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Happy Birthday, Preity



Preity Zinta

Today, my friend  Preity Zinta  turns a year older. I won’t mention the age. Not because she minds but because the entertainment industry does. If an actress crosses 40, she starts playing her hero’s mom. Ask Juhi Chawla. She was  offered Salman Khan’s mother’s role by Salman. Salman is a pal of  Preity’s. But let’s face it: he won’t play her leading man any more. His heroines are getting younger by the year.

Preity has been a rebel  with  a cause  from the  start of her career.In the year 2000, Preity entered the industry with a very controversial film Kundan Shah’s Kya Kehna which had her playing an unwed mother.The film got delayed Preity was first seen in Mani Rathnam’s Dil Se .In 2001 she played a prostitute who turns a  surrogate mother to Salman Khan’s child in Abbas-Mustan’s Chori Chori Chupke Chupke.In 2003 she stunned the nation by testifying against the underworld in court.

No other Bollywood denizen male or female dared to do the same.In 2005 Preity filed a defamation suit against a Mumbai tabloid for publishing a transcript of a tape allegedly featuring the voice of Salman Khan speaking in less than respectful tones about her.In 2007 Suchitra Krishnamoorthy accused  Preity of being the cause of her marriage with Shekhar Kapoor breaking up. Preity retaliated by calling Suchitra “unstable”In 2008 Preity  bought the Kings  X1 IPL  cricket team and decided to focus more on building her cricket team than her acting career.In 2014, Preity sued former boyfriend Ness Wadia for alleged molestation.

Preity ’s journey so far has been  unique. Born to the entertainment industry without the help of godfathers and sugar daddys Preity’s first two films Dil Se and Soldier had her characters named after her. Happy coincidences have since then trailed the dimpled charmer’s chequered career.During  her 25-year career Preity  has played every role, from an unwed mother(Kya Kehna) to a prostitute turned surrogate-mother(Chori Chori Chupke Chupke) co-starring her pal Salman Khan.She took on the unlikely role of a cricket-team owner,a diversion that took a heavy toll on her film career.

The past years have made Preity stronger.Friends and near ones have been a let-down.  “I am not the kind of person who will stand up and complain about anything. I have no complaints against anyone. If I’ve been away from the entertainment industry it’s because I am not into selling myself.You won’t see me buying space to get written about.I want to be appreciated for the work that I do.”

   Preity  is perturbed by the changes in the entertainment industry. “The one thing that bothers me about our presentday lifestyles is the vulgar stress on wealth.An individual’s success is measured by his or her wealth and not by moral values. Today you are not judged for how much good you can do but for how much scandal you can create and how much skin you can expose.”

The actress feels a tragic erosion of integrity in our social value-system. “I fear the values I was brought up with  are disappearing all around us. It’s scary. Of course we were naughty as hell when we were kids. But we were mercifully spared the consumerist culture. When you ask today’s kids what they want to do when they grow up they say they want to be rich and famous.”

     Preity is amused to see today’s kids growing up without heroes. “What happened to those dreams of being Jawaharlal Nehru and Lata Mangeshkar?No kid wants to change the world. According to me a hero is a soldier or a doctor, not a film star. We don’t appreciate the real heroes any more.We think only about our own interests.And since we’ve no role-models in real life we hardly have roles of substance in films except for an occasional Milkha or  Jhansi Ki Rani.”

    Preity proudly preens that most of her films are clean entertainers. “Luckily  out of all the  films that I’ve done  most  have been ‘PG13’(kids below 13 can see the films when accompanied by parents). Only my Salaam Namaste was for adults  because a live-in relationship was scandalous back then. There is a need for entertainment designed for children.We don’t have too many films  kids can watch comfortably with their parents. Most filmmakers  prefer to take the easy route.I want as much variety in my characters as possible.  The script is more important to me than my role. Sometimes I’ve accepted a part only because it seemed attractive within the perspective of the total script. Fortunately all the directors I’ve worked with so far have been extremely open to inputs.  And I’ve therefore been able to  project some dignity into every character I’ve played even if she was the prostitute  in Chori Chori Chupke Chupke  where she was a  really downmarket gold digger. I found it hard to identify with her. So I went to a lot of bars in Mumbai,  and read books on  prostitutes. I wanted her to be portrayed with dignity.”

