Thursday, June 20, 2013

Neil Nitin Mukesh

“Today, the game is not about competition, the game has changed to survival”

By Ankita R Kanabar

(This interview has been published in the June 15, 2013 issue of Super Cinema)

Now what do you say about a man who leaves you intimidated with his tough on-screen portrayal, but in reality is someone who watches cartoons and animated films? It could probably be hard to believe that Neil Nitin Mukesh has a child-like heart, because, those grey roles he essays on the 70mm seem so effortless, but well, that’s what the fact is. He unwraps that dark on-screen image when he meets you, and you explore the sensitive man behind that. He may not have struck gold at the box office, but that shouldn’t really be the reason to deny that he is a fine actor. I meet Neil for a long afternoon chat, where he seems completely sleep-deprived as he’s spent the previous night shooting. He has maintained this particular look for his upcoming film ‘Dussehra’, but looks as handsome as ever. At the moment though, he’s completely pepped about ‘Shortcut Romeo’ which is a departure from the kind of films he’s been associated with, in the past. There’s this huge smile on his face, a glint in his eyes, and lots of positivity, despite the fact that his previous films ‘David’ and ‘3G’ didn’t really do well at the box office window. Probably, that only comes from the fact that he’s so passionate towards his craft, and he only thinks about getting better and better. This guy is certainly, insane about films! In a heart-to-heart conversation, Neil speaks about ‘Shortcut Romeo’, why he chooses the films he chooses, and a lot more! Literally, a lot more! Read on…

You’ve told me earlier that you don’t know the difference between ‘off-beat’ and ‘commercial’ cinema. Do you still maintain that?
I still maintain what I always said, very strongly. There’s no difference for me between commercial cinema and off-beat cinema. For me, a film is a film. Though, I just have categorised ‘Shortcut Romeo’ as an entertaining film. Earlier people have mentioned that the films I’ve done are slightly dark, so in comparison to them, ‘Shortcut Romeo’ is a much entertaining film in the terms of songs, action, drama, story-line. But it still has what Neil specialises in. It has my individual touch. It’s still got its shades of grey, but this time, probably it will leave you with a smile on your face.

Tell us about your ‘Shortcut Romeo’ experience.
I think ‘Shortcut Romeo’ has taught me a lot. It has just loosened me slightly more. It’s opened up the horizons and shown me a lot more than what I thought I could reach out to. For that, all the credit goes to one man – Susi Ganeshan. He’s a fabulous director. He’s made a brilliant film, and ‘Shortcut Romeo’ definitely happens to be one of my best films. I’m extremely proud of the film. The shooting took a while, but it went very smooth. It took time because we’ve shot extensively all over the world. We’ve shot in Kenya, Goa, Mumbai, so many places. There’s a lot of action in the film. While I’ve done a lot of action earlier in films like ‘Johnny Gaddaar’, ‘Jail’, ‘New York’, it was all realistic action. ‘Shortcut Romeo’ has larger-than-life, unreal action. I used to feel strong when I saw the edits (laughs).

While most newcomers opt for more relatable roles, in the initial stages of their career, you’ve always done roles drastically different from yourself, right from your debut film…
I don’t like being in a comfort zone at any time, and besides, I love pushing the envelope. What’s there to look forward to getting up in the morning and going on a set if you’re going to go out there and portray the same boring stuff. There has to be a challenge, something that you keep thinking about, something that you are looking forward to going on set and portraying.

You’ve had two releases this year, so far, and they unfortunately didn’t do well box-office wise, despite you getting good feedback for your work. Do you think about what went wrong when a film doesn’t work?
I got great feedback for both the films, as far as performances are concerned, but unfortunately, both did terribly at the box office, and I don’t know whether to say if I expected it. But, actually, with ‘David’, I didn’t expect that kind of response, considering the fact that the filmmaker, Bejoy Nambiar, is so good. I personally was in awe of ‘Shaitaan’, and I still maintain that ‘David’ is fine film. So, that’s the thing you know! I get confused as to what to cater to the audience. ‘3G’ was a very small-budgeted film and it’s recovered its money beautifully, so that’s not the issue at all, but what we expected its business to do, it didn’t do that well. Again, I don’t know whether it was the marketing or whether it was the story, or performances, what is it that lacked for the audience not to like it. Today, that’s the thing. If a film does well, at the box office, even if it’s a bad film, it becomes a good film. If there are third-class performances, just because it does well, everyone would say, ‘Oh what performances!’, but if a film is a superb film and it doesn’t do commercially well, then nothing matters, even performances will not be spoken. Look at our awards. Our awards are all given to popular films. A lot has to do with perception today. We have people who see the film, individually, they go and write about the film, who are in today’s times, extremely influential people, as far as the public is concerned. People do read the reviews and make opinions about it, even if it’s that individual’s choice.

But does it affect you when a film doesn’t do well at the box office? Because, apparently, today, that’s the only criteria to judge a film.
No, but it builds up a certain amount of pressure as far as work is concerned. Today, the game is not about competition, the game has changed to survival. There are so many actors out there, and each one is good, so the game today is about survival. It’s like a tidal wave. Every five years, six years, there’s a wave that comes which brings a new lot of actors, and the old ones have to just survive that wave, just swim through it beautifully. Right now it’s not about swimming fast and going first, it’s just about staying afloat, and making sure that you reach the shore. Each one has a Friday, and my Friday is coming very soon, I think. Perception changes the minute one good thing happens.

