When Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub debuted with a small role in No One Killed Jessica, even his brief appearance left a mark, thanks to a brilliant, nuanced performance.
Over 20 films and numerous memorable roles later, Zeeshan Ayyub has firmly established himself in the league of the industry's 'dependable scene stealers'- the actors who do complete justice to any role, no matter the screen time offered or the co-actors they are sharing screen space with.
In conversation with ScoopWhoop, he talks about the pros and cons of web series, shares his reasons for speaking up even when a majority of the industry chooses silence and takes a firm stand on the infamous Delhi vs. Mumbai food battle.
Despite coming from a family of theatre artists, acting wasn't a 'childhood dream'. In fact, it wasn't until Ayyub joined the dramatics society at his college, Kirori Mal College in Delhi, that he became inclined towards a profession in acting.
Though I've come from a family of theatre practitioners - my father, mother, most of my family, were actors. But I was never interested in acting and my family was also like, zyada acting mein padne ki zarurat nahi hai. But when I reached Kirori Mal college, uski dramatics society hai, vaha se mera interest theatre mein aaya aur uske baad acting mein interest aa gaya.
After college, he became a part of NSD, before debuting as the antagonist with No One Killed Jessica, the film that earned him his first Filmfare nomination for Best Male Debut.
Ohh...3rd year NSD...play CANDIDA by BERNARD SHAW direction RAJ BISARIA https://t.co/1kC0Ib1C0n— Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub (@Mdzeeshanayyub) March 11, 2018
Though he lost the award to Ranveer Singh (who won for Band Baaja Baraat), it was the start of a series of brief roles that left a lasting impression on the audience. Simply put, he became a crowd and critics' favourite, but as a 'supporting actor'.
Ek bahut unfortunate cheez hai humari industry ke saath, we prefer to compartmentalize people. Mujhe aisi koi shikayat nahi hai (with the industry). Haan mere graph mein thodi alag cheez hai, halan ki har aadmi ka graph alag hota hai, ki mera bahut slow and steady graph raha hai. Very few downs in my graph - it is up but bahut kam hain jo bahut bade jumps the. Jessica toh ho hi jaata hai because first film is always important. Usmein role chota tha but critically, it got a good review. Uske baad Mere Brother Ki Dulhan mein bhi side ka, chota sa character tha, but got good reviews, ki comic timing achi hai. Then Jannat 2 again, ek scene tha jiski vajah se kari kyunki mujhe pata tha performance-oriented scene hai. That scene worked, usse kaafi fayda hua.
But undoubtedly, in a filmography of small but memorable roles, the one character that stands apart is Murari from Raanjhana, closely followed by Chintu aka 'Kandha' from Tanu Weds Manu Returns.
Raanjhana obviously, woh ek bada jump aaya tha. Bombay ki bhaasha mein yeh hota hai, audition wali jo ek stage hoti hai, jo overabused word hai humare yahan, "struggle" jisko bola jata hai, woh struggle khatam ho gaya tha Raanjhana se. Uske baad audition ki lines mein nahi khada hona padta tha, directly log script sunane lage. Aaye kuch interesting roles mere paas. Tanu Weds Manu Returns ne aur ek bada jump diya. Agar main Raanjhana se pehchaan mein aa gaya tha sabki, toh though mujhe yeh term 'star' bahut pasand aata nahi hai, par Tanu Manu Returns ne mujhe vaha pe thoda aake rakh dia tha.
But just as he acknowledges the way industry brought him fame, attention, and getting 'mobbed' for being a star, he also points out the way the industry fails the actors - not just by typecasting, but also by letting down an actor after signing him on.
Main yeh zarur bolunga humara industry mein yeh ek mere saath bahut bada issue raha - jo promise kiya gaya hai, woh deliver nahi hota humare yahan. Bahut kam hota hai. Jo aapko promise kiya jaaye while you're signing a project or a film, woh baad mein na suddenly change hota rehta hai. Set pe aapko naya draft aata hai, aap bolte ho, "arey yeh wale dialogues toh mere hua karte the, yeh toh hero ko de diye; yeh toh scene ka status change ho gaya". Dheere dheere jo aapko shuruaat mein becha gaya hota hai poster character, woh karte-karate, kabhi hero ke dost mein land kar jaata hai, kabhi ek chota sa, supporting role idhar-udhar time pass karta hua. Yeh definitely bahut hua. Toh wahi karte-karate posters se sadak pe le aaye, seedhe taur pe bolun.
His experience also supports his explanation that his desire to be the protagonist is not motivated by the need to be a hero but rather, by the need to do 'author-backed' roles.
