His career as an actor took off with a phone call. Yash Chopra was making a film titled Vijay. It had several A-listers, including Rajesh Khanna, Hema Malini, Rishi Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Meenakshi Seshadri, Sonam, Raj Babbar, Moushumi Chatterjee, Anupam Kher, Saeed Jaffrey, Bharat Bhushan, Gulshan Grover and Shakti Kapoor. The producer-director was looking for a little boy to play the young Vikram, aka Vicky, who grows up to be Rishi Kapoor.
He dialled Nitin Mukesh to ask if his cherubic son could play the role. The singer instantly agreed, having sung for Rishi in Mera Naam Joker at the age of 15. His son, Neil Nitin Mukesh, was just four-years-old when he did his first film. Had cancer not stolen him away, Rishi Kapoor would have turned 69 today.
Neil loved the world of “Lights, Camera, Action!” and enjoyed all the pampering he got on the set. “After every shot, Yash uncle would give me a chocolate and a compliment,” he smiles.
The filmmaker even got the little boy to lip sync to the popular song, Akkad bakkad bambe bo, assi nambay poore sau. “I didn’t understand what playback singing was until I went on the set. That’s when I realised what my grandfather (singer Mukesh) and dad’s profession was and ran to my grandmother’s home to tell her excitedly, ‘Now, I know what these trophies are for,’” Neil recounts.
His next film was Vimal Kumar’s Jaisi Karni Waisi Bharni. This time he played the younger Govinda and the title track was picturised on him. The cute moppet caught the eyes of many filmmakers and there was a deluge of offers, for movies and ads. But this time, Nitin Mukesh put his foot down. He wanted Neil to focus on his studies, which he did, industriously, till he reached the 10th standard.
“Then, when dad asked me what I wanted to do, I told him I wanted to be an actor and after my board exams, I wished to join Anupam Kher’s acting school,” he narrates, pointing out that Anupam had played his grandfather (in Vijay) and he considers him his first acting guru.
Nitin Mukesh was cajoled into calling up the senior actor who pointed out that at 15, Neil was too young for the school whose other students, Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bachchan and Uday Chopra, were much older. “He suggested I wait a few years. But later called back saying on second thoughts, there was no definite age to start learning and asked dad to send me over,” informs Neil.
After his stint with Anupam’s ‘Actor Prepares’, Neil also trained at Kishore Namit Kapoor’s acting academy and did a lot of theatre before convincing Aditya Chopra to take him on as an assistant director on Mujhse Dosti Karoge. That’s where he learnt other aspects of filmmaking like writing, lighting, editing and direction, but his heart was set on acting.
“My grandfather had come to Mumbai to be an actor, not a singer. Mukeshji even produced a few films. Dad wanted to be a director, but when my grandfather passed away suddenly and he had to feed the family, he became a singer since that was what he knew best,” Neil confides, saying that somewhere today, his brother Naman, who is a director, and he (acting and direction) are living their father and grandfather’s dreams.
Neil debuted with the neo-noir thriller, Johnny Gaddaar, in 2007. Interestingly, Jhamu Sughand, who was producing the film initially till Ad Labs took it over, handed Neil two scripts on the day that he met him. One was a love story, Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na and the other one was Johnny Gaddaar.
Neil loved both scripts, but it was Johnny Gaddaar which had him hooked because he has always loved murder mysteries and thrillers. However, on Jhamu’s insistence, he auditioned for Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na. “But I didn’t put my best foot forward because I wanted to give my all to the Johnny Gaddaar audition,” he whispers.
When he told his producer that he had his heart set on playing Vikram/Johnny G, Jhamu sent him to meet Johnny Gaddaar’s director, Sriram Raghavan. “I whizzed off in an auto rickshaw from Juhu to a studio near Powai. A man named Anurag Kashyap took my audition. While I was not afraid of rejection then, I didn’t want to lose this opportunity,” he admits, adding that he learnt he was selected only a day before the shoot.
It was an unconventional debut for an industry kid. And after it became embroiled in financial problems, Neil had to wait two-and-a-half years for the film to release. When it did come up, he found that he was up against one of the biggest debutants in Hindi film history, Ranbir Kapoor. “Our entire budget would be what they had spent on the costumes of Saawariya, but Johnny Gaddaar made by a genius called Sriram Raghavan, stood out strongly and I was finally living my dream,” Neil signs off.
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