Face to Face with Preity Zinta…
She is Bollywood’s Sweetheart for everyone in the cinema halls, from front-benchers to the elite. But don’t let those dimples fool you – Preity Zinta is one of the smartest women in Bollywood who takes on tough challenges, is fearlessly outspoken and is the proud co- owner of the IPL Punjab Kings XI, along with ex-boy friend industrialist Ness Wadia.
The two are very much in the news, due to the FIR lodged by Preity Zinta, accusing Ness Wadia of molestation. The media is agog with all the details. While all that works itself out, I thought I’d share a chat I had with her some years back.
I’d interviewed Preity when Ness Wadia was already out of the picture – so he’s not mentioned in the interview at all! She spoke about her childhood years, her father’s influence on her, and being a woman in a man’s world.
In fact, I’ve managed to meet Preity a couple of times in New York but there was one time that she sat down with me and really talked openly about her growing up years and what she believes in. Here’s the real Preity Zinta in her own words.
Shooting Cans with Dad…
Preity was born in the Rohru district in Simla, Himachal Pradesh, and had her schooling in the Simla region, studying first at the Convent of Jesus and Mary boarding school and later at St. Bedes College. She grew up, the daughter of an army officer, and is sandwiched between two brothers, Deepankar and Manish. Tragedy struck the family when Preity was just 13, losing her father, Durganand Zinta, in a car accident.
And yet, one of the defining influences in Preity’s life has been her strong father, and she has many treasured memories of him. “Well, my father taught me how to shoot. I must have been 7, and we were in the farm, and he took out his gun and we used to aim at those Gagan ka dabbas – cans of Gagan ghee,” she recalls. “So we used to shoot those dabbas and the first time I fired a gun and it was the most unusual thing for a parent to teach the daughter, you know, because these are the things you teach your son; the first round that was fired, my dad said, ‘I want Preity to fire it with me, because I want her to do everything on an equal scale with any of her brothers.’ ”
” I remember my hands were shaking and my face was red and I peed in my pants and it became such a defining moment because every time I would try something different my dad would look at me and say ‘I hope you don’t pee in the pants’ and I was like, ‘No I never did, I never did! ‘ but it made me realize that just because I am a woman, it doesn’t mean I cannot do it.”
“Instead I was always given an opportunity first before my brothers in a way and I think that was the most defining moment for me because even when I went into cricket everyone said, ‘You are the only women here!’ and I said, ‘Why should boys have all the fun?’ When people look back at the 2008 sporting history in India they should feel that there was some development in the country, women were also here. Why should it always be men?”
First Woman with a IPL team
She’s done really diverse things in her life: a literature and Shakespeare buff, she went on to get a postgraduate degree in criminal psychology – of all things – and then turned fashion model, doing ad campaigns including one for Liril soap. She then went on to bag strong Bollywood roles and also became the first woman to own a cricket team in India. Add to that her own production company, PZNZ Media, which went on to produce ‘Ishkq in Paris’ which she starred in and also co-wrote. She’s got lots of awards, including Filmfare Best Actress Award and the Best Actress Silver Hugo award at the Chicago International Film Festival. She’s also been a box-office draw with some of the biggest Bollywood films such as ‘Koi Mil Gaya’, ‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’ and ‘Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna’. And yes, she’s also the UNAIDS Goodwill Ambassador.
So when she gets up in the morning whom does she see in the mirror?
“I have always believed very strongly in destiny – I went to pick up my best friend’s boyfriend at an audition and Shekher Kapoor saw me and asked me to be in the film,” she recalls. “I said I don’t know to act, I don’t know if I should do this film and he give me this big lecture on how I was going to be this big star! Of course, after that I got traumatized on film sets because I had to learn everything there and especially while doing dances and songs like Madhuri or Aishwarya – they have all have been doing classical dances since they were 4 or 5!”
Indeed, for Preity it was a complete transformation to wear makeup, to have long hair rather than her short hair. As she admits, ” I was a ‘goonda’ when I was kid. I was like a tomboy. I was into destroying everything! My mom got me a doll, I plucked its eyes out and completely cut it up … I was a boy till I was about 13!”
