He’ll bypass all

Neil Nitin Mukesh believes in taking the road less taken and carving his own path, writes Rajiv Vijayakar

He made a stunning debut with the 2007 film Johnny Gaddaar. The film, a flop at first run time (cinema was not so open then), was admired by discerning viewers and has since metamorphosed into a cult thriller. But even at that time, Neil Nitin Mukesh was considered one of the most impressive debuts in a long while, picking up the first of his two Filmfare awards, the latter being for New York as Best Supporting Actor.

Over 12 years, Neil’s journey has been dotted with all kinds of films —good, bad and indifferent, and even a few South movies like Kaththi, Kavacham and the (original) Saaho.

The bottom-line is that Neil’s performance has never been faulted. His grey and dark roles in Prem Ratan Dhan Payo and Golmaal Again were as much appreciated as his cameo in Wazir and his different turns in Lafangey Parindey and 7 Khoon Maaf, among others.

Let us also not forget that the actor hails from the very talented lineage of
immortal playback singer Mukesh, who also acted sporadically.

Neil’s father, Nitin Mukesh, was among the leading singers from the 1980s and early 1990s (that too after assisting director Hrishikesh Mukherjee).

Early start

Neil himself started out as a child artiste in 1988 with Yash Chopra’s Vijay (as young Rishi Kapoor), followed by Jaisi Karni Waisi Bharni as the childhood Govinda, and he now turns writer and producer with Bypass Road, a psychological thriller in the ‘home invasion’ genre.

He also plays the protagonist in this film, which marks the debut of the fourth Mukesh — his younger brother Naman — as director.

Bypass Road thus marks three debuts, and Neil says, “The most important debut for me is that of Naman. On a very emotional level, he is my kid brother . In fact, the way he is closer to me, he is more my child than dad’s. His talent is extremely etched, and I wish he has the opportunity of exploring cinema by being appreciated for this film. It’s a very gutsy debut, a difficult genre for a youngster.”

However, the fountainhead of all this is the story that Neil himself has
written. So, how did that come about? “I was shooting for Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, and I had read somewhere that Netflix was coming to India,” says Neil.

“I knew the platform from my travels. So I knew that the day it came here, India would boom with content and we would not have to educate our audience about genres that are not explored here as much, or at all. That applied to thrillers as well. So I did not want to waste time, as by the time I wrote such a subject and found a producer, it would take a few years.”

It’s interesting how he would often be asked, ‘What is the kind of film
that you would like to do as an actor?’. This became the driving point, he says. “I thought I would write a story myself as my answer to that,” grins Neil.

“A germ of an idea was already there, and as I started writing, it evolved into a completely different structure. I started getting sucked into its world myself. We know that an amalgam of a whodunit and a home invasion genre has almost never happened here. In the West, you do not need a plot, but here we needed a reason why someone out there comes in to kill a paraplaegic. So home invasion became a sub-plot.” 

Going with the flow

A whodunit writer starts with a solution. So how did he go about the reverse, building a plot around that in the manner famous writers like Agatha Christie, James Hadley Chase and many others do? “A story has a start, end and middle. To let it flow organically, the only way I could explore the plot was through my characters. I needed a character-driven plot where the protagonist was put in the middle of all this. I thus built up the agendas of the individual characters. There needed to be a fusion of the personal life, which is the protagonist’s family and work life, and the drama — what happened with the murder.”

Neil admits that he wrote the story keeping “himself in mind”. The wheelchair, he says, came in the second draft.

“I wanted to pin my protagonist down in the pits. The audience could then relate with him as an underdog. The threat factor would otherwise not pump up as before the accident, he was quite a heroic character. The more he was helpless, the more would be the degree of danger.”

For Neil, cinematic experience is always theatre. “I come from an old-school thought process, and believe in the kind of experience that needs a ticket, a dark hall, and waiting for that popcorn. That whole cinematic experience cannot be taken away by watching something in bed. I like platforms as educational tools and as an audience exploring different genres from across the world. The magic of creating films for cinema cannot be compared. For example, the sound design — Bypass Road is in Dolby Atmos, which is an experience in itself.”

Neil confesses that he never knew Naman would direct him and initially just pitched the script. “His inputs were fabulous, thanks to his grooming with directors Abbas-Mustan and Bejoy Nambiar. He talked about flow,
shot-taking and he told me that the shot-taking should decide the cut-points. So, after a couple of days I asked him if he would like to direct it, and he replied, ‘Are you mad? I would love to.’”

In view of Naman’s commercial viability, Neil then asked him if he
would like to cast a big name, and again Naman asked, “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 star and just wanted to make a good film What was their father’s role in all this? “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 and then he suddenly watched the film and was on cloud nine. I requested him, ‘Dad, why don’t you disconnect? You could add to our stress.’”

Neil adds that he got an ideal and non-interfering co-producer in Madan
Paliwal of Miraj Enterprises, who took their stress away, and then reveals
something extremely interesting.

“Most of the cast, a very strong ensemble of superb actors like Adah Sharma, Gul Panag, Rajit Kapur, Shama Sikandar and others, do not know the suspense yet,” he preens.

“We did not take the chance of an accidental revelation of the plot by an enthusiastic team member. After all, within the story, everybody is a suspect, including me.”

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