Interview: Preity Zinta

Preity Zinta commands nothing less than devotion from her audiences, whether they be in cinemas, or at the Oxford Union last week. A veritable superstar in the Bollywood, having starred in Dil Se, Salaam Namaste and Veer Zaara, Zinta could be labelled the most popular Bollywood actress today – contending only with other starlets Kajol, Rani Mukherjee, and Kareena Kapoor.

But although fans might expect Zinta to be bubbly, giggly and gossipy – much like her contemporaries in the Indian film industry – she does not live up to this stereotype. Her answers are pleasant and politically correct; while her accent betrays her Punjabi background, her English is flawless and her mannerisms are largely Westernised (no surprise considering that her next career move is rumoured to be breaking into Hollywood). One might feel unsettled at how composed and reserved she is – not at all like the lighthearted Ambar she plays in Salaam Namaste, or the lovable Naina of Kal Ho Na Ho – but it is refreshing to encounter an actress who is so calm, together, and self-possessed.

More than that, Zinta is interesting as a person. One of Bollywood’s highest-paid and most successful actresses, she is also a humanitarian and a highly opinionated woman. “I hate the term ‘Bollywood,’” she muses. ‘Where did that come from?!’ She pulls no punches on the Indian film industry, which is the fastest expanding global film business. “There are three types of Indian film,” Zinta rationalises. “The arty contemporary ones which very few go to see, then the filmy song-and-dance types everyone watches, and then nowadays there is a mixture of them both.” By these, she explains later, she means the lighthearted-in-tone-but-serious-in-message movies of actors like Aamir Khan.

Zinta is also well known to disapprove of the more recent Bollywood films which have become more leather-clad and sex-based than ever before. Even passionate onscreen kisses were unheard of only a decade ago. But while Preity is not a personal fan of such films, she is not unrealistic about the Bollywood industry. “There is nothing wrong with a bit of short skirt and motorbikes here and there,” she admits. But Zinta is also a fierce supporter of women’s rights. “Women in rural India are treated like second-class citizens,” she says angrily in her speech to the Union; she actively fights against female inequality in her campaigns against human trafficking and foetal infanticide. Also a BBC columnist for India Online, she has written numerous articles on the treatment of women in India. “Why should men stalk our women on roads, tease them on buses and trains, and assault and rape them, when five of our 29 states are run by politically empowered women?” she asks furiously. Her views on ‘eve-teasing’ – the Indian term for the way men harass, intimidate, and even openly grope women publicly on the streets – are uncompromising: “Just give them a chapal (sandal) to their face.”

Unlike many other Bollywood actresses, who can be stereotypically vacuous, Zinta is seriously brainy. Having completed a degree in criminal psychology, she attended Harvard Business School later on in life, an experience that she says was “very exciting.” She is also open about her opinions on the India-Pakistan conflict: “The older generation will always keep referring back to situations in the past, it is for the younger generation like you to make the future.” She does not fool herself into believing idealistic fantasies about the power of the masses, however. “We as people cannot make much of a difference at all,” she shrugs. ‘It is really the governments of India and Pakistan that must take the initiative.’

But not all of Zinta is so well-composed. Unlike most actors, she does not pretend that her path to success was filled with obstacles – she is open about how she accidentally fell into the industry. “I went along to pick up a friend after an audition for a film, and Shekhar Kapur (the highly critically acclaimed director of Elizabeth) saw me in the corner, clutching my books, and asked me “So, what are you going to do for me?” Having coerced her into doing an audition, Kapur booked her for her first job, and the rest is history. And Preity does not pretend being an actress is particularly glamorous or fun. “It’s tough, it’s difficult,” she says bluntly. “The most difficult thing is to be compared to your image, to hide any pain in public and be someone you really don’t want to be at that moment.”

In a way, it’s not hard to respect Preity Zinta – despite the pressures of her inductry and society, she refuses pretension and only asks that her audience take her at face value. Of all the Indian stars who could yet make it big in Hollywood, she’s by far the most interesting.

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3 Responses to Interview: Preity Zinta

  1. ariya says:

    smart idea

  2. Amar says:

    wow….her persona is so enigmatic…….

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