From his launda gang to the big screen, Raanjhanaa’s Zeeshan Ayyub is looking Benaras talking Gorky, and redefining the role of the supporting actor in Hindi cinema
Few who have watched and loved Aanand L Rai’s Raanjhanaa can forget the scene towards the end when Murari loses his best friend Kundan to the politics of love. Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub’s moist eyes seen through the small glass opening in the emergency room door stay with you long after the film ends. Who would believe this is the same guy who pulled the trigger on Jessica Lal when she refused him a drink in No One Killed Jessica?
“Playing the hero’s best friend is always tough, because you have to put in that much more effort to make your point. Playing the villain is easier. All you have to do is make people hate you,” says Zeeshan with a smile as his sips on his second cup of cappuccino at a cosy little coffee shop in Versova. That may be so, but his turn as Dhanush’s fun-loving Banarasi buddy in Raanjhanaa had this writer wishing for a friend as sincere and caring.
“Zeeshan’s emotional logic is spot on,” says Himanshu Sharma, writer of the film. At a time when Bollywood bromance is restricted to sharing a drink or dance at the next happening party, Raanjhanaa showed us an honest and heartfelt bond between two childhood mates. Zeeshan shines as the always trusting, sometimes helpless Murari who manages convincingly to draw parallels between his best friend’s failed love life and his own failed attempts to clear the UPSC exams. He takes us back to Sholay, to Veeru watching helplessly as Jai bleeds to death in his arms.
“Well, I did watch Sharaabi three hundred times. That was how crazy I was about Amitabh Bachchan,” Zeeshan confesses. He remembers miming the entire film as it played on a VCR in his uncle’s dimly lit living room in Okhla village in Delhi. He was eight at the time, blissfully unaware of the actor in him. “That was when people around me first said, ‘kuch toh hai ladke mein’ (there is something about this boy),” says the 28-year-old. Today, he has some of India’s highest-profile filmmakers narrating scripts to him, thanks to his outstanding performances in films like Raanjhana and Shahid.
For a boy who comes from a family full of actors, Zeeshan was kept miles away from the world of film and theatre growing up. “My grandmother Saroj Bhargav was All India Radio’s first female radio artiste. Both my parents were theatre actors in Delhi and my paternal aunt and uncle were popular television actors in Mumbai.” Despite this, Zeeshan, along with his two older siblings, was strictly discouraged from even considering acting as profession. “Acting was not for boys, I was told. I grew up in Okhla and I knew that my father attended something called ‘rehearsals’ once he was done with teaching kids in school. But for the longest time, I had no idea what that really was.”
Not too much exposure to cinema was an important rule at home; 30 minutes of Doordarshan post dinner was a luxury, and then only if homework was done. “I used to watch films without Papa’s knowledge, but I still did not have the guts to defy him.” As he got older, Zeeshan’s father introduced him to the works of artistes like Balraj Sahni and Dilip Kumar, “But that was just so we [could] understand the difference between good and bad cinema. I was eight or nine at the time and I had an idea of what intonation meant, what subtext is, for an actor.”
He’d often experiment himself, gathering an audience from his locality and playing out textbook stories as skits with the help of his elder sister. “I loved dramatising everything. Even if I was late to school, my excuses would be so innovative that the teachers would immediately let me in,” he says.
The turning point in his life was a 15-day long drama workshop with Professor Keval Arora while at college. In Zeeshan’s words, it changed his life. “That workshop changed not just mine but everyone’s perspective towards life, our conditioning, our norms. I used to be one of those kids who were part of the local launda gang in Okhla. I’d beat up anyone without reason and thought it was the macho thing to do. I thought it was okay for women to stay at home and give up their careers. Keval changed all those perceptions. He made me question my motives in life. That’s when I realised what acting meant to me.”
Not long after that, Zeeshan became a star performer in college. It was the works of legends like Barrie Keffe and Maxim Gorky that influenced his formative years as an actor. His BSc grades were nothing to write home about, but he’d fallen short of space to store awards for his dramatics work. “I won 14 best-actor awards then, and that was a record,” he says.
As his popularity as an actor increased, his relationship with his father started to skew. “For almost seven years, we barely spoke to each other. There were days I’d walk into my house from college with my head low, ready to listen to Dad shout at me for my irresponsible choices. The minute he’d stop, I’d take out a certificate or an award I got for acting and it would calm him down for a while.”
It’s no surprise, then, that his decision to come to Mumbai in 2003 wasn’t exactly welcomed by his family. “My father told [my mother] that there was no point asking me to stay. He still borrowed Rs 25,000 for my travel and food and allowed me to go.”
