Vineet Kumar Singh had a close shave the morning of the day we meet when a motorbike unexpectedly sped past him. It has left two red marks on his hand. Singh is unfazed. He has an inherent ability to be calm under adversity. But learning boxing for Mukkabaaz has toughened him up even more. "I've learnt how to get hit and be normal," he says. We are at the office of Eros International, co-producers of the film, directed by Anurag Kashyap. We sit down in a room with a glass window, table and revolving chairs after Singh has finished his interviews with a number of online news portals. He is wearing jeans, a grey V-neck T-shirt, sleeves slightly rolled up and has a day-old stubble. We are served coffee, his without milk and sugar, when he asks the office boy, "Picture dekhi ki nahi?"(Have you seen the movie or not?). The office boy, smiling shyly, nods that he hasn't. "Nahi to main ticket nikaal deta hoon. Jao dekh lo, tumhari picture hai, meri nahi hai. Batana kal aa raha hoon."
In Mukkabaaz, Singh plays Shravan Kumar Singh, a boxer whose real fight is outside the ring – against caste system, against his father's wishes, and against the power structure of sports in India. Like Shravan, Singh's fight, until Mukkabaaz, wasn't so much about being good at his job as being given the chance to prove it to the world. As an actor, he has given entertaining and empathetic performances. You may remember him as Danish Khan, the more responsible, sincere but similarly ill-fated Sonny to Nawazuddin Siddiqui's Michael Corleone in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012); the naive Vijay from Allahabad who comes to Mumbai to with a jar of murabba for Amitabh Bachchan in Bombay Talkies (2013) or Chaitanya Mishra, the wily casting director in Ugly (2013).
On his struggle in Mumbai for 15 years, we decide not to dwell much. From skipping dinners to sneaking into terraces to steal a night's sleep, he's gone through it all. "The improvement in living in Mumbai would be measured by the number of people I'd be sharing the house with: from 8 to 6 to 4." He doesn't make a big deal of it. "Everybody struggles," says Singh who will be seen next in Reema Kagti's Gold, where Akshay Kumar plays Balbir Singh Sr. the Hockey player that won independent India its first Olympic gold.
Mukkabaaz began as a story he wrote for himself, almost out of necessity; the offers he was getting were variations of the above mentioned characters. "What else could I have done?," says the 36-year-old, who got his first Hindi film, Mahesh Manjrekar's Pitaah (2002) after he won a talent competition. "I was not even being considered for a lot of auditions. If someone else was writing Shravan Kumar, do you think that person would think of me in the role?"
Around the beginning of 2015, 2 years after he wrote it, Singh showed Kashyap the script for feedback. Two weeks later, Kashyap called him to say that he will direct the film and Singh will play Shravan. He had two conditions: that he will make changes in the script — Kashyap said in an interview that he found 10 minutes of Singh's original story to be exciting and the rest to be "garbage" — and that Singh will have to become a boxer. "What more can an actor ask for?" he says. "I speak less to him (Kashyap) and listen more. I surrender to my directors. They know how they will use me. I want to be like a child on the set, I will do what you want me to. It works for me," he says.
"I was not even being considered for a lot of auditions. If someone else was writing Shravan Kumar, do you think that person would think of me in the role?"
Generally, when an actor needs to go through a specialised training for the character of a film, the producers fund it. But when Singh left for Punjab, to get enrolled in a boxing academy in Patiala, producers hadn't even entered the picture yet. Singh sold everything he had — including his car — to fund his own training. "I was a nobody. I couldn't have waited for producers to come in and send me for training. It's me who wanted to be an actor, I needed the film. I didn't want to give anyone any chance," says Singh, who is an MD in Ayurveda and a self-taught actor.
Of the one year Singh spent in Patiala, the first few months were spent getting hit, bleeding, and suffering injuries. The boxers and coaches couldn't understand why a man, old enough to retire in the sport, wants to learn boxing. He kept his identity as an actor hidden because he didn't want to be treated like one. Until one day, the head coach Anudeep Singh probed him. Singh confided in him, he agreed to train him. He would start his training at 5 AM in the village ground, practising with punching bags tied to trees, traveling 70 kilometres all day to different parts of Patiala for different sets of training. In between, he would buy vegetables for home, and whenever he would get the chance, hand his phone to someone to shoot while he practises. Within a year Singh had transformed from an amateur to a boxer.
Singh speaks predominantly in Hindi; there is so much flavour in it that a lot is lost in translation. Sometimes, he finds his groove from the musicality of the language. Once he was driving — he had a car back then — he encountered for the first time the Hindi word for cricket: lamb-danda-gol-pind-dhadpakad-pratiyogita. He started free styling on the word. He parked his car and put his plans on hold. Within a few minutes, he had a written a rap verse on Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who he is a fan of. He asks me to switch off the recorder and starts rapping, his hands and body moves in nice, easy rhythms. This side of Singh sometimes complements his work as an actor: he wrote and sang the title song of Ugly. In Mukkabaaz, he is credited as the main lyricist of the electrifying Paintra — the soundtrack to which Shravan Kumar trains in the ghats of Benaras.
Singh says that he is blessed that he was born and brought up in Benaras, a city whose veins the language of Hindi flows through, a city of characters. "People come to Benaras to observe characters. Ek se ek, kamaal ke," he says. "It could be anyone: a tea-seller, a journalist, someone who works in a sari shop or runs a travel agency. The city has a fakiraana andaaz. It helps you understand different kinds of people. It's a great advantage as an actor."
Singh says that he is blessed that he was born and brought up in Benaras, a city whose veins the language of Hindi flows through, a city of characters. "People come to Benaras to observe characters. Ek se ek, kamaal ke," he says.
I accompany him in an Uber on his way to the office of a Hindi newspaper, where he has a promotional event to attend. He asks for a tissue from his assistant, who is seated in front. Singh has unwittingly killed a mosquito and he has blood in his hands. We talk a bit about what he likes to watch; he worships Daniel Day-Lewis, watches the TV shows that everybody does. In between, he gives directions to the driver. He has lived long enough in this part of the city to know shortcuts that Google maps might not.
He also goes back to telling me a little more about his training. "A boxer should be light-footed like a cat," he refers to a boxing philosophy which has been used in the film, demonstrating each step as he explains it, "The punch should be like the bite of a snake, sudden, swift, when you don't expect it." He has settled into a rhythm, throwing punches in the air, his solid arms brushing against his shirt, making gentle music. "A 100 times, then a 1000 times," he says. It's a strange sight: the hero of the latest Anurag Kashyap film, shadow-boxing in an Uber that I have booked because the publicists forgot to, stuck in a traffic jam in Andheri.