After every five years, we find an actor getting slotted as the hero’s best friend or the conscience keeper of the protagonist. These days Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub carries this tag. From Raanjhana to Zero via Raees , Zeeshan has played this part with gusto. It is not that this product of National School of Drama hasn’t tried to go solo but films like Sameer could not go beyond the critics’ praise. He has tried to portray different shades right from his first film when he played a young man high on political patronage in No One Killed Jessica to the upcoming Manikarnika where he will be seen as a remorseless antagonist. Critics love him so much that he was spared even in Thugs of Hindostan .
Intensity and conviction
“People like me because I connect with people, not because I have a boy-next-door kind of face. Performance has its own metaphysical space which is nowhere related to how you look and how you are portrayed in a film. We have ample examples where looks and branding failed because of lacklustre performance,” maintains the 35-years-old actor. His intense eyes make him a camera-friendly actor, but Zeeshan feels, “Audience believes in truth and conviction of the actor and performance is something where you can bring in the metaphysical sixth energy which makes a performer reach the hearts of the people. You cannot define it or limit it to attributes like eyes and voice quality.”
With Zero receiving mixed reviews, Zeeshan says the tag ‘hero's friend’ falls way short of describing the efforts he puts into portraying each character. “We do compartmentalisation and make things easier for us by using these tags. It is no longer a taboo to play the friend of the lead. Earlier, such characters were not treated well script-wise as most of the time the screenplay revolved around the main actor and the other actor didn’t have much substance to play with. I refrain from repeating my characters as you could see that Murari of Raanjhana and Sadiq of Raees are two different characters. Out of the 19 films I have featured in, I played a friend in six and each one of them was different.”
Zeeshan has inherited the love for acting from his parents who were theatre artists. “Certainly, acting was part of my childhood. I used to dramatise my school stories in my mohalla in Jamia Nagar. I joined Kirorimal College and did theatre for its dramatic society. I had to be clear about my choices because I come from a middle-class family. That is why I applied for NSD to tell my parents that I am serious about my ambition,” he recalls.
It turned out to be a reality check. “I was a college favourite but at NSD I was just one aspiring actor among many. I considered myself a failure when I saw many of my classmates were better in movement, voice modulation and carpentry. I was almost in depression when the first year ended. But then I chose to start from zero and took every experience as an opportunity to learn. Theatre education taught me mental calmness, the fact that there is no competition in the field of arts and success is more about taking risks, using your own willpower for skills and technique,” says Zeeshan.
He talks about his initial years in Mumbai and his search for like-minded people which eventually made him realise his potential. But he refuses to call it a struggle. “I became an actor in 2005 because of theatre, not in 2011 when I got my first film. People struggle for getting roles in films for getting recognition. You do not seek roles in films in order to become an actor as becoming an actor is a different struggle. That struggle is internal, with yourself,” avers Zeeshan.
On sharing screen space with big names, Zeeshan says, “It is helpful when you become a part of big films because they cater to a large mass. I am happy that a large chunk has accepted me and that is why I am getting more roles. As far as working with big names is concerned, I don't think who is in front of me when I am acting. At that time, I am only a character. I may feel something when I am with them after the shoot, and that is different. But it is not necessary to work with big names to remain in business.” He points out the changing norms of the industry where good actors are getting recognition. “Most of the hit films have ensemble caste and most of the posters feature important characters of the film.”
He maintains as cinema is a director's medium, it is up to the director how he is going to deliver the particular scene. “It is a very technical medium and a lot is not in the hands of the actors.” He goes on to share his experiences with directors with different approaches to the form. “In Shahid , we just used to read the script on the day of the shoot and Hansal (Mehta) would let us decide our actions within the scene. Aanand (L. Rai) gives a lot of room for improvisation and I feel a different kind of energy comes when an actor has been given a chance to contribute. On the other hand, Kabir Khan is very thorough with technique and he shoots with the final cut in mind. He knows his shots perfectly. He does not want to shoot extra. So everyone has a different approach,” he explains.
At a time when statements of artists are being scrutinised, Zeeshan is aware of the consequences of an actor’s opinion. For him, it is not about being politically correct all the time. “I try to bring in my political and social understanding into my artwork as I believe in what Piyush Mishra says: ‘Jis kavi ki kalpana mein zindagi ho prem geet, Us kavi ko aaj tum nakaar do.’ I am an actor, but I am a citizen too. I have rights and I have duties. As an artist, it is important to say what you feel. Living in a politically neutral zone is safe but if I had to lead a safe life, I would have become an engineer, did a 9 to 5 job and led a routine life.”
Married to theatre artist Rasika Agashe, Zeeshan says he dutifully keeps a work-life balance. “I have no ambition to reach the heights of stardom. I am more interested in being happy and contributing to society than becoming a celebrity with privileges. Rasika and I live as friends. We discuss what is happening in society and how we can contribute to making it a better place built on trust.”