Neil Nitin Mukesh has always taken the path less travelled, right from the time he made his debut in the classic noir Johnny Gaddar. Over the next few years, he had experimented with roles and characters, with varying degrees of success. But that hasn’t deterred him from trying anything new. Now, he enters a new space of production. With his brother Naman, turning director, Neil is working on Bypass Road, a thriller which marks his debut as producer (NWM Films) in association with Miraj Group. Besides, he will also be seen in Baahubali star Prabhas’ next big one, Saaho. With so much happening in his life, it was just the right time to ask…
What made you switch to production?
I haven't switched to production, I have just forayed into it; acting will always be my first priority. As a creative person, I never wanted to limit myself to a particular field. I may be known as an actor the most but I am also a musician, director, singer, photographer and writer. Now with production, it all comes to a full circle. Filmmaking entails multiple layers which is very appealing to me since I've always believed in breaking stereotypes. It’s really interesting because at times you may not get the most ideal script to act in and instead of staying idle, you can consider producing or directing a film and thus add value to one’s aspirations. Also on the side, I had been working as the creative director for Miraj when Madari was released in 2016. As an actor, I will follow instructions because it’s the producer’s call and the director’s vision. But, as a producer as well as an actor in the same project, I have more creative freedom.
How did you and your brother Naman select the story and cast for Bypass Road?
I feel there are so many brilliant stories to be narrated and brought to life on the big screen and it would be fair to give an equal opportunity to deserving non-industry talent through NNM Productions. Our long-term vision is to cater to diversity through cutting-edge content and talent and I’m grateful that Madan Paliwal of Miraj has collaborated with us. Naman and I were working on the script since over two years since this was our maiden project. I couldn't have asked for a better collaborator than my best friend and my brother. I have always wanted to launch my brother and I'm positive that he will do full justice to his calling as a director. For the first few days, I was more nervous about him turning a director than he was. My protective instincts kicked in. But he handled all the departments so confidently that my inhibitions were laid to rest soon. For the casting we had particular actors in mind since this is a thriller and we wanted to deliver a production with a global look and feel. Our entire casting is quite offbeat because we don’t want to embrace a tried and tested formula. Trust me when I say this, when the film does hit the theatres, it will have a shock value because we have not spared any effort in ensuring our film has a never-seen-before cinematic value. A thriller gives you much more scope of exhibiting creativity in terms of playing with the camera and sound, as against a typical love saga or comedy drama.
These days the grammar of films seems to have changed as smaller films with fresher storylines appear to work (eg: Andhadhun, Badhai Ho etc). But has that made the audience more unpredictable?
I think it’s a good sign and Bollywood is become more welcoming to new formulas! I always believe the story has to be bigger than the star and in recent times as audiences have started demanding well-grounded and realistic content. Content is always king and the typecast has to be broken for a new revolution to commence. People want to get their money’s worth, and they look for genuinely decent stories being relayed. Everything else is secondary. In a country as assorted as India, you would expect the stories to be more wide-ranging, which hasn’t always been the case until now. Last year in Bollywood we saw the promise of what content-based cinema can do and I’m hoping this trend will last for a long time so we can break away from the ‘small on story and big on stardom’ formula that has been marketed as the success formula for years.
A number of actors are turning producers these days. What are the advantages and risks associated with it?
Everything in life entails a risk to be honest. One shouldn’t be in Bollywood if you are afraid to take on new challenges. There is a lot of money to be made and lost in Bollywood. Cinema is a big gamble and a high risk business. You need to have an eye for what works and package it in such a way that you stand out from the crowd. Don’t jump into for the stardom or moolah because it all looks hunky dory from the outside but there is a lot of hard work required. Having your own production company certainly helps mitigate the age factor. Once you wear many hats you will have many more opportunities to work. Many times, actors can be constrained by their looks, gender, body type and the roles that made them famous and multi-tasking will help them bust out of the typecast. Although many actors begin producing in order to take control of their career destinies in front of and behind the camera, there are a lot, like myself, interested in expanding the quality and scope of the industry.
You have spent over a decade in the industry. How do you look back on your journey so far? What has been the biggest change and the biggest challenge?
I owe whatever I am today to my family, friends and fans. I always was sure of the direction I wanted my life to take and every year I keep revisiting my to-do list to shape up that vision. I don’t easily overlook the value of the core pillars who contributed towards making a Neil Nitin Mukesh out of a Neil Mathur; I’m always doing my bit for those wonderful people in some way or the other. Even when I’m not busy shooting, I keep myself occupied with activities that empower my holistic development. To survive in Bollywood you need a lot of endurance or it’s very easy to lose track of your vision. I think I’ve done a pretty god job! There have been a lot of ups and downs, but life has to have a graph; it can’t be a straight line. I have worked with some fine filmmakers like Vishal Bharadwaj, Sriram Raghavan, Madhur Bhandarkar, Sooraj Barjatya and more. I’m grateful that I’ve sustained so far. Initially, people said I would probably not last too long but I’m glad I’ve been able to carve a niche for myself, no matter how small it is. At least people know of my existence and I am happy and proud of that.
Your debut film Johnny Gaddar won a lot of acclaim. But in retrospect, do you think it was ahead of its time?
Of course the film was like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, The Killing, Rififi, Un Flic and Parwana. It was unlike the quintessential thriller where someone is up to something and the audience is speculating. Johnny Gaddaar was the opposite of a thriller. The audience knew right from the outset what transpires and who the likely culprit is. It is a suspense caper.
Did you meet Sriram Raghavan after Andhadhun? Can we expect the two of you to work together again considering Johnny... has acquired a cult status among cinephiles?
Yes he is my mentor and has helped shape my career to a great extent. I’m just waiting for him to make me an offer I can’t refuse.
How important is good PR and a great social media connect for a star?
Today, because we are living in such a digital age where everyone is vying for the same spot, PR and marketing have become very integral to the whole process. But I also feel the need for respect of privacy. Stars also lead a very normal life and everything can’t be a PR exercise. Social media is a great way of connecting directly with the fans who would generally not have access to a star quite easily. But again there needs to be a fine line of balance and anything overdone can be damaging.
Coming to your personal life, you turned father last year. How has the experience changed you as a person? Has your priorities and outlook towards life and career changed?
Fatherhood is the most beautiful feeling after marriage. I’m completely in love with Nurvi and I’m reliving my childhood. It’s a mixed bag of feelings. I was a hands-on brother, uncle and now dad. Rukmini was quite shocked that I could look after a baby so well. I think I have become more responsible now since I know I need to create a legacy for Nurvi, something that she can take forward and be proud of.
What are the things that excite you the most these days?
I guess only NNM Films and family at the moment. I have Saaho coming up in a few months too.
Which are the three recent films that you wished you were a part of?
Andhadhun, Uri, Gully Boy.