acted in, wrote and composed the music for a number of Act One’s productions, all directed by NK. After Mashreeki Hoor at NSD, it was at Act One that he had the opportunity to put his writing and composing skills to extensive use. The very first Act One production that he wrote and composed for was a montage of street songs called Hamaarey Daur Mein, through which Act One highlighted the communal tension sweeping through the country. He had mixed his own songs with the reworked compositions of renowned songwriters like the Urdu poets Sahir Ludhianvi and Kaifi Azmi and the Punjabi poet Pash. “I would adjust the words in their poems to fit my compositions,” said Piyush. “I didn’t want to request or plead with anyone to maintain harmony. My only message was chutiyon, sudhar jao,” he said, the anger in his voice palpable.

The other Act One productions he worked on were similar—entertaining, with a social message. Holi, adapted from Marathi playwright Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play of the same name, to which Piyush added songs, dealt with the malaise in the education system and campus politics. Jab Sheher Hamaara Sota Hai, the first play Piyush independently wrote for Act One, was a musical love story on the theme of communal harmony. Maha Kund Ka Maha Daan and Woh Ab Bhi Pukaarta Hai touched upon casteism in the Indian rural hinterland, while Aaney Bhi Do Yaaron was a lighthearted satire on the increasing commercialisation and materialism gripping urban India.

Piyush talks about drawing inspiration from the environment at that time, an ability he has preserved through the years. “Just keep your eyes open and pay attention to what all is happening around you,” he said about the sources that influence his lyrics. The other noticeable feature that started to define his work was his use of chaste, colloquial Hindi in songs like ‘Ri meri sanskriti’, ‘Dharam naam ka chidiya balla’, ‘Baje badariya’ and ‘O Mrignayni’ that he wrote for theatre. Piyush says this grew out of his voracious hunger for Hindi literature as a student in Gwalior. “I learnt the language from there. I would read up everything, matlab pathya-pustakon ki maa ki (school textbooks be damned), I would go beyond what was prescribed by the teachers,” he said triumphantly.

Act One’s productions were receiving increasing attention—Sudhanva Deshpande remembers the group bursting onto the early ’90s theatre milieu with fresh energy. “The way in which their plays were done was new. There was a huge amount of collaborative energy that went in. Their plays were scripted very well. Piyush’s songs were superb,” he said. Other observers emphasise the collaboration between NK and Piyush. Shoojit Sircar, an active member of Act One at the time, and now known as the director of movies like Yahaan and Vicky Donor, said, “Their combination was very good. NK was a brilliant director. There was a lot of socialism and Marx in our plays. The kind of writing that [Piyush] did, especially his songs, even we would get stimulated by it.”

When Piyush recounts this period, it is with uninhibited fondness. “It was a great phase, my first taste of family. There were a lot of bright people—Manoj, Shoojit, Gajraj—around me. I got avenues [for my creativity]. I was composing, writing songs, writing original plays. I opened up.” Anuradha Kapoor said of his increasing command over his talent, “He had different ways of delivering dialogue. He would work on his speech, turn it around to make it different for each character. It wasn’t always one person speaking. There was great detail in his work—in his posture, in his actions. It helped him to crystallise every role.”

Among Piyush’s growing list of admirers during his Act One days was Anurag Kashyap, then a student at Delhi’s Hansraj College and an avid theatre follower. Kashyap’s earliest memory of Piyush is watching Jab Sheher Hamaara Sota Hai, which Piyush had written the songs for, a few of which the filmmaker later used in Gulaal, such as the title song Jab Sheher Hamaara Sota Hai’, ‘O Raat Ke Musafir’ and ‘Yaara Maula’. “For me, Piyush bhai was something else. When he would talk to people, I would just watch, listen, hang around,” said Kashyap. Piyush confirms Kashyap admitting to him much later, “Aap se baat karne mein badi dum nikla karti thee (We were petrified of speaking to you).”

But it was during these heady times that Piyush began his descent into alcoholism. He had begun drinking when he joined Act One in 1990. What started as a way to celebrate Act One’s success (“Wine, women and work is how we used to describe it.”) turned into a drinking problem by the time he quit Act One in 1995. “People started idolising him. He had to drink to be himself,” explained Kashyap. Kashyap also suggested that alcohol enhanced his creativity, that when he drank, “he just wrote magically”. Piyush did, in fact, write some of his most celebrated songs like ‘Husna’ and ‘Ik bagal mein chaand hoga’ from Gangs Of Wasseypur in the early to mid-’90s, when he was deep in the grip of alcohol.