Obviously main bhi chahta tha film lead karna. Jiska ek bada reason hota hai ki aap author-backed roles karna chahte ho. I don't think it's about, ki main hero banunga. Protagonist word mujhe zyada pasand aata hai, rather than hero. Agar protagonist hota hai toh everyone is thinking about your story and the writer has given you meat to chew on. Yeh obviously aap crave karte ho aur nahi milta toh aap obviously pareshan hote ho. Ek independent film maine kari thi Sameer, usko release nahi mila, political bhi thi, issues mein bhi phasi censor ke. Ab toh aadat ho gai hai, ki humesha hi kat ta hai.
Though for Ayyub, this sense of unfairness is not just skin-deep. Or rather, screen-deep. One of the few stars to constantly raise his voice against burning issues in the country, like CAA, 'Love Jihad', etc., Ayyub also visited the farmers' protest site at Singhu border in Delhi to lend his support to the farmers.
ठीक एक साल बाद फिर से ताक़त का नंगा नाच शुरू!!! पहले बच्चों को University में घुस के मारा था, इस बार उठा के ले गए!!!— Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub (@Mdzeeshanayyub) December 15, 2020
बेहूदा हरकत!!! https://t.co/aQSrWqTsGx
Ask him about what drives him to speak up, especially when most of the industry chooses to be a mute spectator, and he is quick to remark on the importance of Bollywood, which in his view, is far more hyped up than it should be.
Hum na Bollywood ko zyada hi importance dete hain. Sab log milke, unko gaali bakne wale bhi aur unko pasand karne wale bhi, sabne milke bahut hi zyada important bana diya hai Bollywood ko. Main sabse pehle citizen hu. Main filmo mein kaam kar raha, nahi kar raha hu, isse koi farak nahi padta ki mujhe zindagi kaise bitani hai, mujhe kin cheezon ke baare mein feel hota hai. Farmers ka protest hai, CAA hai, aisa thodi hai ki uss se sirf farmers affect honge ya sirf ek community ke log affect honge - isse har aadmi ki life pe affect padega. Main ghar pe baitha hun aur love jihad ke liye kisi ko arrest kiya jaaye Uttar Pradesh mein - aapko shayad aisa lage ki mujhe koi farak nahi pad raha but aisa hoga nahi. Woh chaos theory wali baat, ki vaha se butterfly apne flaps chalaegi toh har ek pe aaega. Aapko itna aware hona zaruri hai, ki politics mein jo hota hai, woh aapko directly affect karta hi hai. Toh iss liye bolte hain hum.
And considering the way politics and entertainment seem to be getting intertwined in India, with excessive censorship and unnecessary offenses becoming the norm rather than the exception, it is but natural to enquire if he believes his political leanings could affect his professional career.
Mera toh point yeh hai ki main padhai mein theek-thak aadmi tha, aur regular naukri mein bhi main na boss ki ji-hazuri nahi kar sakta tha. Woh na mere bas ka nahi hai. Agar mujhe kuch aata hai dimag mein, toh main bol deta hun. Aur jahan tak kaam ki baat hai... Just because I'm speaking my mind and taking a stand for something, for the oppressed, aur iss vajah se mujhe koi kaam nahi dena chahta, toh I think that is a better thing to know. Ki in logon ke saath toh kaam phir karna hi nahi chahiye kabhi. Itne weak logon ke saath kyun kaam karna hai? Main yeh nahi bolunga ki farak nahi padta...promotion se leke, aapke naam ko chuppane ke koshish, ki kam logon ko pata chale, yeh sab hai. Khair kya karenge?
As is starkly evident by his response, Ayyub is a concerned citizen before a career-oriented actor. And that fact is reflected in the way he has lived his life, including his marriage to writer-director Rasika Agashe.
Agashe and Ayyub were two of the most vocal supporters of the now pulled down Tanishq ad on inter-faith marriage because their own marriage is a reflection of how love trumps arbitrary barriers.
