October 16, 2000

    Preity Zinta is taking off her clothes for me.
    One garment at a time.
    At times I have to tug a little, unzip a bit, open a button or two, but mostly she does it all herself.
    It takes quite a while.

    - Ashok Banker

    Partly because it's a working day for her, shooting a song-and-dance sequence with Govinda on a disco set (it is a Govinda film, what do you expect?).
    When she's not twirling to Saroj Khan's choreography on the sets, she's having quickie business conferences in her make-up room with the likes of Boney Kapoor, Ramesh Taurani and God-knows-who-else.
    But over the afternoon, evening and night, she keeps stripping for me. One layer at a time, like Salome of the seven veils. And like Salome, the last veil to go is the one concealing her face, not her... anatomy.
    Even then, you wonder if this is it. Is this really Preity Zinta in the nude, have I got it all here, the complete picture, or is there still something she's left under wraps, but so discreetly that you can't even tell it is still covered?

    Because this is the thing about Zinta. She's pretty, yes. But more important, she's Preity.
    A woman with more character than a dozen Bollywood film scripts. In a profession where most heroines would be jiggling around movie sets in skimpy tinsel-glittery outfits, shimmying their boobs and tubes for all to see, this woman refuses to take her clothes off.
    For any price or producer.
    Forget indecent proposals, she doesn't even brook the decent kind. Even a hint of suggestion that she should be less than fully dressed for a film scene or a publicity shoot -- and it is the guy making the suggestion who is likely to lose his shirt.

    Preity Zinta is sexier with her clothes on than most heroines are with everything off. Because this is the thing about Zinta. She's pretty, yes. But more important, she's Preity.
    Which is why her strip is so amazing. All right, so I'll come clean already. She's not really stripping physically.
    I'm talking about the psychological strip here. She is unpeeling herself layer by layer, revealing the real Preity beneath the pretty face.
    But here's the rub. (No pun intended). The more she reveals, the sexier she gets.
    In fact, when she's done, you realise that most women aren't as sexy with their clothes off, as Preity Zinta is with her inner self -- naked and visible. That strip metaphor is more than a metaphor, it's apt description.

    Preity Zinta is sexier with her clothes on than most heroines are with everything off.
    When I say sexy, I don't mean the usual oomphy looks. Sure, she's preity, I mean pretty -- well designed and constructed.
    But while most heroines can take all their clothes off and then have nothing more to show, Preity Zinta's real qualities go deeper than that creamy, Punj-fair skin. The sexiness is in her attitude, her approach to life, her career and everything, her no-bullshit-take-me-as-I-am-or-fuck-off stance that's made her an instant legend in filmdom.
    It is the woman beneath the skin, beneath the clothes.
    For instance, here's a taste of what she thinks of the other kind of stripping. Or the so-called 'glamour' look that most heroines sport in their movies, those 'item' songs, and on movie mag covers.

    "That is propaganda, not film. I'll die if I have to do that. I can't just be a bimbo, look so cool and be so dumb."

    So how does she deal with producers who tell her she's got to wear an itsy bitsy spangles-and-stars outfit for a song sequence? Or don a handkerchief-sized skirt and prance on some Swiss street?
    "I have a pretty frank outlook. So everybody knows exactly what to expect from me. I've been in the industry for just a short while now. But already, I think people know what I am. I know because the people who sign me or offer me roles now, say, 'You know, you're the only actor who says No in ten minutes. All the other stars say, Oh, how nice, let me think about it. And then one month later, they're still Thinking about it. You just say No outright. And we really appreciate that'."
    That's a rare and gutsy attitude to maintain in a biz where even top heroines often feel pressured to resort to casting couch tactics to smooth their way to the big deals. That's in real life. So what's a little skin show onscreen to them?
    But Preity Zinta doesn't play that game.
    As she clarifies, eyes glinting with a steel that is probably inherited from her military-career father: "Nobody dares make me an indecent proposal."

    Speaking of father, that is where a lot of her personal discipline and tough attitude comes from: "I grew up with only brothers. And I was treated no different from them.
    "In fact, my father would say, 'An Indian girl is usually dependent on three men in her life -- first her father, then her husband and, finally, her son. He said, I don't want you to depend on any man."
    So she did everything her brothers did, broke arms and skinned knees. Did karate, continuing lessons even after her brothers dropped out. And grew into a tomboy who didn't know man-fear the way most girls do.

