'Betaal is different; it gave me opportunity to work with two new directors': Viineet Kumar on upcoming Netflix horror series
It is often believed that the first break opens all doors. Viineet Kumar got his first break with Manjrekar’s Pitaah, but the doors opened only in 2012.
Viineet Kumar is not finding the lockdown experience too unsettling. As an actor, he is accustomed to long periods of uncertainty and stillness.
The Mukkabaaz and Saand Ki Aankh actor’s story is one of determination with an undeniable edge of madness. How else do you explain running away from post-graduate college in Nagpur and hiding out in the dorms of Podar Ayurved Medical College, Mumbai, just to be closer to your dream. Kumar’s mathematician father in Varanasi did not approve, but Kumar’s sights were set on the film industry.
“I stayed in Podar on the sly for four years with some seniors. When someone from admin would come to check, I would hide in the bathroom or on the terrace. Some nights, when I was hiding out on that terrace in the beating rain, I did feel like giving up. But those experiences made me stronger. I always had an option (of quitting). I had made a commitment to my father that I would get a (medical) degree, which I did. He thought I would give up this (acting) dream, but all I did was ensure I got closer to where I wanted to be.”
He qualified as a doctor and juggled education with ‘struggle’, the term widely understood to mean persisting till you get a break in Bollywood. The actor doggedly knocked on the doors of production houses and directors’ offices. He worked as an assistant on film and television sets, did bit parts to get by, and also featured in a Mahesh Manjrekar movie in 2002. But his first significant part came years later when he played Danish Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012).
Kumar recalls those early days, when he was turned away from unopened doors. He would return to his home and heal a little. “This current time of self-isolation is also a time for healing. I am remembering the old days and reassessing my thoughts, the promises I made to myself, where I am now and what else I need to do,” said Kumar.
He’s finally on solid ground. Four of his projects were nearing completion before the lockdown. Betaal is the first to release (on Netflix this Sunday) while Tryst With Destiny just won an award (for best screenplay) at the Tribeca Film Festival. Aadhar, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl, and the Hindi remake of Tamil film Thiruttu Payale 2 are either complete or nearing completion.
Kumar was disappointed that Tribeca, scheduled for April, was cancelled. If things had gone to plan, it would have been his first visit to the USA. “But an invisible thing has stopped everyone,” he said, wistfully. “I am a big fan of Robert De Niro, the founder of this festival. I even had a best actor nomination. But then, improvisation is part of an actor’s life — if not in front of the camera, then in life,” he says, laughing.
Although he’s got an interesting line-up now, Kumar has also experienced periods when he has stared at a long and empty road, not with despair but simply in the hope that something more substantial, challenging and fulfilling would come along. He was surprised that the floodgates didn’t open up after Gangs of Wasseypur. The roles that were offered to him were not satisfying enough. So he tapped into his life as a sportsman in Uttar Pradesh and wrote Mukkabaaz, a sports drama about a boxer.
“Then I didn’t say yes to any film for six months after Mukkabaaz. But I read everything. When I read a script, I tap into the bank of my life experiences to find a connection. Every actor does that somewhere. During the circuitous path I have taken to get here, I have seen a lot. I have had an insight into many fields — medicine, sport, politics and because I was in UP (Varanasi), culture, art, literature. I believe a script is like a railway track — if the track is laid well, the train will move well. But no matter how good the script is, it will not shape up well without a good director,” says Kumar.
After the boxing film, Kumar did Bard of Blood and Saand Ki Aankh, the latter earning him accolades for his part as Dr Yashpal, who coaches Prakashi and Chandro Tomar in shooting.
So what made him pick Betaal, a show about zombies? “I was interested because I have never played an army man. I did play a ghost in a serial once. It was just two night’s work and I got paid Rs 3,000. But I had so much make up on that I could recognise myself only by what I was wearing,” he says, laughing.
“Betaal is different. I have not worked in this horror-thriller genre before and it gave me the opportunity to work with two new directors — Patrick Graham and Nikhil Mahajan. We had workshops to train in handling guns and looking professional, like skilled members of the armed forces.”
Instead of one, Kumar picks two markers as turning points in his career — Gangs of Wasseypur and Mukkabaaz. Both happen to be directed by Anurag Kashyap, but the reasons are different.
“I am not a trained actor. My friends were doctors or sportsmen. I had no peers in the film industry, no one who could help open a door for me. So I had to earn the trust of people in the industry. This was a big wall and the break happened with Gangs... .”
The first day on set, in front of three cameras and a large crowd, Kumar knew he had to prove himself. “Most of the actors in the film were from National School of Drama. We were in the jeep and Piyush Mishra was sitting next to me, and Nawazuddin (Siddiqui) and Jameel Khan were behind me. There was so much pressure. Yet this was the day I was waiting for. It was a one-take scene and I can’t forget how Anurag hugged me, and everybody clapped. I knew then that I was on the right path.”
‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ became the calling card Kumar needed, but the parts he was hungry for were eluding him still. “I wasn’t here to play supporting roles. Watchmen no longer stopped me from entering offices, but no films were being made for me. Anurag did cast me in ‘Ugly’ and ‘Bombay Talkies’, but still nothing happened. So I did an analysis of actors’ careers and realised that everyone great actor had that one standout film.”
Anupam Kher had Saaransh, Manoj Bajpayee had Satya, Irrfan Khan had Haasil, and Rajkummar Rao had Shahid. That’s what prompted Kumar to start writing his script, one that would reposition him as a lead actor. He waited more than two years to find a backer for Mukkabaaz. During that time, he sold his belongings to pay the bills and turned down shoots that involved outstation travel so he wouldn’t miss out on a meeting or a narration in Mumbai.
“Eventually I pitched it to Phantom Films and I thought Anurag would give me feedback on the script. I was ready to take notes for changes, but he said he would make it—with me. Every part of life comes in use, like my time as a competitive basketball player inspired the story of Shravan Singh, an aspiring boxer. My second act began with that film,” said Kumar who is currently working on another script with his sister Mukti (who co-wrote Mukkabaaz).
It’s often believed that the first break opens all doors. Kumar got his first break with Manjrekar’s Pitaah, but the doors opened only in 2012. He said that it’s not about one or two films but about building a catalogue that showcases the range of your abilities.
“One hit doesn’t do anything. Neither is it about flops. What matters is consistency,” said Kumar who now looks down a road that’s long but lined with billboards of exciting and diverse films.
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