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.