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How to make it in Hindi films

After 18 years, Vineet Kumar Singh got his chance to play hero in a Hindi film. Here's how he did it

‘Mukkabaaz’ lead Vineet Kumar Singh practising at a boxing centre in Patiala for his role.
‘Mukkabaaz’ lead Vineet Kumar Singh practising at a boxing centre in Patiala for his role.

Vineet Kumar Singh, 36, came from Varanasi to Mumbai to make it in Hindi movies, like so many others before him who are drawn here from small-town India, convinced they can sleep on a bench or live in a chawl long enough for someone in the multimillion-dollar film industry to uncover their inner Khan. It’s been 18 years since Singh won a talent competition and juggled his postgraduate medical degree in Ayurveda with his acting aspirations in a city known for its legendary ability to crush the stars out of most people’s eyes.

Singh knew nobody in the industry and has often told the story of how, for the longest time, he could never get past the first barrier, the security guards who stood watch outside the offices of the “important people" who could make it happen. There came a time when these guards would spot him crossing the road and wave him off from afar.

Somehow, Singh survived. This year he got his chance to be a hero. In Anurag Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz, he’s Shravan Kumar, the talented, seething small-town boxer who must juggle the perils of intercaste love with parental disappointment, a brutal employer and the abject indifference of the sporting system.

If you note any similarities in the journey or the struggle—of the boxer on screen and the aspiring actor off screen—it’s because Singh wrote the film’s screenplay. I asked him what kept him going.

Have home-grown chants: Somewhere along the line, Singh adopted his dad’s motto: “Haariyon na himmat, bisaariyon na harinaam (don’t lose courage, don’t forget the lord)". Even the guards who wouldn’t let him enter the building to meet a director eventually yielded to his persistence and started pointing him towards the assistant he should be asking for first. That’s how he eventually got his first few roles.

“Ruko mat, uljho mat (don’t stop, don’t get stuck)," is Singh’s complementary modus operandi. “Don’t react. Just keep at it, and eventually you’ll get a break," he says. Over the years, he saw many strugglers give up and leave and every time this happened, he thought, “I haven’t yet gotten an opportunity. If I get an opportunity and fail, I’ll go back, but how to believe I’m a bad batsman when I haven’t batted yet?"

Be resourceful: For a while when he worked as an assistant director with Mahesh Manjrekar, Singh made it his mission to learn everything. He poked around in departments such as continuity, sets, costumes and constantly asked questions. People were happy to answer. Soon, Manjrekar started saying, “Whatever you need...tell Vineet, he’ll get it done." He said yes to every opportunity that came his way, from regional films to bit parts where he played everything from a ghost to a policeman.

Be inspired by naysayers: When students in medical college found out about his dream to be an actor, it became a joke. “People used to laugh at me," says Singh. Among aspiring doctors, the desire to be an actor was the equivalent of wanting to travel to the moon, Singh recalls. The college magazine wrote an article about his dream titled: “Chala Murari Hero Banne". “For years I kept a copy of the magazine, and used it as a source of energy every time I felt down," he says.

Reinvent yourself: “Be objective about your progress. Have self-awareness. Understand that people may not be viewing you the way you are viewing yourself," says Singh. When Singh realized he wasn’t getting the acting jobs he wanted, he decided to step back and write a script. He picked a tale he had seen up close as a junior basketball player who had participated in six nationals: the inner world of local sports. Through his pre-teens he had participated in many district tournaments, and observed state sporting heroes such as former national hockey team forward Mohammed Shahid. It all came back when he wrote the story with some help from his sister Mukti, also a basketball player.

For the film, he reinvented his slight body into a professional athlete’s physique with serious gym time and a rigorous one-year stint at a boxing centre in Patiala, where he trained under a former national coach.

He even ended up writing Paintra, that staple sports film motivational song, and already has another song saved on his phone, where he logs his ideas. One day when he was driving, someone on the radio asked what the game of cricket was called in Hindi. The answer—lamb dand gol pind dharpakad pratiyogita—inspired him to pull over and compose the song titled Dhoni Chalisa, about his favourite cricketer.

Stick to your guns: By the time he completed the script of Mukkabaaz, Singh had already notched 14 struggling years. For the next two-and-a-half to three years, he began showing his script to Hindi film directors. “There were so many, I never stopped." He had only one condition: that he would play the lead role of the boxer. Responses were varied:

“Let’s do it, but you play another role."

“Wait a few months, we are busy working on another film."

“Come on board as a writer, you’ll get good money."

Eventually, Kashyap said what Singh was waiting to hear: “Yes, let’s do it."

Focusing on the positives pulled him through during this period. “I never reacted. I would think, at least people are giving me the time for long meetings and liking the script. So many of my writer friends don’t even get this far. I’ll take it forward tomorrow," Singh says. If he was sad, he would hide his face in a pillow, cry, and then be set for the next day. Crying was catharsis.

Negotiate the parents: Singh promised his dad, a mathematics teacher, that he wouldn’t give up medical school halfway. “Yet every time someone asked him, what is your doctor son doing in Bombay, it was like a snake bite. For a long time, he had no answer," says Singh. While you should try to convince your family, he says, you need to follow your dream. Try to take your family with you because you’ll need them when the going gets tough, he adds.

If Singh had to do it over, he would skip the medical degree and focus on one thing only: acting. “I could have improved my English, gone to NSD (National School of Drama) or FTII (Film and Television Institute of India), tried my hand at theatre. Then I would have batchmates in the industry. Maybe one of them would be working on a project and he would tell me to grow my beard for a forthcoming role. He would give me tips and take me straight to the director…," he says, trailing off.

Singh’s pro tip for aspiring actors: Use a long holiday to come to Mumbai and try out what it’s like to be a struggler. Don’t stay in a hotel, find struggler accommodation. Figure out how to meet casting directors. Try to get an audition. Then go back and make a list of things you’re going to need when you actually do it. “Ek holiday uss sapnay ke naam jise aap apni zindagi banana chahte hain," he says. Dedicate one holiday to the dream that you want to make your life.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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