After making his debut with Raj Kumar Gupta’s No One Killed Jessica, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub has gone on to play memorable characters in films like Raanjhanaa, Tanu Weds Manu 2, Raees, Tubelight, Sameer and Manikarnika. His earnest performances in these films have established him as the go-to actor in the Mumbai film industry. In 2018 he starred in two of the biggest films of the year, Thugs of Hindostan and Zero, but both the films failed commercially at the box office. However, his performances in both were praised.
In this interview, the National School of Drama (NSD) alumnus talks about his upcoming projects, his acting journey that started in Delhi University’s Kirori Mal College and how the back-to-back failures of Thugs of Hindostan and Zero made him reconsider his priorities as an artiste.
Since making your debut in 2011 you have worked with some of the biggest names in the Hindi film industry. How did NSD happen? How did it help you evolve as an actor?
My father was a teacher who used to do theatre on a part-time basis. But right from my childhood, I was kept away from that world. Of course, I knew about my father’s association with theatre. I remember that while I was in the seventh standard, I did a play along with the other kids in the locality. After getting admission in Kirori Mal College, I saw a poster about a theatre workshop there. So, I attended that workshop and that’s how I got serious about it.
Then I applied to NSD in 2003, but couldn’t clear it in the first attempt and so I travelled to Mumbai where I watched Aks and got intimidated by Manoj Bajpayee’s performance as it made me realise that I had a lot to learn. I came back to Delhi and started preparing for NSD again. On my second attempt I got selected.
Now the thing with a place like NSD is that it can easily shock you. You are suddenly exposed to the world of drama and are taught about the various nuances associated with acting such as body movement, speech, makeup, music and what not. During the first six months I was almost in depression. I was once again full of doubts. I was thinking of quitting but then people around me motivated me and I realised that I had nothing to lose. So, I started attending all the classes with utmost sincerely and by the end of the third year my skills had developed significantly and soon I started getting offers for the main roles in plays.
Your collaboration with Aanand L Rai has resulted in some very interesting films and characters. Raanjhanaa was the first film you did with him. How did you get the part of Murari?
Actually, Himanshu Sharma (who wrote the screenplay for Raanjhanaa) and I go back a long way. Also, I had met Aanand L Rai briefly when I visited Mumbai back in 2003. So when he saw No One Killed Jessica he praised my performance. He then called me for an audition for Raanjhanaa.
Aanand may have felt that I could do the role of Murari. Months after the audition, I got the confirmation call. They were probably going with some other actor at the time but it didn’t work out. When I read the details about the character, I just fell in love with it. To tell you the truth, ultimately, it is all about the character.
Take, for example, the case of Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Didn’t Nawaz bhai act well in Munna Bhai MBBS or Shool? The truth, howsoever unfortunate, no matter how well you act but if the character is not written well, you will have a tough time making your presence felt.
The character of hero’s friend in big budget Hindi films has regained some respectability in the recent times. Do you think that your performances in Raees, Zero and Thugs of Hindostan have helped in this regard?
I remember that when I had come to Mumbai a lot of my friends warned me against playing certain characters such as the hero’s friend. But I am glad that slowly that perception is changing. As to how much I have contributed towards this, I believe it is not for me to judge.
Having said that, I think it is the responsibility of an actor to make each and every character that he/she plays look different from the other. Frankly, it was not my intention to play the hero’s friend in two big films back to back. But I had given my commitment for Zero while we were about to finish Raanjhanaa. With Thugs also I had made the commitment about three years ago. In fact, I was among the first few actors to come onboard.
While both Zero and Thugs of Hindostan failed to match the expectations, you still managed to receive praise for your performances in both these films. Did the commercial failure of these films affect you in any way?
Of course, it does affect. I gave two years of my life to Thugs and Zero and both didn’t work. I had a great time shooting for them and people liked me in both the films—but individual gains don’t really matter. We do all the hard work to ensure that the film benefits from it and so you feel really bad when the project doesn’t work. But somewhere the failure of these two films has allowed me to introspect deeply. It reminded me that I came here for the love of art and not to become a star in the first place. I have grown selective with the offers that are coming my way and in effect it has allowed me to read more and spend quality time with my family.
You were a last-minute replacement for Sonu Sood in Manikarnika. How did it materialise?
I got a call from Kangana and she offered me the part. She told me that it’s a small character but an important one nonetheless. I told her that I had some issues with dates but she promised me that it won’t take long. So I went and listened to the part. I found it interesting as I hadn’t done anything like that and so I agreed to do it. I finished the shoot in just six days.
You played a very different character in Tubelight. What was your brief for that role?
Prior to Tubelight I had already worked with Kabir Khan on Phantom. When I learnt the details about the character in Tubelight, I was actually a bit surprised and so I asked him if he was sure that I was the right person to essay such a character. The only brief that he gave me was to see that character as a bully. These days all have grown accustomed to Internet trolls these who create fuss out of nothing. They are always infuriated even if there is no reason to act that way. The idea was to personify that extreme side in the real world with a character that’s equally violent and insane.
You have worked closely with Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir Khan. How different are they in their acting approach? Also, tell us about your upcoming projects.
Each of them has a very different process. Simply put, Shah Rukh Sir is an interesting mix of spontaneity and preparation. Aamir Sir, on the other hand, believes in a lot of preparation. As for Salman Sir, he mainly relies on spontaneity. I, personally, have enjoyed immensely while working with all of them.
Right now, I am very closely involved with Sanhita Manch, which aims to recognise and promote new original Hindi scripts from playwrights across the country. This year is its third edition. The last date for receiving entries is 30th April 2019.
My two upcoming films are Turram Khan and Arjun Patiala. Also, a film of mine titled 377 Ab Normal was recently released on ZEE5. It’s about decriminalisation of homosexuality in India. In it, I play a Lucknow-based activist. It’s very different from the roles that I have done before.
This piece was first published in Patriot.