  Throughout her career Preity has refused to anything crass. “There have been  times when I’ve had to tell the director, ‘Sorry, Sir. But the same emotion can be done differently. Why do we have to  be so tacky?’ But such problems hardly prop up. When they do my directors have invariably sambhaloed my character. For me as an actor, it’s very important to have the complete script with me before I agree to do a film. Most of the time I do get my way. And I’m thankful to God for that.I’d rather not work with a director who doesn’t give me a  script. I don’t mean to question the director’s authority by asking for a script. I want it just so that I could do my homework and be fully prepared  before coming on the sets. I could be wrong in my observations and inputs and I’d be most happy  to have the director pull me up.  If I was always right I might as well be the director myself, ha ha. But seriously I’ve been brought up in an atmosphere where girls are taught to think for themselves. It’s therefore very essential for me to do progressive cinema. As a celebrity I don’t want to come across as ill-informed. It would give cynics  another  chance to  call actors dumb.Most of our audiences look up to us.  And it’s important  for an actor to set the right example.  If there’s a scene where a man is shown hitting  a girl I gently point out to the director that he’s glorifying domestic violence. There’re hundreds  of   inoffensive ways of conveying an  offensive truth.There have been  lots of times when I’ve said no to seemingly lucrative offers. I’ve been told what a fool  I am. But I’d rather go by  my convictions. This is me, and I’ve to be true to myself.  I’ve to comfortable with what I do. When I become old  I want my children and grandchildren to look proudly at my body  of  work. Imagine my kids turning to me and saying, ‘Oh God! Why did you do that?’”

Preity admits  Dil  Chahta Hai was a turning  point in her  career. “The Indian contemporary youth was shown  in the right light  for the first time . Suppose in 2022 someone asks me what was  it like when I was  young. I can show them Dil Chahta Hai. As an actress the film showed me as something other than the chirpy bubbly all-over-the-place girl that I’m known to be. That’s me  actually. In real life I’m a  happy-go-lucky chatterbox. Thankfully I’m doing  roles other than that. I’m an actor . It’s my job to do every kind of role. You know  as a child when my parents would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, one day I’d  say an airhostess, the next the  prime minister, then a cop and an astronaut…Well now I’m that lucky kid who gets a chance to play  all sorts of characters. One day I might even get to play Preity Zinta. That would be really funny. Also, acting gives you a vicarious opportunity to rectify the mistakes  in your life. Am I getting to philosophical?”

She is  very fond of the  Khan.  “My first release Dil Se was with Shah Rukh. We didn’t work together thereafter. There was a bit of misunderstanding .  We weren’t fighting or anything. We both stood  our ground.  I think we just let each other be. And we both listened to four hundred people tell us things about each other. Then we did  Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna  .He’s so cool  and sharp.  He doesn’t waste time. We come on the  sets, give our shots and leave.I’m sure I’ve learnt quite a bit from all of the Khans. Every interaction has enriched me. Some of them made me realize the value of rehearsals  and others have taught me what I shouldn’t do. I follow the rationale route. I imbibe what’s worth it. But I don’t follow anyone blindly.  If I work with Aamir it doesn’t mean I’ll start behaving like him. I’m too much my own person. I’ve shared a good rapport with all my co-stars.  That’s because I’ve followed a principle –never get emotionally involved with anyone you work with. If that happens your personal and professional life immediately clash. And you’re trapped. I’m a  very practical person. This is a strict career decision I took when I arrived in films. I don’t want to leave with  any excessive baggage when I decide to quit. For me the only permanent thing in life  is  change.”

She  is very close to two actors  in  the  film industry. “ Hrithik Roshan and Bobby Deol . Bobby has been my buddy from before  I came into films. I came to know Hrithik through his ex-wife. Suzanne and I are best friends for the last  fifteen  years.  I remember he had come to meet me with a cake on  my birthday as  the guy Suzanne was seeing. I had  found him very thin. I remember he told Suzanne, ‘What kind of a friend do you have? She comes late on her own birthday.’

