Anurag Kashyap‘s Mukkabaaz has elicited rave reviews and a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival (where it had its world premiere) and the 19th edition of Jio MAMI Mumbai film festival. After quite a wait, the film is all set to hit screens on January 12 and its director, co-producer and co-writer, Kashyap, can’t wait to see and hear what the audiences have to say about it. The film documents the story of a boxer from Uttar Pradesh, Shravan Singh, essayed by actor Vineet Singh, who falls in love with a Brahmin girl, Sunaina Mishra, played by Zoya Hussain. Ahead of the film’s release, in an exclusive chat with India.com, Kashyap opens up about the film in great detail along with his experiences on working with the new lead actors. Following are the excerpts from the interview. Read on..

The idea behind Mukkabaaz

Vineet, who makes his debut as the leading man with this film is credited as one of its scriptwriters. He had written the script almost three years ago and had been desperately looking for a producer to bankroll it. That’s when he approached Kashyap. Recalling that moment, Kashyap says, “He gave me the script, told me that he wished to play the lead role but wasn’t finding a director to make the film. He hoped I would produce it so that someone would come on board as a director. I decided to give the script a read before committing anything. It was a typical sports film, which glorifies the actor, but there was a 5-10 minute long chunk in it, that seemed very honest. It didn’t seem influenced by the sports films we’ve all grown up seeing. That part spoke about a middle-class guy from small-town India who took up boxing for a reason. I instantly fell in love with that story, which ended up forming the crux of the film. Baki sab bakwas hai (laughs).”

The making of the film

Once the crux was decided, Kashyap said that everything else fell into place. “When you find something you instantly connect with and decide that that’s the crux of your story, everything else just follows,” he says. However, he decided to co-write the film and make some changes to the original script, which Vineet was fine with. For that, the filmmaker said, he needed to research a lot about boxing. “As Indians, we always had a vague idea as to why is the sports scenario not that great in the country vis a vis a foreign land. But I had to make a film, which meant I had to dig deeper. And so began my journey researching the film. I told Vineet that I would make it only if he was willing to train to be a real boxer. I was not okay with mediocre work and was definitely not okay with the kind of boxing we have seen in Hindi films so far. I wanted him to become a real boxer and so he left the very next day for the training,” Kashyap says.

On the research that went into it

Right from finding out the status of boxing in India to understanding the different tournaments related to the sport in the country, and the various issues surrounding it – Kashyap had to research about everything. “Our first realisation was that there’s no Pro-boxing league in India. It started only in 2017, way after we started researching about it. Moreover, the kind of boxing we see in Hollywood films doesn’t exist in India. We couldn’t watch films for references as there were no Indian films showcasing that. So we needed actual references,” he says. The boxing that happens in India, apparently doesn’t have more than three rounds. So Kashyap’s main thing was –How to make the film dramatic in these three rounds? “Besides, while researching we delved into matters like what’s the sports scenario in our country? How much of corruption is prevalent in sports? How much of casteism is there in it? Nepotism – all these isms that are prevalent in the Sports industry – we found our entire story around them,” he says.

Message of the film

How much do we value sports in this country, that’s the message that will remain with you on watching the film, Kashyap says. “Sports ki kuch value hi nahi hai. We don’t value certain things in this country and one of the major things is sports. We value money too much but unfortunately don’t value sports and culture. Our instant reaction to anyone pursuing sports is that, yeh field awara gardi ka hai, mehnat ka nahi hai. We don’t take sports and sportsmen seriously. We need to change our mindsets,” he says. Furthermore, he stated that everyone who has watched the film has had something different to take back from it. “People have perceived Vineet’s journey in their own way and have taken home a unique message—that may not have anything to do with boxing but that’s the way they have connected with the film. We certainly didn’t expect people to connect with it in such a big way but they did and that’s commendable,” he says.

