When Vineet Kumar Singh slides into the booth of a coffee shop in Versova, Mumbai, no one recognises him. He is a good-looking man: caramel skin, thick lips, steep cheekbones and a light beard, tall and broadshouldered. He has appeared in important Anurag Kashyap films, such as Gangs of Wasseypur, Bombay Talkies and Ugly, and in a certain light, he could pass off as an Amitabh Bachchan lookalike. But, Singh hasn’t struggled in the Hindi film industry for 17 years; knocked on countless doors; been turned away by watchmen and receptionists; rejected by assistant directors, casting directors and film-makers; exhausted his savings, exhausted his family’s savings; broken all his policies; survived on fifty rupee loans from friends; and sold off everything he owned, just to be a me-too. He wants to be a marquee star. Which is why when no one was offering lead roles to him, he decided to write one for himself.
In the style of self-made superstars such as Sly (Rocky) and Matt and Ben (Good Will Hunting), Singh wrote a script in 2013, along with his sister and writing partner, Mukti Singh, about a low-caste boxer who has to fight the world to win the hand of a noblewoman. “I kept approaching people (film-makers) that this is a script I have written, please make it with me,” Singh says, in Hindi. “That was the condition. If you want to make, I’ll play the lead. Some three years went by in this phase. Everyone liked the script, but it didn’t happen for some reason. Finally, I thought I’ll pitch it to Anurag sir. He read it, he liked it, and he said, ‘Vineet, I’m going to do this film with you, but if you don’t become a boxer, I won’t do this film. And second, I will change the script as per my own ideas.’ I gave him the script, I packed my bags and left for Patiala.” Because Singh owes his career to Kashyap, a diktat from him might as well be written in stone for him. “I was in the grave [before I met Anurag]. I was buried six feet under, and I had accepted it,” he says.
Singh had arrived in Mumbai sometime in 1999- 2000, as an 18-19-year-old, originally from Varanasi. The paradox of his life is that he’s a trained Ayurveda doctor and an untrained actor. “I actually didn’t know how to act. I used to perform what I used to feel.” He’d won a talent hunt, in which film-maker Mahesh Manjrekar had been the judge; he eventually offered him a role in Pitaah (2002). Pitaah sank like Bombay Velvet. “The moment the film flopped, everything changed. People stopped taking my calls. I had no other path, so I started assisting Maheshji. He told me, ‘Vineet, you think well, you write well. Till the time you don’t get a break, be an AD (assistant director).’ I ended up assisting in seven to eight films. I learnt Marathi. I did some Marathi films also. But, nothing was really happening.”
Finally, in 2007, he quit assisting, so he could look for acting work full-time. “I have been an extra in so many films. The dead body in the car’s dicky. I have been a doctor, an inspector, a havaldar, a ghost. Then I literally decided to take on any form of work because [it became a question of] survival. I had zero [bank] balance. I have even seen a phase in which I had to count my rotis. I would think that I have eaten two, and if I eat three, I would have to shell out five rupees extra. I did films like Jannat, Jashnn, some 25 films, one scene, half a scene, I’m just standing somewhere [in] the hope that the director would give a bigger role after this. This phase didn’t end only.” What kept him alive, then? “I had just one thing in my mind that till the time I don’t get an opportunity, I won’t accept [failure]. If I get the opportunity and I do bad work, then I’ll accept. But, not otherwise. I was stubborn about that.”
That opportunity finally arrived in 2010, when Singh entered the orbit of Kashyap after he did a film called City of Gold. “Because of City of Gold, at least I had something to show [Anurag]. Gangs of Wasseypur was a big opportunity for me. [It was like] the person who did not have rotis to eat, you’ve given him an entire thali. But, even after that, those roles were not happening that I wanted to do.” (Read: lead roles.) “So, I started writing for myself. Everything that was suppressed in me came out in the film.”
In addition to the inequalities of caste, Mukkabaaz also looks at the humiliation an athlete faces in India, something about which Singh has inside information. “In my life, I have earned several friends who are athletes. Everyone writes, reads and knows about a successful athlete, but there are thousands of athletes about whom no one writes, reads or knows about. I have friends who have taken up jobs as sweepers. They were stars in their game, they were special. All of a sudden, they’re at a place where they’re nobodies. When they play, they’re given medals, they’re applauded, the whole department claps for them. But, that happens only for one day. How do they live the rest of their days? I know their difficulties.” In an interview with film critic Anupama Chopra, Kashyap had said, “There’s one very incidental thing in the [script], which caught my attention: what the Indian sportsman is all about. They do it for the government job. [During research], the stories that emerged of Indian sports were heartbreaking. Every single sportsman worth their salt in our country, be it PV Sindhu or the Dangal girls, has come out of an individual passion, either of the coach, whose been a disgruntled sportsman before, or of the father. The system has only destroyed the sportsman in our country.”
Singh, who isn’t a young man anymore, trained like an animal to become a boxer. His day would begin at 5 am, and end a dozen hours later. He couldn’t even rest properly, because his “body used to hurt so much that I couldn’t get sleep. Every day I would get hammered. I could see the punches, but not be able to dodge them. They would hit me very easily, and then change position, and land two to three more punches. I used to remain dazed only. I used to think I’ll miss or duck or pull back or move left or right, but not be able to execute. Finally, I told them, ‘You hit me hard.’ Having been a doctor, I know that if you’re in a tough situation, your body reacts differently. It was risky, but I had no alternative. Once they started hitting, literally heavy bleeding began. I was injured several times, my ribs were broken, I had several cuts. [But,] my body started reacting. I could see the punch coming, and duck. From that day onwards, my skill started increasing.” The shoot wasn’t a bed of roses either. “The shoot was tough because our film didn’t have a boxing choreographer. I had to fight international boxers. I’m also getting punched, they’re also getting punched. None of us knew where the next punch was going to come from. I would pray that I wouldn’t get any cuts, because the shoot would have to stop. [But,] for me, the biggest thing was that Anurag sir was making my film.”
The fate of Mukkabaaz is anybody’s guess; Kashyap is in the habit of making polarising films. But, if Singh finally comes to the attention of other worthy film-makers, it would all have been worth it. For a man who has lost so much on his journey to Mukkabaaz, it would be beautiful and karmic if he also loses his anonymity.