Have you met my girlfriend yet?” asks Zayed Khan, looking conspiratorial, after welcoming the Marie Claire crew into his plush Juhu bungalow.
The 31-year-old actor, who is a husband and a father, recently changed tracks in his film career by turning producer with Love Breakups Zindagi, out this month. His very pregnant wife Mallaika hovers in the background, too shy to be a part of this interview. (Just before this magazine went to press, we received the happy news that the baby had arrived.)
Zayed’s three dogs run circles around him, trying to catch his attention, succeeding every five minutes as he throws a ball for them to fetch or frowns at them for barking too much.
“She was right outside, when you walked in,” he adds mischievously. Just as I rearrange my facial features into polite inquisitiveness, he breaks the suspense, “Yes, my Ducati.”
He got it two months ago in the face of much resistance, he admits. “I bought it first and then told my family about it. Malli, of course, worries that I’ll injure
myself. But I only take it out for a spin in full Batman gear. Also, I can’t really ride it fast in this city (Mumbai), unless I’m taking it out to Marine Drive at night. Then it can go up to 180 or 190 kmph.” Dizzying stuff.
Recently, Zayed made up for the lack of speed in his biking life by learning the French athletic art, parkour, for a role in another one of his upcoming films, Tezz, with Ajay Devgan and Anil Kapoor. Previously, for the 2009 action thriller, Blue, Zayed had gone swimming with sharks. In fact, his filmography is strung so tight with titles such as Fight Club – Members Only, Speed, Cash and Mission Istaanbul that it becomes imperative we ask him why he only veers towards action thrillers. Love Breakups Zindagi seems to be the first to break that streak of adrenaline-sloshed roles, since perhaps Main Hoon Na seven years ago, in which his pet line for any troublesome situation was “Avoid.”
Bike fetish aside, Zayed comes across as an honest-to-goodness nice guy with the perfectly happy life. His love story with childhood sweetheart Mallaika has all the makings of a Mills & Boon novel, minus the minor intrigue, if you don’t count the four-year break they took from their relationship when they went off to study in different countries. Following the romance novel format, that ended with Mallaika launching herself into Zayed’s arms as soon as he returned from London to surprise her on her prom night. So, where does the thrill chase figure in all this, we ask.
“I guess I’m drawn to action and thrillers. My favourite actors are Sanjay Dutt, Amitabh Bachchan, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino. They’re all intense actors. I love films like The Matrix and Agneepath, and I’ll continue to like that genre. But as an actor, maybe I’ve built walls around my core personality.
“I’ll admit that people see me as a more relaxed, funny guy. Maybe I should try something that’s quirky and fun and closer to my real personality. At least, that’s the attempt with this next film.”
In Love Breakups Zindagi, Zayed plays a Delhi guy going through ‘an emotional mid-life crisis’ wanting to stir things up in his life. Another film, yet to be released, Sharafat Gayi Tel Lene, is also set in Delhi and has a predominantly fresh cast and crew.
Of his decision to work with debut filmmakers and experiment with lighter films, Zayed says, “When you work with new people, they see something in you that you might not see yourself. Everyone wants to work with big banners, and when you do that you get moulded and typecast. Big banners tend to have their own agenda and they want you to fit into that agenda. I felt I’d done enough of that. I wanted to do something that made me feel I was moving ahead. But then, you can’t change your image dramatically – a role has to fit you right.”
By that logic, Zayed would even do well playing the role of a chef, as that is a hat he wears confidently in real life. He is unabashed when questioned about his kitchen prowess, reeling out a list of things he makes well, from pizza to biryani to a signature dish he calls Sholay Chicken, so called as “it has never failed to impress”. Mallaika, on the other hand, he describes as a terrible cook, who can only about manage to dish out a decent cake, cup of tea or a boiled egg.
I ask if this particular skill is a result of growing up in a family with four women, three of them older sisters. “Yes, but for a different reason from what you might imagine. With so many women in the house, the topics of discussion would mostly revolve either around jewellery or clothes. My dad would get irritated by this and, as a way to escape it, would sneak away into the kitchen with me in tow. He is a fantastic cook, making these really high-calorie Indian dishes that were impossible to resist. I got a natural flair for cooking from watching him.”
Now Zayed has taken up the job of passing on this skill to his three-year-old son Zidaan. The toddler, named after his father’s favourite footballer, Zinedine Zidane, also demonstrates his free kicks, some of which land the ball in their pool. Fishing it out of the water, Zayed jokes about why he enjoys being a dad. “Zidaan is my eternal chela, my fan. It’s amazing to have this little guy so in awe of me, following me around, hanging on to my every word, sitting on my stomach while I’m benching. He asked me the other day why I wore makeup because only girls were supposed to. So I had to tell him that if you’re an actor and you wear makeup, it’s allowed, but if you aren’t one, then it could get weird.”
Fifteen years into their relationship, five of those spent as man and wife, I ask if they changed through the course of this time together. “We’re really opposites; if I like chalk, she likes cheese. I like action films, she likes romantic ones. If we go to a Michelin-starred restaurant and order a fancy dinner, she’ll ask for Tabasco. But I’ve grown to love these little quirks of hers.” So, no rough patches? “Well, what’s life without rough patches? Arguments are a part of a relationship, loving each other,” he says. On the right track, then.