The lead pair of Mukkabaaz – Vineet Kumar Singh and Zoya Hussain – in conversation with Team Box Office India
Box Office India (BOI): Mukkabaaz had been on the festival circuit for quite a while. What was the experience like?
Vineet Kumar Singh (VKS): It was very good.
Zoya Hussain (ZH): It was fun. We were like horses wearing blinders for such a long time. The film was doing the festival circuit and being praised by all. People really liked it. We have never heard anyone say anything negative about it. We were not very sure what to expect but the blinkers have come off now and a whole other world has opened up for us. It’s exciting.
VKS: Before the theatrical release, before even the trailer and the songs came out, we watched the movie with the audience at various festivals. The reaction was amazing. There was a second screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, and after it ended, there was an elderly, foreign couple waiting to talk to us about it. We were in a hurry to leave because we had a flight to catch but we did manage to speak to them and the things they told us about the film, about how they felt after watching it, were just amazing. It was very new for me because I did not expect the film would be loved by this age group as well. I was aware that it would resonate with youngsters and kids but ye reaction kamaal ka tha. And then it was shown here at MAMI. The appreciation we received here, in Mumbai, the way people were cheering and hooting at the screen, made me incredibly happy.
BOI: Do these positive reviews affect your headspace before the movie releases in cinemas across the country?
VKS: Absolutely. It is like when you are doing something big, experimenting with something huge, you take a sample audience and show it to them to gauge how they will react to it. Even at the festivals, people who were watching the film could leave whenever they chose to, if they didn’t like the movie. When we screened Mukkabaaz at MAMI, there were so many people complaining that they had not got a seat in the theatre. And not one person who had a seat, left the cinema hall mid-way.
ZH: I think Anurag’s films have a specific audience but it is so good that the reviews are all positive. This might help people realise that this is quite a universal film and not a typical Anurag Kashyap film. But, yes, it does reflect his attitude and the flavour he gives his films. The music and the dialogue are amazing as well.
VKS: People think that all Anurag sir’s films are ridden with expletives etc. But this film doesn’t have even one bad word. It doesn’t contain alcohol or cigarettes. You can go with your entire family to watch it. The important thing is that this film inspires people.
BOI: Vineet, what made you give up a career in medicine to become an actor?
VKS: I have always wanted to do this. My father is a mathematician and everyone else in my family is also in the academic field. So what I was doing was completely out of the box. When I expressed my desire, the response was a big ‘NO’. In medical college, I got some freedom to participate in cultural functions, and I figured that medicine has its own charm but the art of performing attracted me more. Hence, ever since I was a student, I had been trying to find a path for myself, ke kahin se toh koi raasta pade iss field mein aane ka. One of those ways was the talent hunt competition that brought me to Mumbai. The rest is history.
BOI: You have co-written the film, which was actually your idea from the very beginning. Tell us more about how you conceived it.
VKS: (Laughs) It is actually a very long story with a lot of twists and turns. So it kind of started in 2013, when the shooting of Ugly wrapped. After that, I landed small parts in films like Gangs Of Wasseypur and Bombay Talkies. I was offered only roles I was familiar with. In fact, there was a time when I had asked myself whether I had given up a career in medicine for this. At one time, I was plagued by this question. I was trying my best to do something, and there were good movies being made but I wasn’t a part of them. So I thought I should change tack and write a story for myself. So the path Sylvester Stallone took worked out for me too.
BOI: And what made you choose this particular theme for your story?
VKS: I have been a national-level basketball player and I have participated in six Nationals. I am familiar with the world of sports. I knew many senior sportspersons for whom things didn’t go the way they should have only because they didn’t have the right connections. Also, when a sportsman’s career shapes up, people start to manipulate him. And when they fail to win the hearts of the officials, their careers stagnate.