Kuch nahi, bas pyaar karne ke liye dharam nahi dekha tha. NSD mein hi padhte the dono saath mein, senior thi woh meri kyunki uska pehle attempt mein admission ho gaya tha, mera nahi hua tha. Aur vaha pe dosti hui aur dosti chalte chalte pyaar mein tabdeel ho gai. Then we realized ki shaadi kar lete hain, milne julne mein aasani hogi. Main point yeh tha ki saath mein reh sakte hain, varna dikkat hoti rahegi kyunki mere gharwale toh Delhi mein hi hain. Aur woh Delhi mein ruki hui thi, toh kaise milne jaya karun. Toh humne muh uthake decide kar liye shadi karte hain, koi bada event bhi nahi kia. Phir sab bolne lage shaadi kaise karoge, register kaise karvaoge. Hindu pratha se karein Aarya Samaj mandir mein jaake ya nikaah karein? Humne kaha yeh bina baat ki baat hai, isme humein toh koi interest hai nahi. Kyunki jab pyaar hote time nahi hua tha ki uska naam Rasika Agashe hai aur usko farak nahi pada tha ki mera naam Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub hai, toh abhi aisa kya ho jaega shaadi ke time pe ki farak padne lagega? Toh ek do logon se baat kari, pata chala Special Marriage act ke baare mein. Humne register kardia, ek mahine baad ki date aa gai aur 12 September 2007 ko humne karli shaadi. Taaza taaza nikla tha main NSD se. Phir saath mein rehne lag gaye aur aasan ho gaya sab kuch.
Clearly, Ayyub has lived his life on his terms, with a rare brand of honesty. This explains why, from his filmography, the movies that he believes were most aligned to his way of thinking were Shahid and Article 15.
Though, as he is quick to admit, each character, from his debut role to his first popular role to his first role as a protagonist, has a special place in his heart, because each character stays with him, in some way or the other.
While he worked hard on each character, a fact corroborated by his stellar performances, he also counts himself 'lucky' to have never been stuck with a 'difficult' co-actor.
Main toh badtameez aadmi hun, bol deta hun, but honestly aisa koi nahi hai jiske saath kaam karne mein maza nahi aaya. Haan har actor alag tarah se operate karta hai toh aapko samajhna padta hai ki iska process alag hai, mera process alag hai. Par mujhe koi bhi actor difficult nahi mila, ki woh kaam kharaab karne ki koshish kar raha hai aur main usse affect bhi ho raha hun. Luckily koi pareshan karne wale co-actor nahi mile hain.
And his luck extends to not just escaping 'pareshan karne wale actors', but to also finding co-actors, like Swara, Rajkummar Rao, Kumud Mishra, Kritika Kamra, who he today counts as friends.
In fact, after Shahid, Rajkummar and Zeeshan got together for his first release of the year, Amazon Prime Video's original film, Chhalaang, which was followed by his second, and more well-received release for the year, Sony Liv's original web series, A Simple Murder.
A gripping black-comedy thriller, A Simple Murder once again made the audience sit up and take note of Ayyub's talent. But for Zeeshan, Indian web series still have a long way to go when it comes to changing the face of Indian content, though they have eliminated 'middlemen' when it comes to defining popularity.
It (content) has changed, definitely, but let's not jump the gun and say ki haan sab ho gaya hai. I think iske apne pros aur cons hain aur bahut saare hain. Shuruaat mein maine mana bhi kari kuch series, kyunki shuru mein hum log sirf frustration nikaal rahe the. Censorship ke na hone ka negatively fayda utha rahe the. Bina baat ke sex, gaaliyaan, goli-baari daalo. Mujhe inme se kisi bhi cheez se koi dikkat nahi hai. Magar agar uska sense nahi ban raha, then why are you showing something that makes people uncomfortable? If there is a reason, then go ahead. But haan OTT ek level pe jo bahut fayde ki cheez hai, woh yeh hai ki kuch log jo judge banke beech mein baithe hote the, ki yeh chalta hai aur yeh nahi chalta, unn logon ki power chali gai hai. Ab janta directly bata deti hai ki chala ya nahi. Aapka star system bhi usse break karta hai. Agar aapne acha content banaya hai toh thoda sa waqt lag jaega par... haan usme woh bhi consideration rakhni padegi ki films theatre mein rakhne ki cost deni padti hai. Woh word of mouth se chalke, kitna pick karegi, ek limit aati hai uski. OTT mein 10 din baad bhi hawa bani, logon ne kaha bahut acha hai, toh woh tab bhi rocket hai.
However, Ayyub also has an astute observation about the way content on Indian web series is developing, with a focus on quantity rather than quality.
Ab log quantity pe zyada dhyan dene lage hain ki bhai, bas chhaapo aur daalo. Woh toh humara ek talent hai, ki hum na kisi bhi achi cheez mein kami bahut jaldi dhund lete hain aur usko exploit karke, jab tak woh kharaab na ho jaaye, usko ragad dete hain. Woh toh humari aadat hai. Jab tak woh cheez obsolete na ho jaaye, audience ke dimag mein saturate na ho jaaye, tab tak usko ragadte raho. I hope woh na ho ispe (OTT) aur hum ache content ki taraf badhein.