Despite the adulation he received, Piyush left Act One in June 1995. He said it was because of the persistent restlessness within him: “I wanted to leave everything and go away. I wanted to leave my parents, my friends, my philosophers and guides, institutes, Act One—my only tendency was to run away.” Those around him noticed he was drifting aimlessly. “Piyush bhai was very restless, bitter, like a raging bull, constantly huffing and puffing,” said Dhulia. Piyush’s exit from the only place that gave him a sense of belonging could also have been a result of ideological disillusionment. When he joined Act One, he had been won over by NK’s committed leftist ideology. “It gave me a purpose,” he said, and that purpose was reflected in the kind of writing he did for the group. However, as he evolved his own identity, he realised that he wasn’t a leftist. He found that the political class that represented the left was no different from right wing or conservative establishments. “All of them were the same. They all wanted to go to America and buy expensive shoes,” he said scathingly.

The leftist themes in his writings continue to be pronounced, however, something he was quick to explain. “If standing up for what is right makes one a leftist, then I am one.” He went on to add animatedly, “Even my mother, who was a housewife and was a villager, said people should not fight. Does that make her a leftist? The only difference between her and me was that I was able to articulate what I felt.” He admitted that his exit from Act One strained his relationship with NK, but the latter insisted he bore no grudge against Piyush. “In fact, he was the guy who stayed in Act One for the longest time. People have to move on,” NK said.

Even after he left Act One, Piyush remained fiercely driven to do theatre, a motivation that led him to acclaimed Hindu writer Nirmal Verma’s novel Doosri Duniya.  He had already performed a version ofDoosri Duniya, a touching story of a man’s relationship with a small girl, as a solo performance under NK’s direction at Act One. Now that he was on his own, he realised this would be the easiest performance to revive. In the absence of resources, Piyush put on shows at friends’ houses, either in their bedrooms or on their terraces, for the princely fee of R11. “Bada mazaa aaya, (I had great fun)”, he said of the experience. Soon after, in early 1996, Piyush did another solo performance, as a woman in Betty Lemon Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hain? which was directed by Roysten Abel for the British Council. Betty Lemon was based on British dramatist Arnold Wesker’s play Whatever Happened to Betty Lemon? where a handicapped woman rants against socialism and communism. “In a way, I was airing my own grudges against communism through the character of Betty Lemon,” said Piyush. His third solo act was Duvidha, presented at NSD’s festival of solo performances in March 1996. Duvidha, which he adapted for stage himself, was based on Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha’s story of the same name, and explored the dilemma faced by a newlywed bride who is forced to make a choice between the material and the spiritual.

The three solo acts became the three-hour An Evening With Piyush Mishra when Piyush joined Arvind Gaur’s Asmita Theatre Group. As per his arrangement with them, Asmita would organise the venue, take care of publicity, and keep the entire ticket proceeds. “I only needed a space to perform,” Piyush said. An Evening With Piyush Mishra went on to become Piyush’s third tryst with stardom.

Manu Rishi Chadha, who starred in Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! as Bangali, Lucky’s endearing sidekick, and who was a part of Asmita when Piyush joined the theatre company, recalled, “People would leave in silence after watching Piyush. They were not able to express their admiration in words, but their speechlessness said everything,” Piyush, too, doesn’t hold himself back on the subject: “It was a roaring success. They [the audience] would wonder how could one man enact three distinct characters non-stop for three hours?”

BUT, IN 1998, just as he was settling in at Asmita, having written the script, played the protagonist and composed the songs for Operation Three Star, an adaptation of Italian playwright Dario Fo’s play Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Piyush left the group. Today, he isn’t very sentimental about the time he spent with Asmita. “NK yaar hai. Arvind se kabhi main jud nahin paaya (NK was a friend. I could never bond with Arvind Gaur).”

His exit pushed him into desolation. “I was tired of doing solo performances,” he said, but added that he also did not know what he wanted to do next. As Piyush struggled to find his next platform, his addiction to alcohol peaked. “I didn’t know where my career was headed. I felt I couldn’t do without liquor. Initially, it was whisky, then rum.  And then I started drinking alone. I needed more than half a bottle every night.” Piyush remembers this time as one of accidents and fights. By his own admission, he developed an image at Mandi House of a respected artist who got drunk and spoke to himself.

