Slap, slap, slap. Those sound effects are for the hair color and exfoliating mask she’s slapped on. And through it all she squints, peers at me, and says, “What all we have to do for our profession. All this tires me sometimes. But what to do? You have to do it.”
No sweat, that’s the sporting Preity Zinta for you guys. As hours melt into one another, her hair is tinged with soft auburn highlights and her face is all peaches and cream. A chic haircut later, Preity is ready to face the world.
A world filled with rumors about her impending marriage to Ness Wadia. Remind her about the stories circulating in the media that she isn’t signing movies because she’s getting married, and a troubled frown creases her milky forehead. “For the zillionth time, I’m not getting married,” she says sharply.
“I can’t understand why these rumors refuse to leave me. Till date I’ve always been honest about my personal life with the media. But if these rumors don’t stop, believe me, I’ll just clam up and turn aloof and elusive. Sometimes I feel it doesn’t pay to be honest. For the last time, I’m not getting married. When I do get married, I’ll announce it to the world.”
She is also indignant about the talk that she isn’t signing movies left, right, and center. She wonders aloud, “How come no one asked me this question four years ago when I started doing one film at a time with Dil Chahta Hai? Why is everyone waking up to it now? Frankly, I don’t want to do 10 movies at a time. For the sake of continuity, it’s important that you finish a film in one go. Another reason why I haven’t signed too many films is that two of my films, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna and Jaaneman, were delayed, so I have to finish them. Then I start Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, which is a three-month outdoor. Then I have two more films lined up but I don’t want to talk about them till I actually sign them.”
Talk had it that she’d walked out of Shaad Ali’s Jhoom Barabar Jhoom. Rolling her eyes in exasperation, she clarifies, “I haven’t walked out of it, I haven’t flown out of it, and I haven’t been dragged out of it. I’m very much part of it. It’s one of the most amazing scripts I’ve heard. So there’s no chance of me walking out of it. After a long time I’ve heard a script that has me all wired up. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Her hair stylist checks her hair for color but Preity is still frothing about the rumors floating around. And has no clue why she’s become everyone’s favorite whipping girl. “I don’t know why people are showing so much interest in me leaving films and getting married. I’m sick of the marriage question. Sometimes I feel I’m more famous for this marriage question than for any work I’ve ever done in my entire career. And that’s demeaning to me as an actor. It should stop. The fun and humor is lost now. It’s gone a bit too far.”
Ask her about Ness Wadia’s reaction to the whole thing and she says sharply, “There are no reactions. And I don’t want to talk about my personal life. But petty gossip isn’t a major point of conversation with us. And please, can we change the topic now?”
Wish granted. We move on to her next release Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna. The topic obviously is close to her heart. She cheers up. The buzz is that she’s got the better role of the two heroines. That she walks away with all the sympathy. But Preity refuses to get drawn into any controversy. She says she’s never seen a film in terms of whether her role is better than her co-star’s. Says she, “KANK is different from a typical Karan Johar film. It’s a film that will trigger a lot of debate. I don’t know whether my role is better than Rani Mukerji’s. We’re playing different characters and together we make KANK. The film would be incomplete without either of us. I know I’ll rock. But this film doesn’t belong to any one person. The only person who can take credit for the entire film is Karan.”
By now she’s perfected the art of playing the girl-next-door in her movies. But KANK will be the acid test. Her role as Riya Saran is nothing like the saccharine characters she’s played before. “We’ve worked really hard on the movie, so hard that at one point I thought I’d forgotten to act. I’ve never done 16 retakes in my career. The first day of the second schedule, Karan kept telling me, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that. Don’t shake your head.’ He wanted me to play a character that was so different to anything I had seen, done, or been part of earlier. He didn’t want the cute, bubbly Preity. He wanted intensity, he wanted anger. He told me, ‘I don’t want the girl-next-door. I want a woman.’
“I said okay, I understand and went to the set. And he was like, ‘No, cut, don’t move your head. No. Cut, don’t make it cute. No. Cut.’ After 16 takes I looked at him and was about to start crying. That was the first time I felt insecure.
“I asked him whether I’d forgotten to act. And he said, no you haven’t forgotten to act but when you see the film, I don’t want you to recognize yourself. I don’t want Preity. I just want your face. I don’t want your spirit, I don’t want your warmth. I want Riya Saran. And I think when I saw the three scenes in the movie, I didn’t see Preity in it. It’s the first time you won’t see so many expressions on my face.”
