MUMBAI — You can never fault his acting, even if a large number of his films so far have not measured up. He was, in 2019, the sole redeeming point of the South excrescence “Saaho” and stoically says that “I was fed up of doing negative roles, so I took up this film in which seemed to be negative but was not.”
Right from his stunning debut in a gray role in his acting debut “Johnny Gaddaar” (now a cult thriller but not a hit when released 12 years ago), Neil has had limited luck at the box-office but has made his presence felt even in a tiny cameo in “Wazir.”
His only hits have been “New York” (2009), “Prem Ratan Dhan Paayo” (2015) and “Golmaal Again” (2017), but his performances have rocked in most others, and his directors include the likes of Sriram “AndhaDhun” Raghavan in Neil’s debut film, Rohit Shetty, Sooraj R. Barjatya, Kabir Khan, Abbas-Mustan, Madhur Bhandarkar, Pradeep Sarkar and—in the non-mainstream zone—Bejoy Nambiar and Vishal Bhardwaj.
South hits “Kaththi” and “Kavacham” also dot the landscape of the young actor’s career, who now makes his double debut as producer and writer with “Bypass Road.” However, the youngster is most involved with the third debut in his film—of younger brother Naman Nitin Mukesh as director.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q: A double debut for you and a directorial beginning for Naman. That’s an audacious leap.
A: The most important debut for me is of Naman. On a very emotional level, he is my baby brother and the child of our house. In fact, he is closest to me, so he is more my child than dad’s! His talent is extremely etched, and it is a very gutsy debut, since a thriller like this is a difficult genre for someone starting out as a director. It is the terrain for a seasoned filmmaker.
Q: The story—what made you write it?
A: I was shooting for “Prem Ratan Dhan Payo,” and had read somewhere that Netflix was coming to India. I was familiar with it as I have traveled abroad a lot. I knew that the day it came here, India would boom with content and we would not have to educate our audience to genres that were not explored much, or at all. So I did not want to waste time, because by the time I wrote such a subject and found a producer, it would take a few years. I finally produced it myself, along with my father (Nitin Mukesh)’s friend Madan Paliwal, who was an ideal non-interfering co-producer.
As for the story itself, a question I was often asked, “What is the kind of film that you would like to do as an actor?” was the spur. I thought I should answer that by writing a story myself. (Smiles) A germ of an idea was there, but as I began to write, it evolved into a completely different structure. I started getting sucked into its world!
An amalgam of a whodunit and a home-invasion genre had almost never happened here. In the West, you do not really need a plot for a home invasion thriller, but over here, we needed to have a reason why someone out there was set on killing a paraplegic. So home invasion became a sub-plot.
Q: What about the crafting of a whodunit, with the solution coming first?
A: A story has a start, end and middle. To let it flow organically, the only way was to let the flow be organic and explore the plot through my characters. I needed a character-driven plot where the protagonist was put in the center. I thus built up the agendas of the individual characters. There needed to be a fusion of his personal life—which was his family and work—and the drama, which was what happened after the accident and murder.
The wheelchair came in the second draft. because I wanted to pin down my protagonist, who was a heroic character before the mishap. The audience could then relate to an underdog. The threat factor would otherwise not pump up. The more he was helpless, the more would be the degree of danger.
Q: You joked that you did not expect to be cast as the central character.
A: I did write the story with me in mind! Naman was only the bouncing board for my script, but I soon realized that his inputs were fabulous, thanks to his grooming with directors Abbas-Mustan and Bejoy Nambiar. He talked about things like flow and shot-taking and he told me that the shot-taking should decide the cut-points. So, at one point I asked him if he would like to direct this film, and he replied, “Are you mad? I would love to!”
In view of the commercial viability needed for a new director, I then asked him if he would like to cast a big name, and again Naman told me, “Are you mad? Who can play this character better than you?” He also said that he did not want to be under pressure from any big star and just wanted to make a good film!
Q: As a Netflix admirer, your film has made it to the movie halls, unlike some that are screened there without entering the theatres. What is your take on this?
A: I come from an old-school thought process, like watching the movies of Raj Kapoor, and believe in the kind of experience that needs a ticket, a dark hall, and a wait for that popcorn! That whole big-screen cinematic experience cannot be taken away by watching something at home in bed. For me, Netflix is like as educational tool to explore different genres from across the world. The magic of creating films for cinema cannot be compared. For example, the sound design of “Bypass Road” in Dolby Atmos is an experience by itself.
Q: Your father had been assistant director before he became a top singer. What was his role in all this?
A: Oh, he was stressed so much about whether we both could pull off such a big thing. This had happened with him even during “Johnny Gaddaar,’ though when he watched the film he was on Cloud Nine and told me that he never knew that I was such a good actor! Here I requested him, ‘Dad, why don’t you disconnect? You could add to our stress!’” But he did like the idea of re-creating his “Tezaab” classic “So Gaya Yeh Jahaan” and sportingly recorded it!
Q: At the trailer launch, you revealed something very surprising— that most of your team even until today does not know the denouement!
A (Nods his head): Yes, most of my cast who are not directly connected with the end do not know it! I have a strong ensemble of superb actors like Adah Sharma, Gul Panag, Rajit Kapur, Shama Sikandar and others. But Naman and I did not take any chance of someone accidentally revealing of the plot! After all, within the story, everybody is a suspect, including me!