Interview Hindi

Don't forget RGV's contribution to Hindi cinema: Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub


Speaking to Cinestaan.com, Ayyub opened up on the benefits of a theatrical education, working with the Khans, and why Ram Gopal Varma should be thanked for the Hindi cinema of today.

Shriram Iyengar

To say that Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub is a familiar face would be an understatement. Ayyub has become one of the more recognized and admired actors on the Hindi film scene today after performances in films like Raanjhanaa (2013), Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015), he hit big time with films like Raees (2017) and Tubelight (2017). On the release of his latest film, Sameer, the actor sat down for a conversation with Cinestaan.com

With a strong political thought and voice, Ayyub is another National School of Drama (NSD) graduate, from where the likes of Manoj Bajpayee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui came out. His acting carries with it an ease of expression and naturalness that has become a signature of good actors.

However, Ayyub did not set out to be an actor. "I wanted to be an engineer," he laughs, "It was not a problematic thing for me." An average student, his sincerity would have ensured a good career as an engineer, but college also introduced him to theatre. Soon, he pursued a completely different vocation.

Sameer, directed by Dakxin Chhara, is right up Ayyub's alley.

Any healthy society needs resistance: Sameer director Dakxin Chhara

The film follows the story of an innocent engineer sent in as a mole by the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) to find the perpetrator of a serial blast. Politically charged, and filled with a talented cast, Sameer is the right platform for Ayyub to play the lead. On the eve of the film's release, the actor explained his motive for choosing the film, the role a theatrical education played on developing his personality, and why he considers Ramgopal Varma to be the person to thank for the change in Hindi cinema today.

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Following are excerpts from the interview:

Sameer is a film that plays with many dimensions at the same time. Your character is built on appearances, and unclear as to his motive. How did you find it?

Well, as far as the character goes, I can only tell you he is an innocent man caught in trying circumstances. He is an engineering student, who is caught in the aftermath of a bomb blast. He is sent in as a mole to get information from the gang, since the perpetrator of the blast is a friend of his.

The film revolves around this character, and how his life is affected by the event. He has to give up his education, his life, and move to live a fake life between completely different people. How a common man gets affected by the games and calculations played by those in power. There is also the suspense when he takes a side, and as to why he takes that side.

There is a perception, generalized clichéd ideas of people which the film plays up.

How important is it for cinema to speak about ideology and politics?

You cannot separate art from ideology or politics. In fact, you just mentioned Gorky, so I assume you know the theory of dominant ideology in Marxism...The fact is that it is not about what philosophy you follow, but that you should have some philosophy to stick to. That is the dominant ideology. The dominant ideology prevalent today, there is no point sticking to it.

If anybody thinks that they are being apolitical, it is a myth. Nobody can be apolitical. Being apolitical is also a political statement.

Art comes from within a person. The experiences around you, your history define it. In our country, we have often kept it separate from the world around, and reduced it to being defined by a skill set. If I am a singer, I should know my raags, my sur... That is the extent of my art. Music is something more than that.

A better example is cricket. There are only so many shots you can play in cricket, and most young students of the game learn the same shots. So why is it that there is only one Sachin Tendulkar, or Kohli, or Dravid. It is because they have to rise above the skill set. That is when you start creating something. To do this, you need to have knowledge of more than your skills.

If you have to say something by art, then anything I say will be interpreted politically. Then it is better to speak from my heart. If I don't do that, then I am not creative. No matter what your ideology is, you need to express it. For me, it is cinema.

There is another dimension that emerges from this, that you see an issue all around us. You see people of one school of thought branding the others as 'wrong'. They are bombarded with comments, taunts, or trolls. That is why the film becomes important.

How influential has theatre been in shaping this political thought? It is one of the oldest platforms for political art across the world. How did it shape you as an actor, and as a person?

Everything is influenced by theatre, not just acting. I always believe that before, and even till my 12th standard, I was a completely different person. I wanted to be an engineer. There were no problems in my life. I was average in my studies.

But I know now, that like any typical child, as it happens in India where you are conventionalized to be a 'normal human', I was being moulded as well. Though my family was not very keen on it, the environment around me was moulding me. The patriarchal system, the ideas about women, which is developed as you grow up were also happening to me. I guess it is one of the reasons why we develop a sense of class/caste difference quite early in life, as well as a strong gender bias.

Certainly, theatre changed my life. It changed me like anything. Now, I am almost fighting my past. The person I was before, I am trying to fight that very ideology. I know now that comes from lack of education. When we say theatre educates, it is not just about getting a degree. That is easy. Learning a few formulas, writing them down and getting a degree is simple.

To educate yourself, theatre is the solution. This same principle applies to films. If you look at some of the best directors working in Indian cinema, they come from a theatre background. You can spot the difference. Suddenly, there is someone who is talking about real people, and how each incident affects them.

Theatre is magical. No other art is able to affect you as much since theatre is an amalgamation of all art forms. You need to know painting, a sense of music, a little bit of dance. You have to know every aspect of art, and that becomes theatre.

