The Mukka Man

After years of struggle and rejection, actor Vineet Kumar Singh has struck gold with Mukkabaaz

By Karishma Upadhyay
  • Published 18.01.18
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Vineet Kumar Singh with Zoya Hussain in Mukkabaaz

I have a degree as a doctor of medicine and also as a ‘doctor of rejection’, Vineet Kumar Singh joked when t2 met the actor at a cafe close to his home in Mumbai’s Versova. As the lead  Shravan Singh in Mukkabaaz — Anurag Kashyap’s new film on boxing, love and casteism — the boy from Benaras has made the industry sit up and take notice.

Vineet, a national-level basketball player and a doctor-in-training, came to Mumbai in 1999-2000 to pursue his dream in films. What followed reads like any struggler’s story — endless auditions, waiting in front of director’s offices, a series of forgotten films and unnoticed performances. “I only wanted to act but I didn’t know how to get work. My desperation had reached a point when I was ready to work for Rs 500, do one scene… anything to get in front of a camera.” While he struggled, Vineet also completed his MD in Ayurveda.

Even as Gangs of Wasseypur, Bombay Talkies and Ugly came his way, Vineet was looking for that one film that would catapult him into the big league. When they didn’t come his way, Vineet decided to write one himself. “People laughed when they heard I had written the role of a boxer for myself.” The joke’s on the naysayers because Mukkabaaz has released to glowing reviews. On the Friday the film opened in cinemas across the country, t2 sat down with Vineet to talk about his struggles and dreams.  

Congratulations... your first film as a lead actor is finally in theatres!

January 12, 2018 is a landmark date in my life. I saw a dream 17 years ago and that’s what brought me to Mumbai. That dream has come true today. It feels incredible. It’s been a long and hard journey. I come from a family of academics and I didn’t know anyone in Mumbai or in the film business when I came here. From that to having a film directed by Anurag Kashyap in theatres feels like success.

Let’s begin at the beginning. You’ve also written Mukkabaaz. How did that happen?

In January 2013, I had finished shooting for Ugly (also directed by Anurag Kashyap). All the work that was coming my way after that was similar to what I had already done in Gangs of Wasseypur, Bombay Talkies or Ugly. It made me very anxious. I didn’t know what to do. I had been in Mumbai for 14 years at that point. I was working hard... I was told that I was talented. I was nominated for best supporting actor awards, and yet I wasn’t getting interesting work. That’s when I started writing with my sister Mukti Singh. 

And you decided to write about a subject that both Mukti and you knew intimately?

Yes. I have been a national-level basketball player. I have played at six National Games at mini and sub-junior level. My sister and writing partner Mukti was also a basketball player. She’s done a Ph.D in Physical Education. We’ve both seen the aspect of sports that most people don’t talk about. We tend to talk about our sportspersons when they win big. But people don’t know how difficult their journey has been. I grew up in Benaras, which is home to the legendary hockey player Mohammed Shahid, Olympians Vivek Singh and Rahul Singh. I have seen over a dozen international players playing and practising on a regular basis all through my childhood. We’ve seen players who were immensely talented, but just because someone didn’t like them or because they didn’t have enough money, they couldn’t pursue their sport.

I remember seeing a much-celebrated senior sportsman working as a coolie at Benaras railway station. By the time I saw him, he was trying to hide his face behind the suitcase he was carrying. He didn’t want me to see him. I pretended to not see him. That incident really shook me because I was also a sportsman. I know people... star players... who’d reach their office at 6am so no one could see them sweeping and cleaning the premises. Or players who have sold their medals for a few rupees.

Is it true that you started training immediately after you finished writing?

Yes.  

You didn’t even know if the film would get made at that point!

(Laughs) That’s true, but I believed that it would get made some day. I was going to play a boxer, so it was important that I had the stamina and strength to look convincing. I would run, skip and do cardio-training for about two hours every day. I had thought that it would take me a year to get this film made. Everyone I took this script to liked it, but they didn’t want to cast me. They would offer to hire me just as a writer and make the film with an A-list actor. My only condition was — if you like the story, cast me as the lead. This is where every conversation ended.

From the time you wrote the first draft to Anurag Kashyap coming on board, it took three years!

Yes. I wasn’t even going to Anurag Sir with this film. When Ugly premiered in 2014, he told me that he’d made three films with me so he didn’t want to cast me for some years. I was very hesitant to even approach Phantom Films. I finally gave the script to Anurag Sir just to get his inputs. About 10 days later, when he called, Anurag Sir started the conversation with, ‘I’m making the film and you’ll star in it. But I have two conditions — I am going to change the script a little and you need to look like a boxer’. I made him repeat this because I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I don’t think I can ever explain what that moment felt like.

You went to Patiala to train in boxing. Why didn’t you train in Mumbai?

Even before Anurag Sir had agreed, I had looked for boxing coaches in Mumbai. I only found MMA (mixed martial arts) fighters. Also, they were really expensive. I wasn’t working at that point, so I couldn’t afford to pay thousands of rupees per session. Anurag Sir connected me to Vijender (Singh, Olympian boxer), who, in turn, put me in touch with coaches in Patiala. I didn’t have enough money, so I called a scrap dealer to my house and sold everything he was prepared to give me money for. He bought everything... from my TV to shoes! I loaded everything else in my car and drove to Patiala.

What’s next for you?

I have Gold with Akshay Kumar releasing this year. I am really looking forward to that film because I haven’t played a character like that before. I haven’t read any script in the last month since we started promoting Mukkabaaz. Once we are done, I will start reading scripts and pick what I am going to do next.