I have known a lot of international and national-level players and have seen so many players in the newspapers, posing with medals. And then, one fine day, I see them carrying a box on their heads at the railway station. This shook me up. Also, at one point, I wasn’t getting any work and so I decided to write a script for myself. So, along with my sister, who has co-written the film with me, we thought we should approach Anurag sir, but we didn’t. He had told me at the premiere of Ugly, that since he had already worked with me in three films, he did not want to make any other film with me.
I met people for more than two years but they either wanted to cast someone else in the lead or they wanted me on board only as a writer. But I had written this film so that I could act in it; I couldn’t have someone else playing the lead role. Finally, I went to Anurag sir, to pitch the film to his company. A short while later, I got a call from him, where he said he wanted to direct the film himself and that he wanted me to be a part of it.
But Anurag sir had two conditions – he didn’t want to make the film if I didn’t become a boxer; and he wanted the liberty to change the script if he felt he needed to. I was happy but the challenge was how much I would have to unlearn because Anurag sir improvises a lot. This was very different from any of my previous works.
BOI: Zoya, how did you become Sunaina Mishra in Mukkabaaz?
ZH: I have known Anurag for a while. I have a background in theatre and had done this experimental movie called Three And A Half Takes, which went to the Kerala Film Festival. Incidentally, Anurag had produced that film. That’s how we connected. He had praised my acting skills and said he wanted to work with me. I didn’t take him seriously but he sent me this story and I absolutely loved it, even at the script level. It is such a cool part. But I wasn’t sure whether he just wanted my opinion on the script or whether he wanted me to act in it. I kind of didn’t get back to him on it, so he scolded me for not taking it seriously. That’s how I realised that he wanted me to act in it. And that’s how I got to be a part of this amazing film.
BOI: How did you feel when you were offered the role?
ZH: I went a little nuts when I got to know about it. Anurag says things casually but he means them, which was something I didn’t know at the time. It was a really cool part and I couldn’t wait to start shooting. I love all Anurag’s films and I wanted to work with him. That’s why I had sought him out when I was writing my short story. This script just came along; he wrote the story keeping both Vineet and me in mind.
BOI: You play a character who cannot speak. What were the challenges you faced while playing this role?
ZH: To start with, sign language, of course. I really did want to learn it from scratch. It was a difficult part to play. Sunaina, as a character, is so strong, so self-assured that there was no way I could have done it with the kind of authenticity that I wanted to do it with, without learning sign language. I didn’t want to only learn my lines because that would have boxed me in. It wouldn’t have given me the liberty to improvise. I would not have been able to let my thoughts flow. Anurag shoots really fast and he improvises a lot on the sets. I didn’t want to be left behind.
There is a point she is making, she is mute for a reason. People who are mute can hear everything and it is easy to understand people. But it isn’t easy to make others understand you, which is very frustrating. I would just stop talking, which creates a lot of problems, within oneself. And even if you sometimes know how to say it, you cannot articulate it. That is a huge part of her character.
BOI: Was it difficult for you to emote on screen, especially since you were not actually saying the lines?
ZH: Before this, I had no idea just how vastly different acting on stage was from acting in front of the camera. Apart from the craft, nothing else I felt was familiar and that is why I had to do a lot of unlearning and then learn new techniques. Here, my only tools were my expressions and body language. This is what we are trained to do, to be able to emote, communicate and express what you yourself have. I have never found non-verbal communication difficult because I am generally very shy and introverted and adding sign language to that was a whole other dimension.
BOI: What was the dynamic like on the sets?
VKS: We had a lot of fun shooting together, and everything was done in a very organic format. When Zoya was being trained in sign language, I was receiving training in Patiala.
ZH: We met two weeks before we started shooting. Anurag did that on purpose as he didn’t want us to get to know each other. All the getting to know each other would happen in the scenes. It is fortunate that we got along so well.
VKS: I used to watch her being trained by Sangeeta, her sign language coach, and I found it very amusing. I felt like learning it along with boxing. I was usually asked to leave the room because there is innocence in the scene where she is trying to say something to me and my character is trying hard to understand it with all his heart but fails to.