Do you think the fate of an actor’s previous film affects the perception of the audience towards his next film?
Not necessarily. I’ve seen so many big and small actors, whose previous films have been disastrous. And then the next film has been superb. So, each film has its own perception. I think very honestly, each actor has his perception as a performer but the audience just smells the film that they want to watch, and that, you can’t take away. So, right now, I’m just trying to figure out the ingredients. I’ll give you an example. John did a film called ‘I Me Aur Main’, which was an interesting film, but unfortunately, it didn’t do well. But his other producer Ekta Kapoor, had so much faith in him and the product, and everybody, that they went all out there to promote the film, and today it’s a success story. One film right after that, it breaks perception. Akshay Kumar gave some back-to-back flop films, and with ‘Rowdy Rathore’ he striked back, he was back in the reckoning, and all those films are being telecast a thousand times. So, the day, Neil or I become successful, David will become a benchmark, and David will become a cult. It’s nothing but perception. Today, people are going and beating drums without even having anything in their hand. They’re making themselves into such big stars for no reason.

You’ll be completing six years now in the industry. How much have you changed as a person and as an actor?
I haven’t changed as a person at all, as an actor I have grown a lot. There have been ups and downs but that’s a part of life. As a person I haven’t changed, if I have, I’ve only become slightly more knowledgeable about the technical aspects of filmmaking, that’s all.

I was just wondering that when you live such complex, intense characters on-screen, don’t they stay with you and somewhere affect you emotionally off-screen?
Luckily, what I do is, I disconnect every day. I come back home, I watch a lot of cartoons, and animated films and I even tend to repeat my animated films a lot. You’ll catch me watching one animated film a day, it’s like that. I tend to disconnect everyday from my character. And the next day, is a fresh approach all over again, so I make sure I don’t take any character with me, otherwise, it can be scary, isn’t it? The only character that took me a while to get out of, and disconnect from, is Parag Dixit of ‘Jail’. That was more of a life routine than portrayal of fictitious character, and that was more real, so somewhere it just took me into a certain space.

So, aren’t you tired of being asked again and again that why do you choose to play grey characters?
(Laughs) The reason I think I do these characters is because as a child, I was always bullied. So, the reason why I like doing these grey characters is that they somehow bring more strength to me, and somewhere, psychologically, I feel that’s just my answer to all the bully and all the ragging that I’ve been through, as a child in school. But luckily, I’ve never had something that has traumatised me or scared me, just a normal share of ragging. But I’ve been influenced by a lot of western films, I guess. Where I’ve seen mainstream actors just go out there, get out of their comfort zone and portray characters which are so menacing and interestingly evil. It just kind of put a thought in me, that why do we always cater and do films which are same old stuff and in our comfort zone. We talk of difference in cinema, we talk of doing different films, but we’re shy of doing it. A very few hand-picked filmmakers – Anurag Kashyap, Tigmanshu Dhulia, and more, go out there and make a difference by making interesting cinema. So, I’m saying, luckily with me, I’ve been a very lucky child, that’s where I say luck has favoured me, is that in 6 years, I’ve worked with 8 national award winning directors in the span of 14-15 films that I’ve done. From Kabir Khan, to Pradeep Sarkar, Vishal Bhardwaj, Madhur Bhandarkar,  Abbas-Mastan, Bejoy Nambiar so many of them. So, I’ve had a range of directors who’ve taught me a lot, who’ve left a lasting impression on my mind, but I’m sure I’ve left a lasting impression on their minds as a performer also. You can ask any of them, what they think of me as a performer. I think me talking about me as an actor is completely useless, my directors, co-actors, must talk about me.

You’re someone who likes to prepare. What’s your process like, from the time you give your nod to a project?
What I like to do is, the first time I hear a script, is the last time I hear it. If the story stays with me, it’s got an impact on me as an actor, and I understand my character in the first sitting itself, I give a nod, after which I just like to go through it as a student. A very few films have required me to prepare. Otherwise I like living those characters each day. Some roles don’t require you to prepare. It’ll be me trying to be very pompous and cool by saying that I had to sit down and prepare but none of that happens. These films just require to be worldly wise, they require you to have noticed and lived life a lot, which I have. I’ve experienced life a lot, met a lot of different type of people, I’ve been through a struggle from the day I was 14-15 years old and I’m still struggling so I feel slightly more realistic about myself now. When I see others, I laugh, I’m like, ‘Wow! What a pretence these guys stay in.’ At least, I know where I stand. Success is good, but the most important thing for success is to accept failure. I’ve accepted the fact that few of my films haven’t worked. But I’m working harder to make sure that my films are good, and the rest is not in my hands. Also, the sad thing is, when your one film doesn’t do well, at least that’s what has happened with me, I’ve had my producer come and tell me that I’m sorry I can’t promote your film very well because your last film hasn’t done well, and people have this perception that your film really did badly. And then what happens? That next film also doesn’t do well, because of lack of promotion, publicity and visibility. Many of my own friends didn’t know the release date of ‘3G’ for example.

You still don’t behave like a star…
I’m not a star. I don’t consider myself a star. I’m a simple guy who likes to act, who understands acting and who provides his family with bread and butter, through his acting. For me, acting is something I worship. I’m an actor, always been called an actor, not a star. If I were a star, then the perception would have been really different. Star I will become the day I become successful. I don’t understand when people tell me that you shouldn’t be available. Why shouldn’t I be available? It’s okay. If I’m a human being, so is the other person. If that person wants to say hi hello, I will say hi hello. If I’m free and sitting in my room doing nothing, why do I have to pretend to be all tied up?

What is the line-up of your upcoming films?
I’m really looking forward to ‘Ishqeria’. It’s a very simple, little film from Mussoorie. And my co-star is Riccha Chhada, a fine actor. After that I’m playing an encounter specialist in ‘Dussehra’. It’s directed by Manisha Vatsalya. Again, ‘Dussehra’ is a hardcore entertaining film, with action and ‘dhamaal’.

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