Taking the most unconventional road - Neil Nitin Mukesh

Neil Nitin Mukesh made his debut in the most unconventional way. Instead of playing the hero, he decided to come at it a different way, with Johnny Gadaar. And he seemed to go through his journey in B-town with the same approach – he did films that did him wonders, such as David and New York. Now he balances fatherhood and a full plate of work. He put on the hat of a writer and is also the producer of Bypass Road, in which he makes his mark with his younger brother, Naman Nitin Mukesh, who is all set to direct the film. Here’s out chat with the versatile, Neil Nitin Mukesh.

You’ve made the most ‘unconventional’ choices, from your debut to now. Where does that sense of confidence and assurance come from?

To be very honest, it started with the first film itself. When I started my career, there was a major struggle; first because I wanted to make sure everyone connected with me as an actor because everyone had pre-conceived notions that a singer’s son or grandson should only be a singer, so I had to break that thought process. I was always on the look-out for work and desperate for work that can constantly prove me as an actor. I was lucky when somebody considered me – the late Mr. Jhamu Sugandh – offered me two films – after knocking on all the doors, he was the first one to open the doors. He kind of answered all my questions.

He offered me two films – one was a love story and the other was Johnny Gadaar, and I instantly thought Johnny Gadaar would be apt for my first film. Though it had negative shades, it had me killing five people, but I thought that it was the perfect choice to begin with. After that, I didn’t want anyone questioning that a singer’s son can actually act. Creatively, why are we so passive with our thought process?

So, it started from there, but it has always been like that for me. I’ve never based my career on the typical formula that one would try and apply to get success because for me, my satisfaction is my craft, my art. Till a while back, I never understood the business aspect of film-making. Now I do, now that I have turned producer but it’s been fourteen years; I’ve been working non-stop.

The producer will limit itself to a certain amount but the creative side to me will still look at what can have a creative edge.

You’ve also never been one to turn away ensemble cast films.

I’ve never been shy of ensemble casts. In fact, all the more exciting and challenging when you have seven or eight actors and you have to make yourself stand out. It doesn’t matter how lengthy, or how big or small your role is. In Wazir, I had one scene – but I got a lot of acclaim for that film. I still have people walking up to me, saying they really loved my performance in the film. I’m glad they liked the one scene – that it stood out.

People still come up to me and speak to me about Saat Khoon Maaf – that gives me a lot of satisfaction. I like trying to explore different characters, roles. Saat Khoon Maaf, David, Wazir…these are characters that are not the typical Bollywood stereotypical heroes.

And so, again, antagonist/protagonist, for me that doesn’t matter – what I’m playing is a character. I look for a character that is so important for the film – that without that character, the film is incomplete. Then, I would love to do it.

Like, for example, Wazir. Thought it is one scene, the film’s name is literally my character’s name. So without him, there is no film. Character is important and you have to drive the story a certain way; it has more of an impact for me.

You talk about the importance of characters you are playing. What character has had the most impactful impression on you, both personally and professionally?

To be very honest, each film that I do leave an impact – I know it is a very clichéd of an answer. It is art eventually; you give so much to your role, your character. People start defining you with your last film, so time again, each film is important.

For me, three films stay back with me even now. Johnny Gadaar will always be very special to me – because it is my first film; and then the director is Sreeram Raghavan and the entire team, they are my Gurus. After that, New York stays back with me a lot – just because of the plot, the story, the characterization, the emotion, and the way it was beautifully portrayed on screen. That was one film I really had to live through the setting.

Another film that was very challenging for me was Jail, Madhur Bhandarkar’s film. That film was very difficult. By the grace of God, I don’t know that side of the world. That is the only film that we went linear with because I wanted to live the journey as the character went through it. We wanted to be very real – being beat up, my hair chopped off, even the toilets were real. It impacted me emotionally and mentally.

It was the only film that I did method acting for and it took me some time to get out of it post the completion of the film. I was very low for a while after the film.

Because the psychological impact must be great?

Exactly, and also, the protagonist’s arc was also very steep. It starts off on a very pleasant note – and the process there was so much happening in such a short time. I think I did the film in 55 days. So, in 55 days, non-stop of so much drama every single day, was quite an impact.

And it sounds like you have favourites of your own then?