  Preity loves her film with Hrithik. “I was deeply attracted  Koi ..Mila Gaya  because  the lead pair in  our films always play  boyfriend-girlfriend, husband-wife or maybe brother-sister. But my relationship with Hrithik in Koi Mil Gaya is based on compassion and humanity. There’s no sexuality between  us. Even  in the  duet Idhar chala udhar chala there’s a purity and innocence. When Mr Rakesh Roshan gave me the script I was on a high. The relationship between the lead pair is so different from anything portrayed so  far.  It was very important for me not to behave like a conventional heroine in this film.  If I   I did the glam-and-pout act I’d have stuck out like a sore thumb. I’d  have effectually destroyed the film’s timeless texture. I had to be one of the kids along with Hrithik. I also had to have a lot of strength of character because I had to extend a hand of support to Hrithik’s character. At the same time I also had to be glamorous .The  thing that really worked for the film was our real-life  rapport. In real life too Hrithik seeks my advice sometimes. And we’re very truthful to each other. At the same time we can do really stupid things together. We’ve a lot of fun together, just like our characters  in Koi Mil Gaya.

  About  testifying against the underworld  Preity had said  to me once, “There’re times when you’ve to do things not to prove anything to others, but to  yourself. This was one of those times. I didn’t do it it  to feel brave. But because I thought it was about time someone stood up to speak against what ‘s bothering all of us in the film industry. But what shocked me was the way I was let down by the government.  The trial was supposed be on-camera  behind closed doors , in complete secrecy. No one was supposed to know anything about it  except the lawyers.  But before I got into my car and reached the venue it was all over the  television channels.For ten days I was nowhere to be found. The crime branch had to withdraw all the news items from television. But by then everyone already knew about it. It made me think about this country’s judiciary system.  What if some small-town girl was testifying against a goon? She’d  have been finished!I didn’t regret it. But the whole  thing made  me angry.  For the first time it made me think that I should go into politics, so I could  make a  difference to our social system. I guess I’ve made enough money to live comfortably. I live the way I want to. Now I do want to make a difference. If corruption is inevitable then we should legalize it by five percent. At least the other ninetyfive percent would go into the right channels. Everytime I return from abroad  the chaos hits me right from  the time I  disembark. Ours is a great country with so  much  cultural and spiritual value to offer. And we ‘re throwing it all away.  Spain has a population of 40 million people and  60 million tourists coming in each year. India doesn’t have even a fraction of that influx! Why can’t we re-package India as  a land of peace and sprituality?

   I still remember how  Preity made Shah Rukh Khan choke over his drink in Mani Ratnam’s Dil Se when  he  asked him if he was a virgin. ‘Nice girls’ don’t do that. Preity  broke the rules from the beginning. She  played an unmarried mother in one of her  earliest releases Kya Kehna, and this was 20 years ago when heroines got pregnant before marriage only when there was a log of fire in a cold room to heat up their passion (Roop tera mastana, pyar mera deewana bhool kahin humse na ho jaaye…).Non-conformist to the core, Preity  jumped careers suddenly to became a cricket-team owner. Big mistake. Biggest mistake of her working life.

I remember our lunch at the Olive; Preity , KJo and I. This was before  her  IPL bukhar. Karan  kept giving her career gyan, and I was smiling to myself. Back then I didn’t feel Preity needed career guidance. She was  so much in-charge of her life, so honest about herself and others. Never afraid to call a spade a spade. When a lonely filmmaker from an illustrious family decided to ‘adopt’ her, she ticked off him good and proper saying she already  had a  father and didn’t need a replacement.

I met  Preity last when she  was in Patna  for an event.  “The event is just an excuse. I actually came  to Patna to meet you,”  Preity said. We spent  a fabulous afternoon at home over lunch. This  was  just before the pandemic. Then the  world changed.But some things remain the same. Like  Preity’s dimples.Actresses with dimples, from Sharmila Tagore to Deepika Padukone, are born to rule.

Now you are   mother  to  lovely twins. When we meet next  I want to meet the two Goodenough progenies.I am  they will be as Zinta-dil as  their mother.

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