She does believe her acting career was destined to be but she still had to work very hard to be part of the industry. At the same time she says, she is a person who wants constant change and needs to try new things and get re-inspired. That was the impetus for the very different movies she’s done, taking on roles of strong, independent women who are not afraid to make waves. Right from her first movie, ‘Kya Kehna’ to ‘Mission Kashmir’ to ‘Dil Chahta Hai’, Preity broke the mould of the icing-on-the-cake heroine, taking on tough roles, be it a teenaged single mother, an adopted daughter or a prostitute who becomes a surrogate mother.
Heaven on Earth to Veer Zara
She felt there was a different growth for her as an actor in ‘Har Pal’, with one of the finest scripts she had worked with and director Jahnu Baruah who is a ten times national award winner. ‘Heaven on Earth’ with Deepa Mehta was another memorable film for her. “She was just amazing. I had the script and I was like Wow, I need to do something different, Dear God just show me the way to do something different – and two days later Deepa calls me. So I said that’s fantastic and three weeks before I started the film she says it’s in Punjabi and I was like ‘What?'” Preity is Rajasthani so this film was a challenge for her, playing a young abused Punjabi bride.
In cinema too Preity has always craved to push the bar and do meaty roles. She does not like to compare with others but is really competing with herself. She says, “I am also not that kind of person who always looks at what other people have and ignore what I have. I like to appreciate what I have, so right now whatever I have, I am going to make the most of it.”
Her most favorite movie by far is the huge romantic drama ‘Veer Zaara’ opposite Shah Rukh Khan, and directed by the legendary Yash Chopra. “I am so glad that that film brought the two countries, India and Pakistan, together, you know, as opposed to always showing issues between the two countries and it was one of the greatest moments of my life to work in that film.”
“‘Veer Zaara’ was the best experience of my life, ” she says in her exuberant fashion. ” I loved working with Yash uncle. I mean, that day I felt I had made it. I danced on one leg around my dining table and I was like, ‘I have signed a Yash Chopra movie, I have signed a Yash Chopra movie!'”
I asked her to share a mental snapshot of the great director. She says, savoring the memory: “He was so sweet – he used to always keep telling me on the shoot, ‘You are too thin, we are making a movie about a woman in the 70s, 80s and they were so full. You need to eat, have a kachori, have a paratha!’ And I would be like, ‘Yash Uncle but when I gain weight everything goes straight on my face and not my body.’ I was like this chubby Zaara and he just treated me like a princess!”
A Cricket Dream Team
For Preity, a long-time dream had been to create a sports school in her father’s memory since he had loved sports. Kings XI Punjab, the cricket team she finally bought was a step in that direction.
Preity lost her father at a young age but always knew his dream was to encourage sports and give it the professional credibility and structure it lacked earlier in India. She says, “You can’t get into sport when you are 15 years old, you have to be 3 or 3½ or 4 to fine-tune your hand eye coordination. So I had actually bought land in the north India and I was going to make this school and then I found out about this cricket team. So I thought that could be a great foundation and we went for it and thanks to God and every other force around!”
Indeed Preity is always very outspoken, has faced controversies and somehow always come out triumphant. “I work very hard and I can say very proudly that I have made it without any compromises,” she says. ” So when people involve me in malicious gossip it really angers me because I feel it’s unfair. I go all guns blazing because I don’t like to be pushed in a corner, especially after I have really worked so hard for it!”
While being a bubbly heroine or a pretty actress is easy enough, Preity believes it’s not easy being a woman in a man’s world competing with men because then the rules change. She explains, “So it was the constant thing for me during the IPL to be normal, to not look glamorous, and work more harder than anybody else.
“I went to every conference from morning to evening and I did everything to downplay my sexuality and glamour. I had to work doubly hard but I was fine because I want to earn everyone’s respect and anything that comes easy goes easy and I learnt a lot during the process.”
Asked if she had a message for her fans, Preity said, “Well, I would like to thank all the people who have supported me, who have given me constructive criticism, who have loved me or hated me – but not ignored me…I would like to thank all of them and most importantly I would like to thank all the Punjabis, all the Punjabis who have supported Kings XI Punjab.”
She also has a special soft spot for her women fans: ” I went on national television and said, ‘I don’t care what state you are from, but I am the only woman and I made it, really it has been difficult for me, so I want all the women to support me, and a lot of women have supported me in the IPL, and I will always look to their support.”
In a way, in tackling difficult challenges in a man’s world, Preity Zinta is still shooting Gagan cans with her dad, doing the things which seem overwhelming – and succeeding.
(Part of this interview appeared in Friday magazine )