You mentioned 'fighting against your past', and that can be seen in some of your characters. Whether it is Chintu in Tanu Weds Manu or Narayan in Tubelight, the various biases do show through. Is there a methodology to picking these characters?

I think with every character the method changes. I think the more important thing is the thought of the film. The manner in which the film is treated. If I want to tell you about Sameer, we have tried to portray a layered performance. You can never be sure of what he is doing. That is what the film takes on.

When I am playing that, I need to keep my conviction to a minimal. For instance, Murari (Ayyub's character in Raanjhanaa) who comes from a small town, but is the only sane, rational person in the entire story. He is the one who acts rationally, and does the right things for the right reasons. He doesn't support Kundan, or his ideas, but remains a friend throughout. I think that is why the character clicked.

Zeeshan Ayyub (L) with Dhanush (R) in Raanjhanaa (2013)

Chintu (Tanu Weds Manu Returns) is one of those instances from the past which we talked about. He is kind of a joker. In the end, you have to laugh at him. You don't feel bad about him. That is where your acting perception changes. It is where your art comes.

If I were to think about him, even he has a heart, broken in love, it would become something else. But in the end, you have to laugh at his silliness. That is how it should be communicated because in the end it is the director's vision you are replicating.

Same with Tubelight. The brief we got was to reflect the trolling present in the dominant ideology today. I had to play the troll. How does he live out in his real life? His reactions. The first thing to notice is the high decibel of their voice, and how they make an argument. We also tried to find out where they go wrong. You are sometimes irritated by their reactions, and sometimes can't help but laugh at them.

This gives you an objectivity towards your own life, and society. And how you can apply this objectivity towards your character.

Well, you have already worked with Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. Any plans on working with the third Khan, Aamir in the near future?

Well, we are looking at a shoot plan. So let's see.

Has working with these big stars changed anything for you?
Actually, it has changed something. They (Khans) are the last line in our industry when it comes to fame, popularity, etc. We are now in an age of 3-day films. Silver Jubilees and Golden Jubilees no longer happen. Even a good film does not last longer than 2 weeks. Baahubali 2 runs for 4 weeks or a Dangal runs for 5 weeks and it breaks all the records.

Ayyub was last seen playing Narayan in the Salman Khan starrer Tubelight (2017)

I have seen, to be very honest, that this is the maximum you can achieve in India. Working with them has changed my perspective on life, as well as, how I should conduct myself in this field. I have noticed that they are not settled in their work. The sense of adventure, why we come into this field, still carries on within them. There is an excitement about work, and the nature of the work, and pushing yourself.

I guess I have sobered down a bit since meeting them. I was beginning to take myself a little seriously before. I believe that is the most dangerous thing for any artist. As Stanislavski says, "You should love the art in yourself, and not yourself in art." That clarity is returning to me. It allows me to explore more.

The world of Hindi cinema is certainly changing with new actors, filmmakers exploring stories and forms of cinema. What does that mean for an actor like yourself, or someone interested in good cinema?

In 60s-70s, there was some amazing form of cinema prevalent in the (Hindi film) industry. We don't know what happened, but we lost it somehow. Now, it is starting to return. In the end, without content, nothing works. We can no longer sell only dreams.

People can buy dreams over the internet. I guess we have to thank the internet for it. Although, there's quite a few things the internet has damaged, there are some things to be thankful for. People are no longer living their dreams on the big screen. They can get that on their smartphone and laptops.

However, if you talk about something that you went through, an experience that brings a personal element to something universal...if your film works as a catalyst, moving something within the audience, then it is effective and good cinema. It will work. This is great news, particularly for people like me.

I always tell people that do not forget Ram Gopal Varma's contribution in getting us here. He was the man standing alone in a strange time and making films that made the films of today possible. If it were not for him, an actor like me would not be answering questions right now. I found a niche in the industry because he brought out actors like Manoj Bajpayee, Saurabh Shukla, and directors like Anurag Kashyap. He changed cinema completely.

What about the choice of the political statement in Sameer? How and why did you opt for that?

The film focusses not just on one politcial event, but on every one that has hit this country. The thing that attracted me to the film was its focus on the common man. When we read history, we often read the stories of the great men. What was the man on the street doing at that time? No one talks about him. Akbar did this, he fought with Rana Pratap. What about the men in the kingdom? You called Akbar 'Great'? But were his people happy?

This film speaks about the effect of these attacks and the fight of the common man. The story of a terrorist and an ATS officer has been covered in many other films. We wanted to talk about the others who are affected by the actions of these people.

We (Dakxin and I) spoke many times over this, and we wanted to feature the sufferings of these ignored people. How does their life function after each occurrence? When Dakxin brought these ideas in, I was very excited.

Somehow we avoid the questions of the common man today. We, as filmmakers, want to rise above him and his problems. There is a fear of being associated with him, or even talking about the problems that face him.