Mukkabaaz – a lot more than just a sports film

It is a socio-political love story, says Kashyap. “Everything else is a problem in that love story including boxing. But everything else is equally important in the film. It is about people and their aspirations. I want people to watch it and figure out what they take back from the film. I have touched upon many aspects in it, but it is honestly up to you how you perceive it and what you understand from it,” he says.

Choice of actors

Kashyap has cast an interesting set of people in the film. Both Jimmy Shergill and Ravi Kishan are huge stars in Punjab and the Bhojpuri film industries, and it’s interesting to think that Kashyap would cast them in a raw socio-political love story such as Mukkabaaz. Ask him about it and he quips, “I am making a film on UP, I want actors who are from UP and who understand the culture of that state. Jimmy must be a very big star in Punjab but he is born and brought up in UP. He was born in Gorakhpur and studied in Lucknow. Vineet, Ravi Kishan and Zoya are all from UP. I need people who basically understand the land. It is very important for me. My film has not been made on sets. I never really do. My films are very rooted and I want actors who are rooted as well.” He added that he wants actors to understand the issues pertaining to the state as he believes that they’ll be able to do justice to their roles only if they do. “That’s how they will be able to bring forth the nuances in their performances,” he adds.

 Zoya

This may be Zoya’s first Bollywood film, but Kashyap informs us that the debutante has acted in short films and theatre before. “She is a phenomenal actress. The world hasn’t seen her because she hardly ever goes out for auditions. She doesn’t meet people. When I saw her short film, I told her, you’re such a good actress, why don’t you go meet some new people. She is like,  ‘No, I have had some really bad experiences. They ask questions that have got nothing to do with acting. Someone will tell you to get some job done—get your lips fixed or your teeth fixed. I am an actor, not a beauty pageant participant.’ She has a very strong point of view and that is exactly what became her character on screen. So while writing, I had Zoya and Sunaina— both in mind,” he explains.  Not just Vineet, but even Zoya was given a strict diktat to train to learn sign language. “I sent Zoya off too and told her that learn the sign language in such detail that you can improvise. If I ask you any question you should be able to answer back in that. It should become a part of you. And she took nearly six to seven months to grasp it completely. I have not seen a screen presence as Zoya’s for the longest time. Zoya is like Nawazuddin. The moment you put him in front of a camera, he takes on a completely different note.When you see her on screen, you will look back at her very differently,” he says.

Vineet

Vineet has struggled a lot both mentally and physically for the role. Vineet left for training the very same night, Kashyap told him he wanted to cast a real boxer. Even though the actor had started prepping a year before he approached the filmmaker, it wasn’t enough, Kashyap said. “Actually he had started prepping a year before he came to me with the script. But that training was in Bombay and it was very generic. When he came to me, I told him that I don’t want to see him box like the ones we see in Hindi films. I wanted a real boxer. So off he went to the place from where the real boxers come. We spoke to Vijender Singh and he told us where we should be going to train as a professional boxer. He headed to Punjab to train and spent another year in training, which means two years in total,’ he adds.

Kashyap adds that when one has actors like Vineet and Zoya, one feels like making a film on them. “The commitment that they show towards their work, their role is what makes a filmmaker like me work hard on a film. Why would anyone take up a film if their actors don’t give their 100%,” he questions.

Equation with Anand L Rai

Both Kashyap and Anand L Rai have very different sensibilities when it comes to filmmaking, but Kashyap has had an amazing time collaborating with the filmmaker/producer. “Anand L Rai came on board because of Manmarziyan. He wanted me to make the film. I read the script and loved it instantly but told him that I needed time as I was working on Mukkabaaz and was looking for a producer. He enquired about the film and the time it would take. Convinced with what he heard, he agreed to bankroll Mukkabaaz as well. It was literally a 15-minute long meeting and it has been great working with him ever since,” Kashyap admits, adding that Rai is very empowering as a producer.  The two will begin working on Manmarziyan in February, Kashyap added.