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“Ek biradri hoti hai na laundo ki. Hum tab aate hai jab kanya bohut udaas hoti hai, saare rishto se pareshan hoti hain. Hum kandha hain (I always make an entry when the girl is sad and is in need of support. I am the shoulder to lean on),” says Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, with a laugh. The actor is talking about the characters he has played so far in Bollywood — best friend of the hero; the ever-present lackey lending a friendly ear or shoulder to crestfallen heroines; the one who mouths witty one-liners and helps the guy and girl to get together.
Hindi cinema has always had a soft corner for the sidekick. The Nineties had Shakti Kapoor, Johhny Lever and Laxmikant Berde who filled this role; the 2000s had Circuit in the Munna Bhai series, and, in recent times, it has been Ayyub in the role of the friend-in-chief.
Call it a twist of fate, but Ayyub’s first cinematic outing as a friend can be blamed — on a friend. “Ali Zaffar Abbas, a senior from Kirori Mal College (KMC), was directing Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011). He called me to play the friend. Everyone said, ‘Ek baar kar liya toh hamesha hi friend ban ke reh jaoge (If you do it once, you’ll always play the friend)’. My brother said I could give it a try since I wasn’t serious about acting anyway,” says Ayyub, who plays Narayan, the village hothead and bully in last week’s release, Tubelight.
Ayyub has slowly and steadily risen through the ranks, since his debut as the infamous Manu Sharma in No One Killed Jessica (2009). This year, he has already shared screen space with Shah Rukh Khan in Raees and is now busy shooting in Malta for Thugs of Hindoostan, which stars Aamir Khan and Amitabh Bachchan. But, it was his work in Jannat 2 (2012) and Raanjhanaa (2013) that won him recognition.
Perhaps, theatre, which he initially resisted in his teenage years, became his kandha when he least expected it. “My parents were theatrepersons, very active on the Delhi scene and had worked with the likes of Sheela Bhatia and Amal Allana. They gave it up because of familial obligations. I used to think those who can’t do anything else act. At the same time, I was obsessed with the film Sharaabi (1984). I was about four years old, and I could recite the dialogues verbatim,” says the 34-year-old actor, who now runs a theatre group, Being Association, with his wife Rasika in Mumbai.
Once he started doing theatre in college, though, it transformed his world. “I was a typical Okhla lad — chauvinistic, patriarchal and judgmental. Theatre helped me look at the larger perspective,” he says. After college, Ayyub landed up in Mumbai to act. But reality struck home early when he watched Aks (2001). “I saw Manoj Bajpayee in the film and was stunned. His performance was so surreal and stylistic. I knew I wasn’t prepared, that I was just overconfident. I came back to Delhi,” says Ayyub. He gave up acting and started to pursue the other thing he excelled at — mathematics, preparing for an MSc. He even got through IIT Delhi. But a conversation with friend and lyricist Raj Shekhar helped him change his decision. “He told me that while I was good at it, the field of mathematics would not benefit from my presence. But if I were to take up acting, it would surely be better for it,” says Ayyub, who then went on to study at the National School of Drama in 2006.
Once he returned to Bollywood and after his turn as Manu Sharma, Ayyub’s depiction of earthy, small-town characters helped him ease into the industry. “After Jannat 2, I had to buy a car — it was second-hand — because I wasn’t able to travel in the Mumbai locals anymore,” he says. But does Ayyub feel that the ‘supporting role’ category in Bollywood can sustain actors with range? “Nawaz bhai has floated a new formula. Take an A-lister star and then have a very strong performer with him, whose acting will carry the film forward. Look at Vikrant Massey, Rajkummar Rao, and now Jim Sarbh. There’s room for everyone,” says Ayyub. Is he happy being friend zoned? Of course not. But mera funda hai, behte chalo (I believe in going with the flow). I am not very ambitious as an individual. However, it isn’t some rule set in stone that a friend needs to be played just one way. Look at it this way — I’m trying to get the industry to warm up to good acting,” he says, with a chuckle.