I really do have some favourites of my own, which I sometimes wonder how I executed them on screen. Without sounding pompous, (chuckles), as an actor, you can sometimes sit back and think you can be more critical as an actor. I think I’m proud of Saat Khoon Maaf, David…Yeah, so, as long as people understand that I am here to carve a niche for myself, I’m good. As long as I get the opportunities to play difficult roles. I also expanded myself into regional cinema. That was the reason. Every actor needs to get one film, one u-turn, that sharpens his axe. I needed something to come my way and to push me forward – so I took on a Tamil film. Initially, I was very skeptical because of the language challenge – I don’t want to be on screen if I cannot do justice to the language. But whilst I was shooting for Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, I learnt the language. I got some great appreciation for the film, which turned out to be a major blockbuster.

But with all of the roles and characters, some actors say they don’t know who they are anymore…Is that true for you?

(Chuckles) No, no, not at all. I thankfully have a great support system.

Oh yes, and congratulations on the newest addition to your family.

Thank you, thank you. You know, my father’s journey has been difficult but he excelled in his profession and carved his own journey. He has taught me great values, same with my grandfather. The little bit of cinema that I knew when I entered the industry, I knew through his eyes. He always prepared me for success and failure. He said that, as long as I am happy, nothing else matters. Even now, my family is what matters. But I do not take my work for granted – I am happy with struggle, success, and failure because my family makes me feel normal. I don’t take myself so seriously. The people around me take me more seriously than I take myself.

The pressure comes from the people around you. People evaluate you based on your success and failure, and that is what I learnt a little late. So, people change around you, and initially, I used to get very upset with people changing because I come from a family that is very open and very straightforward. So that used to bother me initially, but now, I’ve gotten used to that as well.  So, basically, my family has kept me grounded, so I remain who I always was.

So, how do you balance fatherhood? Many of us deal with work-life balance and family but you don’t work a strict 9 to 5 job; as in, you have your own schedule that is never concrete.

I know, I know, but for that, full credit goes to my wife. She is amazing as a person, she is lovely. If I didn’t have her, I would be sh*tting bricks. She is so understanding. You have to believe me – I was there for the birth of my baby for only one day. The day she was born, I was there for that. After that, I had to go for a thirty-five days for a long outdoor. As luck would have it, she followed tradition, and went to her mom’s house also. She never complained about it – my wife had so many sleepless nights. So, now, if I pack up early, I make sure that night duty is completely me. Day time, my wife takes care of our baby. She is a complete hands-on mother, and I am a complete hands-on father when I’m there.

See, my younger brother is ten years younger than me, so I kind of fathered him. My father and my mother used to travel a lot. As a family, growing up, we were kind of used to travel and knowing that we had to go to work. We would be taking care of each other – that is already within us. That wasn’t a big stress.

So what is it like working with your younger brother, Naman, now?

So, I’m very excited. When I was writing the film, we had no idea that Naman would come on board. In fact, he was my constant sounding board – how is this draft? How is this character? His input was always sought and very interesting. He is also very technically sound. He has done so much work on set – so he has a lot of experience.

But as an elder brother, you are always a bit protective. So more than him, I was nervous about the first day of his shoot. Initially, we didn’t even think that he would direct. But when I locked the script to a certain level, I asked him, what he thought of directing the film. He said he would love to. I asked him if he would be able to handle me (chuckles) and he said, yeah. He has been on the production, the direction side, ever since we started the film. It is an important film in his career.

I was very nervous initially but Naman is way more mature than me, he is much more calmer than me. He’s a great balance for me in that sense. I am very, very proud of him. The film is almost seventy percent complete. Direction is harder than acting – acting is a much more pampered profession. Direction is such a selfless job – so I’m very proud of him.

How do you resolve creative differences when family is involved?

(Chuckles) Yes! Yes, it’s true – we have the “Who Let the Dogs Out?” moment every single day. We make sure that the fights are limited to the office, and we don’t bring them back home. We both do listen to each other – we can hear each other out. Since I have written the film, I have a certain perspective on how things should play out. Since he is the director, he has a perception of how he wants it executed. We’ve never had that much of an issue, creatively, where we are poles apart. Creative arguments are bound to happen especially between two people who are so involved in the film.

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Armin Sethi

Bollywood Film Fame Canada has been a source of original content consisting of real conversations, reviews, and news of everything film, music, and entertainment for 15 years.

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