Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub hates the term 'character actor', he tells me while answering one of my questions. 'Actor', he corrects me, as if reclaiming the dignity that such a term, perhaps unwittingly, robs any actor of. Apparently well-meaning but hiding a condescension, it shows him or her their place in the hierarchy. On the one hand, you are acknowledging them of being talented, on the other, you are assigning them a lower rank and submitting to the star-system.
Ayyub has been around long enough to know in what ways such a system can throttle the advancement of careers, hence the extra sensitivity. He had started out as an actor in films 10 years ago by playing the man who shot Jessica Lal in No One Killed Jessica, a small role, made memorable by small things: a smirk, an uncool hairdo, and a body language that spelled obnoxious. He didn't get to play his first proper lead role until a few months ago, in the Sony Liv web series A Simple Murder (if we discount the poorly distributed Sameer, from 2017), and he has a prominent role as a rising star in politics in the upcoming Amazon Prime series Tandav.
It's a role that indicative of Ayyub's preoccupation with political matters. The last year, particularly, has seen Ayyub's activism come to the fore as he has taken part in the protests against the CAA-NRC, and attended the ongoing farmer's protests in Delhi, in itself a rarity for a working actor in Bollywood, no less for one who has appeared in big films such as Raanjhanaa, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, Raees, Zero and Thugs of Hindosthan.
In the interview, where he often spoke in flavourful Hindi that just wouldn't translate, the actor spoke about his 10 years in the Hindi film industry, why he won't work with people whose politics he doesn't agree with, and how the OTT is creating its own star-system.
Your first film, No one Killed Jessica, released 10 years ago in the month of January. You played Manu Sharma. Do you remember how you had approached the role?
It's my first film, so I remember each and every thing. I came from Delhi to Mumbai because I had a flight to New York. The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, which is a very reputed institution in acting, was planning to open in India, in Hyderabad. I was selected for the faculty as an acting teacher and I was going for 3 months for training.
Abhishek Banerjee, who is now doing very good as an actor as well, was a junior from my college. He was assisting Gautam Kishanchandani, the casting director of No one… He called me and said 'I want to audition you for a character'. I told him 'I am leaving for NY in a month, so there is no point in me giving an audition. He said 'Okay, come anyway, meet Gautam and we can take it forward from there'.
I met Gautam, we had a general discussion about acting and he said 'All this sounds very interesting, but how will you do it practically?' So I auditioned and he really liked it. He asked me to another scene, which he liked too. He said that he was thinking something else, but this is giving it a different kind of vibe'.
I got a call a month later and was told that we need to crack the look. They wanted him to look a bit rich. He asked me if I can get a good shirt. I got a shiny kind of a shirt from my friends, got some hair gel, and went there shaved.
What did you bring to the character that was not on paper?
He was supposed to be a very suave person. But we decided to keep him crass. There was a discussion that we won't do the scene stylishly, we will keep him desi type. When everybody else is grooving in some kind of a rhythm yeh teen launday, they are swaying in a strange way. It will be a bit funny but you won't be impressed by these guys.
What were the two scenes you were asked to audition?
The scene where I shoot Jessica, and the interrogation scene. The latter was written in a way that made him look more like a power-drunk person, son of a powerful father, who was being interrogated by a lower-ranking policewalla. It was written with a kind of attitude, with a more general idea of a villain. I am not saying it was cliched, it was very well written, but I was like, 'Haan but hai toh ladka hi na, matlab his father will bail him out, but uski fati hogi.'
You make him look scared and vulnerable.
He should be looking vulnerable because somewhere it communicates to the audience that 'Isko bhi pata hai galat kiya hai, toh aap isko justify nahi kar sakte hai'…Gautam said we didn't think of the character like that. We thought he is going to have a lot of attitude, but let's try this and see, and he actually liked the approach.
You play a young political leader in the Amazon Prime series, Tandav. Is it loosely based on real life figures like Kanhaiya Kumar?
No. The thing is, when we are making anything to do with politics in India the audience ends up drawing parallels with real life figures. People have only seen the trailer till now, but some are saying my character is like Kanhaiya (Kumar), some people are saying Umar (Khalid) — people who have been in student politics and have now become national figures.
Even Saif's role is being talked about in a similar way, that it's a representation of X and Y. Tandav is a political drama set in contemporary India, yes, but the the political scenario is different: the kind of party in power is a different kind of political party. But as Saif has said in interviews, the one showed in the series is more of a dynastic kind of family: his character's father was a PM, and he believes that he will inherit the PM position because of that. The current political scenario in our country is not like that.
What can you tell us about the character?