Of course, like most of the nation, the web series he last binge-watched was Hansal Mehta's Scam 1992, a show he feels was one of the real wins of OTT because it was honest storytelling at its best.
I was hooked. Bahut badhiya, ekdum correct cheez banai hai. OTT ki tareef na yeh hai. Ki woh darre nahi aur bilkul apne pace pe ek cheez banai hai, kisi ki copy bhi nahi lag rahi woh. Audiene bhag na jaaye, yeh darr nahi lag raha makers ko. Because I am seeing it ki kai log na aise edit kar rahe hain--yeh film mein bhi problem hoti thi aur yeh series mein bhi dekha hai pattern--woh na dialogue to diaouge jump kar rahe hain. Dialogue mein toh acting ki bahut zyada zarurat hoti nahi, asli toh scene banta hai uske pauses se, reactions se. Aap rakhte hi nahi woh.
Impressed as he was with the show, he is not one to covet the roles being presented on-screen. In simple terms, while a particular performance may leave him impressed, there is no character he wishes he'd have played instead.
Jo character mere saamne present hota hai woh actor, director ki interpretation hai. Sabne milke jo create kiya hai, vaise mere saamne aata hai. Toh agar mujhe woh bahut pasand aa raha hai, yani ki woh issi combination mein correctly work karta hai. Iske andar ek bhi galat combination hota, you never know main bhi ho sakta tha. Ho sakta hai shayad uss character mein jaise hi uss actor ko hatake Zeeshan ko daalte, woh work hi nahi karta character. Issi vajah se shayad main kisi bhi ek actor ka aisa fan nahi hun. Bahut saare actors hain jinki mujhe bahut saari performances pasand hain. Main aadmi ka fan nahi hota hun, performances ka hota hun.
Perhaps that explains his understanding and attitude towards award shows, which he, having learned from his experiences, rarely if ever attends now.
Yeh baat main bilkul confidently, clearly bol sakta hun ki it's (awards) not given on the basis of talent. Aur abhi ka nahi hai pattern. Ek baar mauj mein hum dost baithke dekh rahe the ki kab kisko milte the. Ya kab (award shows) kharab hue. Tab samajh aaya ki har decade mein 2 ya 3 saal hote hain jab hum bolte hain haan yaar yeh deserving, correct diya tha. At the end of the day, it's just an event. It is very clearly about, ki kinke event mein aane se fayda hoga.
Clearly, he is not one to shy away from expressing his views. This is why, he is one of the rare actors to openly take a stand when it comes to choosing a 'food winner' in the never-ending Delhi vs. Mumbai battle.
Dekhiye jo yeh khaane ki Delhi-Mumbai ki ladai hai, iska toh koi arth hi nahi hai. Simple taur pe, kahin bhi likha ja sakta hai, ki Delhi ka khaana any given day is much much much better than Bombay food. Mujhe toh kisi bhi aur city ka khaana utna acha nahi lagta. Even Lucknow, Bhopal, Amritsar se bhi better khana Delhi mein milta hai. Kyunki Delhi ka advantage kya hai, khane ke taur pe dekho na, Delhi mein sab milta hai.
While Delhi wins, 'hands-down', in the food and warmth department, Zeeshan does crown Mumbai the winner when it comes to women's safety and lack of road rage. Overall though, barring food--which was the most consistent part of his most recent shoot in Delhi--he believes each city has its own pros and cons.
Straightforward, honest, self-aware of the society he is a part of, and without a doubt focused on building a better world, Ayyub is unlike most other actors from the industry.
Perhaps it's that unique honesty that shines across in his roles, ensuring that his characters remain lodged in our memories long after the credits roll. And it's the same advice he offers for the actors trying to become a part of the industry.
Main humesha yehi bolta hun, just be honest with yourself and your work. Yeh badi simple baat lagti hai but actually badi mushkil hoti hai. NSD agar jaao, toh NSD seekhne ki jagah hai. Vaha logon ko impress karne mat lag jao. And it's the same when we come to Bombay. Sabse badi galti jo mere hisaab se naye actors karte hain, woh na ek badi opportunity ke intezaar mein, jo present mein project hota hai, usko itna importance nahi dete. Bada kaam milega tab acha kaam karenge iske intezaar mein mat raho. Jo haath mein hai, ussi mein acha kaam karo.
Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub will next be seen in Amazon Prime Video's political drama Tandav.