In the series titled First of Many, the who’s who of Bollywood will revisit their first ever acting project. They will reveal how they landed the role and what was their experience on the first day of shoot.
Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub’s journey from Delhi’s National School of Drama to the biggest films of Bollywood is noteworthy. The actor, who made his film debut with 2011 film No One Killed Jessica (NOKJ), went on to do other projects like Raanjhanaa, Tanu Weds Manu 2, Raees, Zero, Thugs of Hindostan and Tubelight.
Recalling his debut role of Manu Sharma in NOKJ, Zeeshan shared that he auditioned the part very differently from what the makers had conceived. While they thought it would be a rich brat with a great physique, he gave it his own twist making him a vulnerable guy who might belong to a powerful family, but felt caught in the clutches of the judiciary after committing a crime.
So how did Zeeshan Ayyub land his first debut role, Manu Sharma in No One Killed Jessica?
Here’s what the actor shared:
1. What do you remember of No One Killed Jessica, and how did the project come to you?
I had no plans of doing a film. This is from December 2009. I was about to leave for Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York. They were opening a branch in Hyderabad and I had been selected as a faculty member there. So, I was going to the US for its training. And my ticket was from Mumbai. My wife is a Marathi and Hyderabad is closer to Mumbai than Delhi. I had to stay in Hyderabad for a year so this arrangement would have kept us close too. So based on this calculation, we reached Mumbai a month in advance.
I had my US flight on January 4 or 5, 2010. This guy, Abhishek Banerjee, my junior from college whom I knew since 2003, was assisting Gautam Kishanchandani in casting. So, Abhishek called and said they will be coming to Delhi for a week. There is a film by Raj Kumar Gupta who made Aamir. I had seen Aamir recently, so I was interested. Abhishek said Raj Kumar is now making a film on the Jessica Lal murder case and they are looking for somebody for the role of Manu Sharma. I thought why will they consider a newcomer over somebody known. But he said Raj Kumar was open to new people. The film starred Rani Mukerji and Vidya Balan. Even the girl playing Jessica was new. I told him there is no chance as I am going to travel to the US soon. When he got to know I was in Mumbai, he pestered me to come for an audition at least.
I was sitting in his office chatting with Gautam Kishanchandani. And amid the general chat, he said try out a scene. It will be like your audition too. I said okay let’s give it a shot. First, I enacted the scene where Manu Sharma dances in the bar and then shoots Jessica. He really liked it. He said I never conceived this scene this way. I had done it very differently. Then he said let’s now try the interrogation scene. He liked the way I did that too. Things however ended there and I forgot about it.
In the meantime, my US travel got a little pushed. One day Abhishek called me saying that Gautam was pushing him to take me. But UTV somehow had its doubts, in a way, they wanted someone specific, who looked like a model, with a cliched image. Then Gautam called and asked me to shave and experiment with the look and clothes. I wore a friend’s shimmery red shirt, gelled my hair, put on chains that too girls’ gold chains and rings. Then we repeated the party scene. Since my trip was getting postponed and I had a scarcity of money, I was getting eager about this project.
I remember when Abhishek called to inform me about the casting. He was too happy. He asked me if I have dates because I have been selected. I told him not to joke and he said the production house will soon call me. He was so excited that he couldn’t hold back and hence called me. I couldn’t believe the news. Then they called me to Delhi. So, the initial two months were very dreamy.
The film had gone into production 2-3 days after I got finalised. I met Raj Kumar Gupta in Taj Man Singh Hotel. They took me on the set in Gurgaon. There, they had created the NDTV office and were shooting with Rani. Raj Kumar introduced me to her. She greeted me well. But, then again, I was in an awe. I couldn’t believe what was happening with me. Though I didn’t have many scenes in the film, but things just worked out. It was all destiny.
2. What do you remember of your first day on set?
First day, we filmed a shot. If you remember, it was when Rani picks up the case and views my interrogation tape. And it had a big montage with voice over in the background, where Rani says, “Let’s hear the truth from the horse’s mouth, of what happened.” So that had my one shot sitting with my father where the camera is tracking in and I walk out after a point in anger. So that was my first shot.
3. Were you nervous? How many retakes did you take?
Firstly, seeing the huge film set made me nervous. Even newspapers had carried that somebody from Delhi theatre will be playing Manu Sharma. So, I found this entire projection very humbling.
I was sitting on the set and the crew was mounting camera on the dolly. Now you know dolly in itself is such a huge set-up. And then it had a zoom lens. The lighting was very detailed. Whatever I had heard in films – roll sound, roll camera, action… I heard it all for the first time in real. I felt a fear within. The camera had to track and come real close to me and then I had to walk out. I got so nervous. I kept sitting there stiffly, and did some bad acting to cover up my tension. Raj Kumar understood and took me away. He put his arm around me and said, “What you were giving, nobody had done that before. Because you were better than others, hence we took you. So, whatever you are doing is the best for us. Don’t get tensed. Your eyes have the character in them, so don’t get bothered about things around you. The way you were natural in your audition and what you gave then, we want exactly that.”
I got the confidence. I went there and did it in one take. Then, I went on to play Manu Sharma how I had thought because that is what the director wanted.
I never prepared for it. The director did not want me to meet any real-life convicts or anything. He wanted me to play it raw. So, I kept the vulnerability factor intact that here is one guy, whose father is a big man and he ends up committing a crime. Then he fears punishment. He doesn’t know English properly yet speaks that to impress people.
4. And who were your co-stars? How was the rapport with them when you got to meet or work with them again later?
Shirish Sharma played my father. Though I did not have many shots with him. He used to live in the US. He came here few times, including once during the film’s release. He stayed in Lokhandwala and I remember he used to call me to come over for a chit-chat. But, later we couldn’t follow-up much.
I had more scenes with Rajesh Sharma. I had a proper interrogation scene with him, with whom I still share a great rapport.
5. If given a chance to go back to your debut role, is there anything you’d like to change or do better?
Definitely. In fact, I feel that for all my projects. This one had a lot of scope for improvement. There were several other ways how that character could have been done. But finally, it is the director’s vision. If they are getting satisfied, that is the most you can do for a film.
6. One film or role that inspired you to become an actor?
When I was young, I loved Amitabh Bachchan’s Sharaabi. I saw that several times and used to enact its scenes at home. I enacted Toofan, Jaadugar. I was his fan, but I was never serious about acting. Since my parents belonged to the theatre background, they used to show us films by Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Sanjeev Kumar, Balraj Sahni and Dilip Kumar on Doordarshan. So, at the back of my mind, I was getting a clarity that this is what acting is about, and not the commercial stuff. All of this got accumulated. But my major passion came after doing theatre.