Movies

After 17 years of struggle, Vineet Kumar lands the lead role in 'Mukkabaaz'

Dark horse: The Varanasi boy, who came to Mumbai first in 1999-2000, had to go through a series of forgotten films and unnoticed performances

Dark horse: The Varanasi boy, who came to Mumbai first in 1999-2000, had to go through a series of forgotten films and unnoticed performances  

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17 years of struggle, an MD in Ayurveda and a national level basketball player, Vineet Kumar Singh finds his first film as the lead in Mukkabaaz

Last year when we asked filmmaker Anurag Kashyap why he chose Vineet Kumar Singh as the lead, boxer Shravan Singh, in his new film on sports, love, politics and casteism —Mukkabaaz — he said that Singh was ready to be upgraded as an actor. “Seventeen years of struggle have given him a seething anger,” Kashyap told us.

Sitting across a black table in a stark white room in Eros International’s office in Andheri, on the eve of the film’s release, we start off by asking Singh if the pent up emotions proved advantageous in hindsight. He shrugs it off, a trifle bemused: “Anger never got built up within me.” But he is happy that “Anurag Sir” thought so. “I am an actor, I need work, whichever way I get it,” he smiles.

The struggle is real

The Varanasi boy, who came to Mumbai first in 1999-2000, had to go through a series of forgotten films and unnoticed performances to eventually find his first film as a lead in 2018. His heart used to well up, he used to cry to feel lighter and go about the struggle again the next day. Without any trace of anger. “There is a dream with which we live, that dream takes us forward,” he looks back.

So every rejection, every bit of negativity thrown at him was taken in the stride. He compares it to pursuing any course of study: “If you have enrolled to study medicine, you have to read all the associated books, whether you like them or not.” He decided to be firm about standing by his choice. “It was my decision to become an actor. It wasn’t a prescription from any doctor. If I couldn’t handle the consequences of my choice then the problem was within me. I couldn’t blame anyone else.”

The death of a dream can be infinitely bigger than human mortality itself. Many of his aspiring actor friends faced the same predicament and decided to go back home. That made things painful and difficult. There was also the overarching dread that it could happen to him. “We used to get emotional while packing. There used to be silence. It felt like I was packing their dreams away,” he recollects.

And, all this while, he did have another option to fall back on. “If I quit due to circumstances I could at least become a doctor,” says the actor who has completed his MD in Ayurveda while struggling in Mumbai. He sums it up with a popular Hindi idiom: “Lutiya doobi to padhayi kaam aa jaayegi (Studies would come in handy if he were to be disgraced).” Incidentally, Singh is also a national level basketball player in sub-junior category.

 

Studiously speaking

He remembers the phase with clarity, recalling and narrating every episode in great detail. No one in his extended family had been into acting. He hails from academicians — his father is a mathematician whose books were prescribed to students in Uttar Pradesh and his elder brother is a lecturer. Singh himself wanted to join the National School of Drama (NSD) in New Delhi but cleared the Combined Pre Medical Test (CPMT) and went on to study medicine in Haridwar and Varanasi. He topped in his under-graduation so went on to do his MD too from Nagpur.

He can’t quite recollect how and why he got drawn to acting but it was ingrained in him right since childhood. Among five siblings, two offered moral support — the younger sister and brother. They were the audience for his furtive performances. However, his father clearly said no when Singh shared his passion with him. Friends laughed it away. It was a typical educated middle-class attitude. You could go watch a film. In fact, some good films were mandatorily shown, like Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anand. “I was very young back then, never understood it,” he says. Participation in cultural activities was also all fine but acting was a big no as a career option. “Chaand pe chadhne ki tarah (like travelling all the way to the moon),” he says. While doing his post-graduation from Nagpur Singh just about maintained the minimum attendance and slipped away to Mumbai, to live stealthily with his seniors in Poddar medical college, to look around for work.

He entered a talent hunt for actors and won the final. Filmmaker Mahesh Manjrekar was one of the judges who gave him a role in Pitaah. It flopped and left Singh unprepared for what followed. He had to begin chasing those who used to meet him readily. Singh himself didn’t know anyone other than the watchmen of various film offices. All his friends were either doctors or sportsmen. Nor were there professional casting directors around. Assistants used to cast and he had nothing to convince them with — no film school training, no performances to flash around.

He knew Kashyap from Varanasi but never dared to approach him either because he had the reputation of turning down people who came with recommendations. “I didn’t want to be part of that list,” says Singh. “I knew he wouldn’t give me a role for my medical degree anyhow.” He worked as an assistant to network and build contacts; used to do anything and everything that came his way. He did Bhojpuri and DD afternoon serials to survive. “I would play a ghost, a cop. Rs 500-700-1200-1500 I used to accept any amount offered to me. I had become like a football, getting tossed around,” he says. Singh was willing to do even a single scene: “Ek scene se bhi bada role milta hai (a small scene can lead to a big role),” he says.

Do it yourself

It was in 2009-2010 that he got a good break with the Marathi-Hindi bilingual City of Gold. “The minute the film’s hoardings came up I ran to Anurag sir,” he says. That was when Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) casting was on and he landed the role of Danish Khan. Singh calls the film his life’s turning point. “That happened so I got another and so we are talking here today. That [film] is the root of it all,” he says.

Neeraj Ghaywan’s short Shor, Kashyap’s own Bombay Talkies and Ugly followed. But the itch began again. “I found the work I was getting was similar. Like Wasseypur’s Danish, Shor’s Lallan, Vijay of Bombay Talkies or Ugly’s Chaitanya Mishra,” he says. So he began writing Mukkabaaz with his sister (also a basketball player and physical education teacher) Mukti Singh Srinet, drawing from his own experience as a player, seeing legends like hockey magician Mohammad Shahid play and practice. Singh also looked at the players’ struggles — those who couldn’t find their way up because they couldn’t land in the officials’ good books; the bad conditions they lived, played and practised in.

The single most important incident to trigger the script was seeing a senior, otherwise sporting medals in newspaper photographs, stealthily porting luggage at a railway station to make ends meet. Singh began training for the lead role and building on his stamina while writing the film. He was clear about doing the role than just giving away the script to any filmmaker. He sent it to Kashyap for feedback who called back to say he will direct with him in the lead. “An actor waits for such a call his or her entire life,” says Singh.

Kashyap wanted to make some changes to the script and wanted him to truly become a boxer. “Actors expose themselves too much. Vineet just disappeared. You saw him in Bombay Talkies or Ugly. No one saw him after that,” Kashyap had told The Hindu. This was when he trained in Punjab and lived like the players. He didn’t want anyone to know he was an actor. While shooting for the film, he broke a rib and his hand. He smiles back at all the accidents now. “I just had to do the film,” he says. “Good films and characters don’t come your way easily,” he says. He has another sports film, Reema Kagti’s Gold coming up next. And all he wants in the long run is freedom to work— his way and in his kind of films.

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Printable version | Dec 10, 2019 8:28:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/look-back-in-positivity/article22399026.ece

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