‘I look a hero. Don’t want to play one’

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The romance-spurning, method-acting Neil Nitin Mukesh has made unusual choices in his short and intense career, says Tiya Tejpal

Bar code Neil Nitin Mukesh's newest film
Bar code Neil Nitin Mukesh’s newest film

THROUGH THE FROSTED glass, a shadow that is distinctly Neil Nitin Mukesh stands, patiently, shifting weight from one foot to the other on occasion. Filmmaker Madhur Bhandarkar’s Jail has been hot in the press for months and in the week of its release the head office swarms with frenzied journalists, cameramen, television crews and chai.

Bhandarkar and Neil swap rooms, pacing from one interview to the next, answering the same onslaught of questions. Under the bright lights of the room, Bhandarkar’s voice resonates as he vehemently explains the recurring question: “Why Jail?” Which in Bollywood quickly translates to –Why a ‘story’? Why a cause?

But that is how he bagged Neil Nitin Mukesh. With a story. His thrall to the story is what distinguishes 27-year-old Neil Nitin Mukesh from the slew of fresh faced, dewy-eyed actors that teem in the industry today. He wants to tell the story and not charge head on for the mindless glamour. The eyes are not so dewy. They’re steely grey.

From his first role, in Vijay at 4 with Rishi Kapoor and Hema Malini, Neil has spent his life in a leafy bungalow in south Bombay, surrounded by cinema. The Mukesh clan has been in the entertainment business from golden years of Bollywood, Neil the latest inheritor of the magnificent family heirloom, a golden voice, puffs with pride as he says “I’m proud of taking the Mukesh mantel and legacy ahead. I will make it a point to sing in my films. But acting is closer to me. It’s entertainment that’s in the family, not just singing.” His soft smile, not used nearly often enough in Jail,deepens when he talks about his mother, effusive about her simplicity, her groundedness, her stability. Regularly suffering from crushes in school, he says “I used to love having my heart broken.” Reversing the pleasure in college, the grown up Neil Nitin Mukesh, certainly set some hearts aflutter with his now familiar, intense eyes and light hair.

Neil Nitin Mukesh
Neil Nitin Mukesh
Photos: Shailendra Pandey

Rehearsed and ready, on the eve of Jail’s release, he is a director’s dream, a journalist’s nightmare. Neil in his crisp black shirt and worn snakeskin shoes knows exactly what he wanted to talk about to the gathered media. Jail. Almost without pausing for breath, he storms in, sits down and smiles disarmingly. Before a question can be asked, he begins talking about the most challenging role of his career, Parag Dixit, an innocent thrown into jail.

Soon, he is immersed in descriptions of his deep respect for the directors he has worked with, almost all National Award winners. He applauds them — Kabir Khan, Madhur Bhandarkar, Sriram Raghavan and Ray Acharya — for playing an integral part in the creative process of bringing to life his unusual range of characters.

Suddenly, he screeches to a halt in the interview. He looks around incredulously. His business manager nursing illness on the couch has just grunted in his sleep. Neil calls out disbelievingly ‘Chai pilao. Dawai khilao’. The boy who peeks in looks embarrassed and skitters away returning with cups of sweet chai. Neil gets back to business.

But the business is not what he’s in cinema for. “Every actor needs to concentrate on his craft, on whether he has done his duty for the film, not whether the moolah is coming in.” The actor’s job is to become the character he has been assigned, and see that through to the end. That’s why “I finish one film at a time. I cannot film three simultaneously. That would mean I’m not concentrating on any.” Striving hard to submerge himself in his character, he loves it when his fans call him Johnny or Parag or Omar, the names of characters from his films.

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