It didn’t help that most of his comrades from Mandi House had moved on. By 1998, Manoj Bajpai, Ashish Vidyarthi and Vishal Bhardwaj, his closest friends from his Act One days, had already established themselves in Mumbai. Vidyarthi was noticed for his performance in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahinand offered a number of character roles in films. Bhardwaj’s music for Gulzar’s Maachis had won him considerable acclaim. And Manoj Bajpai was a star after playing Bhiku Mhatre in Satya, Ram Gopal Varma’s hard-hitting Mumbai underworld film from 1998. Piyush also made his film debut around the same time, with Tigmanshu Dhulia, who was writing dialogue for Dil Se, getting him the CBI officer’s role in the film. But Dil Se tanked at the box-office and Piyush’s film career didn’t quite take off. Piyush said the disappointment pushed him towards alcohol, “I did it in anger. I did it because of lack of recognition. My friends had already made it big.”

His fear of Mumbai hadn’t yet abated. (Piyush had shot for Dil Se in Delhi). Mumbai’s emphasis on profit over content, which drove the kind of cinema that was produced in Bollywood troubled him, used as he was to the economically unviable but challenging work that defined Delhi theatre. “Mumbai can sometimes be insensitive to a creative person. Piyush knew a lot more than many other mediocre people who were around Mumbai. It could have frustrated him, to leave theatre and come to Mumbai and do mediocre work,” explained Shoojit Sircar.

At NSD’s convocation program in 1999, Piyush Mishra performed Hamlet Kabhi Bombay Nahin Gaya, an unscripted musical solo performance with 20 songs, with the intention of finding out “for how long could I improvise on stage, without any script dictating the flow of the performance”. But the play was equally significant for how it reflected the dilemma that was tearing him apart. The main plot ofHamlet Kabhi Bombay Nahin Gaya involved Hamlet, a young man from Gwalior, confronting Shakespeare about his confused state, with Bhagwan, the chaiwala of Mandi House witnessing the argument. Hamlet’s main contention in the play was that Shakespeare should have left him either ‘To be’ or ‘To not be’ instead of leaving him eternally confused. Piyush agrees today that Hamlet Kabhi…, in many ways, was an allegory for his life.

BETWEEN 1999 AND 2001, Piyush Mishra made a couple of more failed attempts to reenter cinema, but the projects, one of them Ram Gopal Varma’s, didn’t come through. Friends like Manoj Bajpai and Vishal Bhardwaj kept asking him to shift to Mumbai, but he didn’t. Instead, he immersed himself in campus theatre in Delhi, directing college productions at institutes like Lady Shri Ram College for Women and the School of Planning and Architecture. When he did go to Mumbai in 2001, it was on director Rajkumar Santoshi’s invitation to write the script for The Legend Of Bhagat Singh; but the filmmaker’s reluctance to acknowledge in the credits the inspiration from Gagan Damama Bajiyo, Piyush’s Act One production on Bhagat Singh, made him walk out of the film and return to Delhi.

Piyush found himself at a low yet again. By this time, he had a wife (Priya Narayan, whom he met in 1992 while directing a play at the School of Planning and Architecture and married in 1995) and a son, who was born in 1998, to provide for. He recalls going to Mandi House and drinking and crying as he thought, “I have not given anything to my wife, my mother and my son.” The conflict in his mind between Mumbai and Delhi had reached a tipping point. Unlike earlier, Delhi had no new challenges to offer him, while Mumbai, with its cinema at the beginning of a new turn, was brimming with possibilities. When his wife urged him to make another attempt, Piyush gave in. “There was no other option,” he said of the decision. That’s when, he added, “the marriage with Anurag Kashyap happened”.

Piyush had first spoken with Kashyap following the release of Shool in 1999. Impressed by Kashyap’s dialogues, he had decided to compliment him. “This is Piyush Mishra. I am calling you from Delhi. I saw Shool and I really liked your work. Mubarak ho!” Kashyap recalled Piyush telling him. It was a surreal moment for Kashyap, who had idolised Piyush since his student days in Delhi.

Arriving in Mumbai in September of 2002, Piyush got in touch with Kashyap, who was looking for a music director for Gulaal, after having tried a number of people and being disappointed by their work. Piyush, who was at Kashyap’s office on what was another frustrating day for the latter, grabbed a harmonium and started playing. “It was magical,” said Kashyap, who then asked Piyush to compose music for Gulaal, an ambitious film about student politics and an imagined secessionist movement.

