Jack jumps out of the box
Actor Vineet Kumar Singh broke his personal stereotypes to get into the skin of the protagonist in Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz. Angela Paljor listens in
The shift from a doctor to an actor was not an easy one. Coming from a strong academic background — a mathematician father, an uncle who is a professor of statistics and another a principal — the very idea of becoming an actor was not even a last resort. But when he did gather the courage to confront his father, the answer was a big no. “But I did not give up on my dreams — I continued my participation in various cultural activities. My younger sister and brother were the only ones who enjoyed watching my act.”
Unable to decide, Singh continued with his studies — joined the medical school in Varanasi. “It was during a cultural show that I realised that the glamour of having a stethoscope dangling around the neck with a white coat on, didn’t intrigue me as much as acting did.” Luckily, during this time, he got a call from his sister who told him about an audition for a talent hunt in Mumbai. And thus began his journey. In 1999, he won the talent show but was reluctant to let go of his studies. “I covered the bare minimum attendance required and the rest of my time I dedicated to workshops at various theatres. Being a part of the medical school I wasn’t legally allowed to join any theatre on a full time basis.”
Singh’s debut film Pitaah (2002) gave him hope that things would be easier. “When the film failed to make a mark I understood that life in Mumbai and especially the film industry was not an easy one. Coming from a non-film background my stature was nothing more than a watchman. The people I knew were either in sports or medical disciplines. I used to visit studios where the watchman would stop and inquire about my mission. Since I had no appointment I was never let inside, leaving me wondering how to cross this simple barrier.” Even when Singh met people from within the industry, the conversation was limited to him narrating his film which no one knew about and being laughed at for risking a career as a doctor to pursue acting. Thus, he stopped mentioning the fact that he was a doctor.
Amid all the struggle, five to six years passed. Singh completed his MD in Ayurveda and parallely worked in few films where his role was limited to few dialogues. People whom he knew started leaving the city, unable to find a career in cinema. “Around 4-5 of us would live in a single room in Mumbai and watching them leave was hard as I packed their bags, I packed with them their dreams. This made my will to achieve stronger and I tried my hands at everything.”
By 2006 he was broke — every single penny from his family policies, money from internship and anything that he earned during his stint was over. “During this phase, I worked in Bhojpuri films and Delhi Doordarshan’s evening shows for mere sustenance. In 2010 I worked in City of Gold, and as soon as the hoardings were up, I went to see Anurag Kashyap.”
Coming from Banaras, Singh knew Kashyap had the reputation of not entertaining talent on the basis of origin. “I didn’t want to be one of those blacklisted in Anurag sir’s list. And when I met him I told him the same to which he agreed.” Fate was on Singh’s side this time as Kashyap was casting people for Gangs of Wasseypur. Since then he has worked with him on Bombay Talkies (2012) and Ugly (2014) as a supporting actor, but in their fourth collaboration, Singh finally got to play the part he had always wanted to for the past ten years: the hero.
The very dream of being the hero initiated the second phase in Singh’s career as a script writer. “Whatever the reason was, I was never asked to play the protagonist. I was always seen as Danish Khan of Wasseypur or Chaitanya Mishra of Ugly. So I decided to work on a script whose only pitch would be to cast me in the lead. Once I decided to write, I couldn’t think of anything better than sports as I have played basketball at the state level.” But Singh wasn’t alone, his sister, Mukti Singh, a national level basketball player herself, started to pen down the struggle of a boxer before he wins an award. “I have seen people like Mohammad Sajid, the hockey player and Rahul Singh, the hockey Olympian playing while I was growing up. But either because of their family situations or for reasons unknown they were not able to get into the books of officials. They just did not have a godfather. But by the time they realised it was late. Once I saw one of the renowned players for whom people across India would stand in ovation carrying a guard’s trunk at Banaras railway station. The trunk was tilted forward to hide his identity. Even I ran away after seeing him and this scarred me. Sports achievements are about momentary honour that should hold good for future survival. But money flow can only sustain champions.”
Singh started pitching the story since 2014 but no one was ready to cast him — either they wanted him to play a minor role or just be the script writer. “I didn’t approach Kashyap sir at first as he said at the end of Ugly’s premiere that ‘I have worked with you in three films, now I’m not working with you for some time.’ So I approached him for mere feedback, hoping to pitch it for Phantom films. Surprisingly, he called me within two weeks and told me that he would rework my script and direct me as the lead.” While Singh was still trying to process what just happened, he had two propositions — until Singh actually became a boxer Kashyap wouldn’t take the film forward and the director would retain the freedom to make changes in the script as per his will. “I was so happy that a person like him was taking my script forward.”
Leaving the script in good hands, Singh left for Punjab for his training once Kashyap connected him to Virendra Singh. “I had been training for a while in Mumbai as I thought that I wouldn’t get a chance once the production starts. I trained in mixed martial arts as boxing classes were expensive.” Having drained out his money during the time he was pitching his film, Singh went ahead and sold every single thing in his apartment before he left for Punjab. “I trained in Punjab for a year during which I made sure no one knew I was an actor. I wanted to observe the boxers in their raw form and experience the challenges a boxer faces.” This is how he transformed into a real time Mukkabaaz.
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