BOI: Vineet, Aanand L Rai said that it is commendable to see actors turning into boxers because it is usually the other way around.
VKS: Before I answer that, I would really like to thank Anurag Kashyap and Aanand L Rai sir, who trusted someone like me. I was just a simple boy who came to Mumbai with box full of dreams. It was an opportunity of a life time, to get a chance to act in a film like Mukkabaaz. It was really tough for me, on an emotional level, a personal level or any other level. This film is very dear to me. Like Aanand sir said, for example, Mike Tyson, who is a boxer, played the same role while acting. There are many regional films in the South and we also have wrestlers like Khali who have turned to acting.
As actors, we have gone through intense training to make our roles credible. I could hear Anurag Kashyap’s voice in my head saying, ‘Agar boxer nahi bane toh picture nahi banaunga.’ I made sure I did justice to what he said. In the beginning, I got beaten up pretty badly during training but these are the same trainers who taught me how to wrestle in a certain way. I also thank the coaches who have worked equally hard along with me. They were not conscious of the fact that I was an actor because I lived like them and in the process, I have become like them.
This training was, therefore, crucial. It didn’t matter how often I got beaten up because, when we came back to the set, we learnt that we didn’t have a boxing choreographer because we did not have the budget to hire one. So I just kept doing what Anurag sir directed me to do.
It was a great challenge for me to be opposite Neeraj Goyat, who had been a three-time champion in the WBC Asia’s Pacific Welterweight Championship; Deepak Tanwar, who made it to the Olympic trials; and Sandeep Yadav, who has participated in the Asian Games. With boxers like these on the sets, how many mukke’s do you think I received?
BOI: You have shot in remote locations in North India. Tell us what that was like.
VKS: If you ignore the climatic conditions in the North, the people were really nice. And since nobody really knew us there, there was no trouble. When we went there for Gangs of Wasseypur, someone came and asked me and Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) bhai, who was the hero of this movie we were shooting. When we both pointed towards each other, he looked at both of us and said ‘picture nahi chalegi’ and walked away (Laughs). It is fun to shoot with people like these around you.
ZH: The place plays a big role here because the movie is based on this particular region. Yes, there were elements surrounding us which were a little uncomfortable but beyond a certain point, you stop caring because you know that the final product would be really good.
VKS: Shooting in real locations, makes your film look authentic. Also, we had all the props and locations available in the same place, like the train scene or the jail scene. So, all the jail sequences were shot in a real jail. The look and feel of the jail was real.
BOI: Zoya, are there any similarities between your reel-life character and the person you are in real life?
ZH: I think the essence of both me and the character is very similar because my character is a little more sorted than I am. I am generally a confused person but the essence was very similar, and because of this, I was selected for this role. Also, it was an amalgamation of a lot of other things that made it possible.
BOI: There are two other movies releasing on the same day as yours. Are you apprehensive as far as the box office numbers are concerned?
ZH: Not at all! In fact, I am eagerly waiting for Kaalakaandi and I really want to watch it. It is also good that many good films are releasing and people are watching them. It is good to see that our audience is changing and that they now watch movies that are great. I am also happy that since there are so many films, the audience comes to cinemas to watch them rather than sitting in their living rooms, watching them on TV.
VKS: I really wish that everyone’s film works at the box office. Film chalti hai to film banti hai. I make sure that I watch everyone’s film. Unki bhi chale, bas humaari thodi zyaada chale.
BOI: Can you tell us about your upcoming projects?
VKS: I have acted in GOLD with Akshay sir (Kumar) and I must say the script is phenomenal. It will be releasing on August 15. I also have a few things that are in process but it is too early to talk about them.
ZH: The films I have done prior to this movie, especially the independent films, will keep doing the rounds at festivals and will release on Netflix soon. One of these is The Color Of Loss by Akash Bhatia. There are a few other things on hold and if I speak about them now, I will no longer be a part of them (Laughs)!