Gulaal’s release was stalled till 2009, but Piyush continued on to other work. In Kashyap’s, Black Friday, he shot for the role of Thapa, the customs officer who facilitated the consignment into India of the RDX used in the Mumbai blasts of 1993. The director dropped the character after it was decided thatBlack Friday would be made into a movie instead of a television series. Nevertheless, Piyush contributed lyrics to the movie’s songs, like ‘Arrey ruk ja re bandey’ and ‘Bharam bhaanp ke’, composed and recorded by the band Indian Ocean.

Gradually, Piyush explains, he started getting more work, first through old friends and later through word of mouth. “I did Maqbool. Manoj Bajpai got me 1971 [screenplay], while Shoojit offered meYahaan [screenplay and dialogues]. Then, when Yash Raj Films were looking for someone to write an opera song for the climax of Aaja Nachle, I happened to impress them.” Piyush went on to work in a number of films in different capacities—he made a cameo appearance in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, wrote lyrics for Tashan, dialogues for Ghajini.

Yet, it wasn’t until Gulaal released in 2009 that Bollywood noticed Piyush. “Gulaal is Piyush Mishra’s voice. People valued his work,” said Kashyap on Piyush’s contribution as actor, composer, singer and lyricist to the film’s critical acclaim. “Piyush’s poetry made it so much easier for me to tell the story.” Piyush said about his work in Gulaal, “Anurag’s story dealt only with separatism, but my choice of poetry and my idea for those lines [“sale hai, sale hai”] helped him to expand the scope of Gulaal.”

Rahul Ram, bass guitarist of Indian Ocean describes Piyush’s compositions in Gulaal as “theatrical”. Referring to lyrics like “Jaise door des ke tower mein ghus jaaye re aeroplane” (Like in a distant country, a plane crashes into a tower), from the song ‘Ranaji’, Ram said, “The political look that he gives does not exist in Hindi cinema.” Kashyap said the rage had its genesis in Piyush’s youth, which continues to be the source for a lot of his writing. “I liken him to [Henry Charles] Bukowski, who experiences things and pours it out,” he said. “He himself does not know where it comes from, it comes from deep within.”

AS HE WAS COMING TO TERMS with his creative anxiety, Piyush decided to confront his dependence on alcohol, realising it was harming him “physically, mentally, emotionally, ethically”. With support from his wife, and professional assistance, Piyush largely gave up drinking over the past five years. His struggles with the addiction even inspired him to write a couplet to warn people of the consequences of alcoholism:

Aadat jisko samjhey ho woh marz kabhi bann jaayega

Phir marz ki aadat pad jaayegi, arz na kuch kar paaogey

Aur tabdili ki gunjaayish ne saath diya toh theek sahi

Par usney bhi gar chodd diya, toh yaar bade pachtaogey

What you think is routine, will soon turn into addiction

Then you will be bound by habit, incapable of delivering anything

And if you wish to change, it will be a good thing

But if it gets too late, you will regret a great deal

As with all things in his life, Piyush likes to get philosophical about his alcoholism. He believes that, like his bua Taradevi Mishra, liquor came into his life for a reason. Without the lows, he could have never seen the highs. “The moment he got recognition, he automatically left liquor,” noted Manu Rishi Chadha.

Today, Piyush no longer has to look for work—he is swamped with it. “When I was looking, I struggled,” he said. He proudly mentioned featuring on an episode of The Dewarists, the music travelogue show on Star World, where he collaborated with English rapper Akala. He also spoke with great satisfaction of one of his forthcoming projects, The Playback Singer, an independent film written and directed by Suju Vijayan. Vijayan, who had been referred to Piyush by a common friend, said she was “blown away” by his online audition. “It was clear he understood the character inside and out. I had never felt that way about an actor I had auditioned,” she said.

At 50, Piyush Mishra might have found his niche in Bollywood, but Kashyap wonders if a man of his depth can ever get the recognition he deserves in the Hindi film industry. “His versatility and his talent has a lot of gravity,” he said. “Our film industry does not like gravity. They don’t know what he can contribute to them. He is a man capable of creating incredibly great cinema. They just like everything on the surface, which is why he has not been explored, exploited.”

Piyush responded to his fear by telling  a story about a man who refused to drink the water from the village well because he knew it had been poisoned. He warned the villagers repeatedly, but they paid no heed—the water was sweet and they continued to drink it. The poisoned water caused the people in the village to lose their minds. Since the man was the one who now appeared to behave differently, the entire village started calling him mad. But the man stuck to his decision to avoid the water. “I am like that man,” Piyush said, “I will only do what I believe in.”

Akshay Manwani is a freelance writer based in Mumbai. His book on the poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi will be published by HarperCollins in 2013.