She denies being insecure while working with a female co-star in general and Rani Mukerji in particular. Says she, “A feeling of insecurity arises only if you doubt your own abilities. And I never doubt myself. I’m not a selfish actor. If a scene belongs to another actor, I’m not going to make it mine. Because I’ll only end up looking foolish. Similarly, when the scene is written for me, then the other actor must show grace and back off. The scene must be shot like it’s written. If they don’t then they prove that they are insecure.”
Elaborating her point further she says, “I’ve been with actors who are so magnanimous and generous. When you work with them you know why they are stars. Like Jaya aunty. When I worked with her in Kal Ho Naa Ho, I realized how large-hearted an actor could be. We were doing a scene together and she told me, ‘Beta, this is your scene. Look into the camera and do it.’ Shah Rukh is another actor who’ll never steal a scene from you. If it’s his scene, he’ll do it anyway. He’s very magnanimous as an actor. Similarly, Rani and I share very good chemistry on screen. We keep each other on our toes. We are good for each other.”
And is she happy about the amazing things happening to Rani Mukerji? “Of course I’m happy for her,” she says emphatically. “I’m over eight years in the business and she’s been here over ten years. And now after working hard, she’s getting what she richly deserves. I got success much earlier than her, working less than her, and not even wanting it that much. She has toiled day and night. The girl has really worked hard and she deserves it. Why not? There’s enough space for everyone.”
Quiz her about their alleged rivalry and she grimaces, “This too has now gone overboard. But I don’t mind it because it will probably help the publicity of our film. So let people think what they want. It’s stupid. One journalist came on our sets and started this idiotic rumor. Then he apologized, saying he was just being funny. But this rumor has turned into something else. If people want to believe that we don’t like each other it’s fine with me.”
Surveying her face in the mirror, she adds, “I was studying criminal psychology and never thought I would be an actor. Things are going great for me. It couldn’t have gone better. Why should I be insecure of anyone? I don’t need to run after people and become a groupie. I don’t need to go up to directors and ask them to give me a job or praise them or go to their homes and become family with them. I’m fortunate to work with directors who don’t think you are a better actor if you stick around them.”
Her sense of security comes from her upbringing, she says. “It comes from the fact that my mother and father spent quality time with me. Besides providing me with security, they gave, what you call, heart to their child. As a kid too, I wasn’t insecure. I was the first one who wanted to go to a boarding school and see the world. At 11, I traveled alone on a plane.”
Besides, movies haven’t ever been the be-all-and-end-all of her life, she claims. She has transcended the world of the movies and expanded her personal interests. “Let’s say that if I were to be run over by a car right now and I had 20 minutes to live, I really wouldn’t think about my next scene or the next dress fitting I have to do. I’d think about the other things I had to do in life. I’d feel unfulfilled not because I haven’t signed this movie but because I haven’t explored life. Acting is a part of my life. It’s a part that I’m very proud of. It’s a part that has given me so much. But at the end of the day it’s a job. And this job is very temporary. Because I’m human. I’m going to age with time. There’s always someone younger and hungry waiting behind you. I’ve realized that when I’m on my way up, I must respect the people around me. I should respect what I’m doing. I realize I’m successful not because I’m making an effort but because others are also making an effort with me. And when I stop I don’t want to live in this bubble that I was a star. It’s a conscious decision to understand this and to have a life.”
“Also,” she continues in the same breath, “My mom didn’t drill into my head that I have to become a heroine. She didn’t proclaim that her daughter was going to be the biggest star. When I first wore my white dress the neighbors didn’t say she’ll definitely be a film star. Maybe if I was born under those circumstances, if I was born to an industry parent with everyone gushing that I’d be a star one day then I’d have been different. But it was not to be.”
Coming back to her movies, I want to know whether losing Rang De Basanti bothers her. “Let’s just say it wasn’t in my destiny. Rakeysh Mehra is an immensely talented director. I almost worked with him on another project. It clashed with something else I was doing. And I’m not the sort who’ll shoot for five days and then leave my producers high and dry. The script was fantastic. But I don’t think it was meant for me because I did everything to try to do it but I couldn’t. I’m happy for everyone connected to it.”
So where does she go from here? Does she think she’s at the crossroads of her career? No, comes the reply. “When I feel I’m at the crossroads, I’ll tell you myself. You know, I flipped a coin and decided to join the movies. At that point I didn’t think about becoming a star. All I thought was, I hope I don’t have to wear that white sari and dance in the rain. I don’t think I’ve reached a stage in my life where I feel okay, this is phase two. The day I feel phase two has arrived, phase one is not going to hold me. Because I’m larger than what I do.”
You said it, Preity.