It's a perfect representation of the youth energy in politics. All over the world, it's the students who take part in revolution. They believe in something, they have that kind of passion and dedication. People think getting a job gives you security but actually you become more insecure, because you have so much more to lose. But when you are a student you don't have much to lose. My character gets agitated very easily. He says a line that you see in the trailers, 'Mera toh naam hi Shiva hai, mere mein gussa kuch zyada hi hai.' So he has that kind of temper, but he is actually the most righteous person in the show and he doesn't want to deviate from his ideology.
How is it to play politically charged characters, like the one you also played in Article 15, of a Dalit revolutionary? Because one doesn't get the opportunity to do such roles in Hindi cinema.
Yeah. People don't write politically motivated characters. They write politicians sitting on chairs and are corrupt. I have more fun playing characters like Nishad from Article 15 and Shiva from Taandav because I am quite a politically inclined person. I want to know what is happening in my country, society. I like to read about it. I have done some field work too, I know people, I have done street plays, I have been a part of that 'movement' as such. Obviously that helps when I am playing these characters.
I feel lucky, that I got to play people who are not afraid to speak their minds, and who stand for a positive idea of politics. I think it is the need of the hour. For many years we have said that 'Politics kharab cheez hai'. Yes it is corrupt, but the whole world is running on that. So you can't say that all of politics bad. There are good things also that are happening because of politics. To show that face of politics and politicians becomes important, and I am glad that I have got two such chances in a short time.
Are both characters in alignment with your political beliefs?
Um, yes, to an extent. I am more of a socialist person. I can't place myself as a proper leftist. I have my disagreements, but I prefer them over right wing people. Dil jaha pe hota hai main wahi pe hoon, left of centre. But yes, these characters are an extension of my ideology and I completely agree with the politics. Shiva is a character that I could have been, in University, if I wasn't an actor. He is also an actor who does theatre in college.
At what point do you draw a separation in work in film offers and politics? For instance, would you reject an offer on ideological grounds?
Yes, I will. Not the character, but the film. I would love to play Hitler, but if that film is glorifying him then I wouldn't. If it is showing clearly what he did to Germany, or to the world then I would give my right hand to play that character.
Would you work with, say, actors and directors, who lie on the other of the spectrum in terms of their politics — people with whom you have a working history?
I won't be comfortable. The kind of venom that's out there… In fact I just rejected one because of that reason. I believe that even if I am giving 10 day of my life to a project and I am not happy there, it will affect both sides badly.
And it's not just for political reasons. I maintain my distance from production houses and directors with whom I've had problems in the past.
What kind of problems?
You read a script, you say yes, after signing it starts changing slowly, even before the shoot has begun, you start feeling trapped. Then after reaching the set the scenes are cut, lines are taken away and given to someone else, and eventually when it gets delivered the character is heavily compromised. In the last 4-5 years, I have been promised 'poster characters' — primary characters basically — but those promises are never kept.
I am not talking about a film like Article 15, where it was very clear this is the role, which I did with all my heart, and there are other films like that. But in other films, the dignity of your character is killed in order to elevate the other character who you are sharing screen space with. You trust new people and then the trust is broken. I will avoid them: whether it is for political or production and creative differences, basically people I am not comfortable with.
You've been politically vocal, especially the whole of last year, from joining the anti CAA–NRC protests in Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata, to now attending the farmers protests at the Singhu border. Has it affected the kind of offers you are getting?
It has, definitely. Some people clearly hint at it and leave it at that. But there's another thing: people think that I have been very vocal from last year, since the NRC-CAA protests, but that's not the case. What happened is that these guys attacked Jamia Milia Islamia on the 15th and on the 16th evening I was there on the ground, standing on the stage, taking to people. People made videos of the press conference where I said 'My mother was a Hindu, my father was a Muslim, and when somebody does that I feel like somebody is trying to separate them'. I honestly said what I felt and I didn't think that it would go viral.
To stand against CAA became such an Indian idea that a lot of people came out to protest. Likewise, people standing up for farmers: that is the most Indian thing to do. You have to stand with the people of this country
So I became some kind of a social face. But I was vocal in 2014 also. I was vocal when I was not in films, when I was doing street plays, and was standing up against Congress at the time. I am standing against BJP's reforms now. As an artist it is our responsibility to be anti-establishment. We have to show them the mirror, we have to tell them what is wrong.
To stand against CAA became such an Indian idea that a lot of people came out to protest. Likewise, people standing up for farmers: that is the most Indian thing to do. You have to stand with the people of this country. People are talking about it; it has become a popular movement, if I may say so.
What was your experience at the Singhu border like? You had put up a couple of videos from there.