Zeeshan’s stint in Mumbai was short lived, and almost made him give up on his dreams. One afternoon, after a few failed attempts to meet Anurag Kashyap, who was then casting for Black Friday, he decided to stop acting. “I was watching Aks on TV. When I saw Manoj Bajpai perform in that film, I realised I was nowhere even close to understanding and preparing a character like he did. I packed up and came back to Delhi and told myself that I must get [over] my illusions of being an actor.”
But Life had different plans for him. Without Zeeshan’s knowledge, a friend filled out an application form for National School of Drama (NSD). He got through, and that’s when his father finally began to pay heed to his acting abilities. The people and teachings at NSD gave life and form to what Zeeshan had learnt through his dramatics work in college. Authors like Premchand, Hari Shankar Parsayi, Uday Prakash became his ideals. “I learnt a lot at NSD. By now theatre had become my food for life.”
Bollywoodising his acting ambition was no longer on the agenda. “I started taking workshops and realised how much I loved to teach. It gave me immense satisfaction. I saw myself grow as an individual and so too as a performer while I taught.” He was all set to leave for New York to teach acting at the prestigious Lee Strasberg Institute when he received a call from Abhishek Sengupta, the casting director of No One Killed Jessica.
“I wasn’t even excited when I was called for the audition. I was all set to leave the country. I just gave the audition for the sake of it. After a few days they called me again with a few costumes and asked me to put my travel plans on hold. Even then, I wasn’t really giving in to the fact that they might be considering me for this.” It was when he went on the sets of the film, met Rani Mukerji and had a cup of coffee with director Raj Kumar Gupta that it finally started to sink in.
“I got a film when I did not even ask for one, so I told myself I’d better take it seriously.” Zeeshan nailed the manipulative, spoiled politician’s son act, complete with an unbelievably menacing Haryanvi twang. People watching the film in cinema halls wanted this guy dead, so Zeeshan’s job was well done. “To date, my professor Keval Arora tells me that Manu’s role has been my best until now. He said, ‘That was the Zeeshan I don’t know. He doesn’t think or behave like that.’”
His debut was noticed by some and went unnoticed by many. He went on to do a few films like Jannat 2 and Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, which brought him little satisfaction or popularity as an actor.“I wasn’t exactly in a position to choose work, but I knew that I would never do something just because it’s going to put my face out there with a few superstars.”
It was his NSD senior, writer Himanshu Sharma, who came to him with the role that set his career flying. “People started to recognise me after Raanjhanaa. That’s when you know it’s finally happened!” Zeeshan fondly remembers the time he spent with Dhanush through the shooting of the film and how it was so simple to translate that friendship on screen.
“Dhanush is not just a brilliant actor but an equally good human being. We used to discuss everything. After a point it wasn’t about Kundan and Murari, but Zeeshan and Dhanush. Aanand sir would let us do the scenes our way and it was just magic.”
Within a few months, he topped himself with a subtle yet strong performance as Raj Kumar Gupta’s older brother in Shahid. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that he outshone even the leading man in parts of the film. “When I read the script of Shahid, I told myself ‘Why can’t I do the main role?’” But there are many questions that don’t really have an answer. So I give whatever comes my way the best shot.”
He doesn’t mind being the ‘supporting actor’ tag. He realises he may not exactly be the face of Harlequin romances and that’s not something that bothers him. He articulates an interesting analogy: “This industry is a lot like the political parties of our country. People who want to keep their films very desi are like the BJP, those who want to gloss it up are like the Congress, [and] those who want to do something path-breaking, yet compromise on their ideas are like the Communist party. So I’ve learnt to live with it.”
More important than a lead role is the wish to be known among the handful of politically aware actors who strive to bring about some change with their work. “There was a point in the 70s and 80s where films and other forms of art brought about revolutions. Why can’t we bring that back?”
His attempt to achieve that stems from the work he does with Chara Tribals in Gujarat, who were jailed by the British before Independence and are still facing repercussions. “I adapted Gorky’s The Lower Depths with them a few months back and performed it in the village. It was a wonderful experience. These are neglected tribes that strive hard even for [one] decent meal a day. I try to do as much as I can to help build their confidence and add some value to their lives. Jean Paul Sartre always said art isn’t art if it doesn’t serve a purpose and his words are like the Bible to me,” he says.
From loitering aimlessly in the streets of Okhla singing Bachchan songs to helping change lives with his work, Zeeshan has come a long way. His father must be proud. “I lost my father to cancer. Papa could never really make it big as an actor, and like many others, he surrendered his dreams to the pinch of the pocket. He did not want me to go through the same thing. It’s now I understand that I was just being protected. I hope he’s watching.”