Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub was a BSc grad who took up acting because of his college theatre society. One of Bollywood’s favourite character actors, is now taking a five-month break to return to the stage
Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub has built himself quite the reputation as a supporting actor. He plays Murari, best friend to the ‘hero’ in Raanjhanaa (2013). He’s the cunning tenant, Chintu, in love with the ‘heroine’ in Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015). He is brilliant as the blood-thirsty RAW agent in Phantom (2015). But now, after working for two years at a stretch, the actor has returned to his first love — theatre. His next play, Chakkar Chalaye Ghanchakkar, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, premieres this weekend.
Last week, after one rehearsal session, we met Ayyub (33) at his Andheri residence. We were welcomed by the actor, his 18-month-old daughter Raahi, wife Rasika Agashe, and two cats — Topi and Huraira.
The apartment is understated, much like the characters he portrays. There are no fancy chandeliers or embellished false ceilings. However, there are two paintings by the late MF Husain adorning a wall in the living room. He gives us a disclaimer saying that he doesn’t know anything about collecting art: “Khalid Mohamed [director] gifted them to me because he was happy with my performance in his upcoming film — a remake of Sai Paranjpye’s Katha,” he says.
As we settle on the sofa, he parks himself in his favourite corner of the room, cross-legged, and warns us that he makes for a terrible model.
Back to square one
It’s been a year since we have seen him on the big screen, and there’s another year to go before his upcoming films release. Between films, Ayyub, a National School of Drama (NSD) alumnus, is returning to his roots — theatre. Last month, he acted in a satirical play — Iss Kambakht Sathe Ka Kya Karein — directed by his wife. His latest, Chakkar Chalaye Ghanchakkar, is written by poet and film director Gulzar (he had earlier adapted the play into the film, Angoor, in 1982).
It was Gulzar’s association with the play that convinced Ayyub to act in it. “I have grown up watching his movies. Needless to say, I am a big fan of his brand of humour — Angoor (1982), Anand (1971), Chupke Chupke (1975). I consider myself his Ekalavya (disciple). I have learnt from all his works. The moment I learnt that the play was written by him, I knew I had to do it,” says the actor.
Ayyub gushes about his first few encounters with the celebrated writer during the reading sessions. “I would become speechless in his presence. I shared a photograph with him on Twitter. You can see my stiff, star-struck and awkward smile in the photograph. It was a fanboy moment,” he says. But we found a similar awkwardness when we asked him to pose for us. Ayyub, who was at ease throughout our conversation, looked out of place the moment the camera framed him.
Addressing the awkwardness, he explained, “I am the most uncomfortable person in front of a still camera. I cannot pose to save my life. I have never even got my portfolio done till date,” he reveals, adding that he considers the stage and the sets to be his comfort zone.
Ayyub’s sabbatical from cinema is a quest for inspiration. He says that he feels “empty” as an actor. “I feel exhausted. I’m looking for some freshness in theatre. Hopefully, I will be able to evolve in my upcoming film projects after this experience,” says the actor, who is utilising this break to watch plays at Prithvi Theatre.
Once a theatre actor, always a theatre actor — Ayyub swears by this. For the longest time, he was content with his aspirations to be a stage actor.
A BSc graduate from Delhi’s Kirori Mal College, Ayyub was an active member of the institute’s theatre society: The Players. A commendable share of Bollywood boasts of an association with The Players: actors Amitabh Bachchan and Vijay Raaz; directors Ali Abbas Zafar and Kabir Khan, and writer Himanshu Sharma.
During his stint with the society, Ayyub decided to pursue theatre academically and professionally. While he didn’t make it to Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), he got into NSD and graduated in 2007.
“In 2010, New York’s Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute was planning to open a branch in India. I was shortlisted as a faculty member. However, there were delays at their end. In the meantime, a college junior, Abhishek Banerjee, who was working as part of the casting team of No One Killed Jessica (NOKJ; 2011) asked me to audition. That is how I got my first film,” says the actor. With a foot already in the door, he went on to do bit roles in Jannat 2 (2012) and Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011), before his first noticeable role in Anand L Rai’s Raanjhanaa.
Between NOKJ and Raanjhanaa, there was a two-year wait. While most actors would tag the wait as ‘struggling days’, Ayyub feels otherwise. He feels actors “romanticise the struggling phase”.
“I was living in a one-room MHADA apartment. I had no car, but I didn’t feel the need to buy one. I would travel in local trains, buses, and if there was any party to attend, I would take an auto. But I was enjoying every bit of life. Today, I have a bigger flat, a car, but I have the same set of friends. The circle has grown, but I have not let go of the older ones,” he says.
He now gets invited to awards shows and film events. He knows he is the first choice for certain directors and writers. He gets narrations these days; not audition calls.
While these changes make him feel like he belongs in the industry, on some levels, he still prefers being an outsider. “Bollywood parties are still not my scene. I’d rather attend house parties; they are more personal,” he says, adding that after mingling at a party for 15 minutes, he parks himself in a corner to observe people.
Chakkar Chalaaye Ghanchakkar will premiere on July 23, at 7.30pm and July 24, at 4pm and 7.30pm
At: Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point
Call: 3989 5050