As I said in the video, they are here to stay. You tried to villainize the Sikhs, but with the kind of of social work they have done, not just for our country but the world, you can't do that. Har jagah pe langar lagate hai, and they are feeding almost the whole nation.
It was comforting. It gave you strength. I have told people to just go there and it will give you hope, as an Indian, that something good will happen. Some people asked me to come on stage and say something. I was like right now we need to understand that it has become such a big movement that you don't need anybody to come on stage and say anything. Now it should be a public movement. Aaramse un logo ka hissa ban jaaon. Just to become a part of that crowd is revolution.
How do you assess your 10 years as an actor?
I don't assess, honestly. I don't think like that. I just hate that idea of having a job at 25 , a house when you are 30, marriage by 32, baccha at 34. First we had different kind of rules when we were in school. Now there are different rules that you set up for yourself. Aap khud apne aap ko baandhne mein lage hai.
I feel more liberated and open when I don't think about these things. Of course I think about what kind of role I would like to do. I also want to play author-backed characters and the protagonist of a show. Luckily I have had two such works recently — Manish in A Simple Murder and Shiva in Tandav. Jab kahaani aap ke baare mein hoti hai you get more to explore as an actor. But I don't know, 10 years down the line I might not be acting. I might take retirement, I might start doing something, Lucknow mein with my plot I might start kheti.
Did you have regrets? Anything you would have done differently?
I don't regret anything. I take my time taking a decision, and if I go wrong, which I often do, as we spoke, I don't regret because I go by my instinct. I have seen people kill themselves with regret: you reject some role and that role clicks when someone else plays it. My simple argument is that, Bhai ho sakta hai tu karta toh itna bada hit na hota. It's a combination of writer, director, actor, na. Maybe if I had done it it would have remained a general character.
What about getting typecast? The hero's friend.
Actually, if you look at it, out of the 25 films I have done I have played the hero's friend only 6 times. In fact, except Raanjhanaa, and a little bit in Raees, because it was a big film, my more famous characters are from Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Article 15, films where I don't play the hero's friend.
Some people have said that I have played Salman's friend in Tubelight, whereas I played the opposite of friend. I am hitting him all through the film. I play a bully. We are not friends at all. People have told me, you won't believe, that I was the hero's friend in Tanu Weds Manu Returns. I was like 'Paagal ho'. It's more about people's psychology, hawa chal jaata hai. Yes, I played friend in Thugs (of Hindostan) and Zero, but who saw those films?
I saw both, in the theatres.
'Himmat hai aapki.'
Like yes, Raanjhanaa I agree. It was hero's friend. But it was a proper character. Actually when I came to Bombay, my friends had warned me not to take up roles of the hero's friend. I took it as a challenge. I was like 'Ek second, hai toh character hi na? Let me do it my way'. I was back to back hero's friend in Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, Jannat 2 and Raanjhanaa. Raanjhanaa was a better character and it worked. That changed the perspective for many of my friends. A lot of them found a new lease of life in their careers after they started taking up those roles, too. One of them called me up and said that I had given him the confidence to go ahead and play the hero's friend.
Now people will start saying that I play only young political leaders, like Article 15 and Tandav, even though I have done only two such roles. I see it as a compliment, that people remember these roles so strongly, that sabse pehle Zeeshan hi aata hai. But when writers, directors and producers start thinking like that, then it becomes difficult. They will cast me and say Zeeshan 'Make something out of it na' and then I will be improvising and I'll try to make something with those dead lines. I would rather add layers to well written characters.
The OTT explosion seems like a great time for actors who don't get to play prominent roles in mainstream films. Is it an exciting time?
Yes it is, indeed. But I will tell you something—and people will give me gaali that I am a negative kind of a guy—but this is what I think: we start celebrating too early. I was part of a few round tables this year, and I saw a few others. People are saying OTT is giving opportunity to actors, and it has given me opportunity as well. But a new star system is building. That changes every 5 years anyway. And there is nothing new in that sense.
The problem is the way we approach it. OTT has immense scope. There are multiple characters and they get due respect and time on screen. But hum shows se zyada stars ki hi baat kar rahe hai, and it's not a very good sign. Till most important person in the power structure is the writer or the director, we will be in that complicated zone. This is not an actor's medium.
My story is not a rise of OTT story. I was getting good work in films, too. Of course, there is more more exposure in OTT. But I hope we don't corrupt this platform, because this platform really has that scope, because no matter what your cast is, you don't need faces in OTT. But when you hear of the big, upcoming projects, the same 4-5 names from last year are going to play the primary character in them. We are getting stuck in that star system. I think we need to think about that.