    In fact, her greatest high comes from "competing with men in a man's world. There's no greater high than that." That's what gives her a kick even now, dealing with men as equals and beating them at their own game.
    Even talking to her, you see none of the phony girlishness that most heroines put on with a man, that fake feminity they wear like a second skin. It's just all-business here. She puts her keds on the table and shoots straight from the hip. No holds barred.
    "Women always react emotionally, act so sweet all the time. Men get straight to the point. They only talk business. It's so different dealing with women and men, because in the same situation, a woman will be talking about all kinds of girl things while a guy is like, let's just talk work, okay?"

    She loves that. In fact, as she reveals when one of those veils come off a little later, her secret ambition is to be a businesswoman. "But big-time. Like the head of a major corporation making big decisions, big deals."

    That's not just wishful thinking. Before she got into films - accidentally, as we'll learn in a moment - she had just finished her grad degree in English and Criminal Psychology (to understand people better). And was en route to UCLA to do her MBA.
    Even now, she's clear that she won't be around in films forever.
    "You won't see me in ten years, playing Hrithik Roshan's mother," she says, the famous dimple appearing as she grins broadly. "I'll be somewhere else, doing what I want. That's the advantage being a movie star gives you. The money and the fame make a lot of avenues open to you. And beauty with brains is the most lethal combination, you can do anything if you've got it."

    And she has it, no argument.

    So what happened to the college grad on the way to her MBA? How did this level-headed armyman's tomboy daughter become a Hindi film heroine?
    "It just happened. I was actually just having a ball after I came to Bombay. Partying and stuff. I did a couple of ads because it seemed like a fun thing to do."
    Most memorably, the Liril ad, where she became the first Liril girl since Karen Lunel to really revive the brand franchise. She was hot in that commercial. Word is that even the 10-degree waterfall began to steam and sizzle!
    Somewhere in that let's-do-that-it-sounds-like-fun phase, she did a screen test for a film named Kya Kehna.
    That test happened to be viewed by a certain Mr Shekhar Kapur. Who snatched her up for a forthcoming film named Tara Rum Pum.

    "He called me to his office. He had made up his mind, he had the contract ready for me to sign. I was so intimidated by him. I had grown up watching him act, model, and he was this big director. I mean, Shekhar Kapur!
    "But I played it cool. I said I don't know if I want to do films.
    "He said, 'Are you crazy? Just sign here!' So I said, 'Okay, here's what I'll do.'
    "I took out a coin from my pocket. I think it was a one-rupee coin. I said, 'I'll flip this coin. If it comes up heads, I'll sign your contract and do your film. If it's tails, I say bye-bye'."
    She flipped. It was heads. And she signed.
    As she realises now, looking back at that pivotal moment in Shekhar Kapur's office: "A one-rupee coin made my life!"

    Things happened the way they usually do in filmi fantasies. After being picked by the hottest director in town, she was signed for a slew of other projects even before the coin stopped spinning.
    As things turned out, Tara Rum Pum never got made. Kapur moved Westward-ho to international projects like Bandit Queen and Elizabeth.
    She remembers her friends ribbing her about joining Hindi films: "Everyone said 'Oh, now you'll get wet in a white sari and dance in the rain!' I was like, 'No way! I'm never going to do that'."
    And she meant it. The films she signed were commercial, yes, "but not out-and-out commercial".
    Except one which she won't name -- for obvious reasons -- but which any filmgoer will see sticks out like a sore spot on her resume when it is released.
    It was actually supposed to be a very different film but changed producers, directors, script, and even the costar midway, turning into a typical song-and-dance tamasha, the kind that she swears she'll never do again.

    On the other hand, a film like Mission Kashmir turns her on majorly.
    "I think Vidhu Vinod Chopra has made a great film. Hrithik Roshan is amazing. That guy has got depths of talent that still haven't been discovered. I mean, just see him in this film. He's incredible."
    Does that mean she'd rather be doing serious 'alternate' cinema with the likes of Chopra and Nihalani?
    "I don't mind, but I can't do only serious films. Just like I can't do totally commercial films. I have to maintain a balance or I'll go crazy."

    That's an odd statement. Especially at a time when it's fashionable for heroines to do arty films if only to prove they can act as well as dance.
    She has already clarified her aversion to the trashier kind of commercial films -- "There's nothing there for a heroine to do, except look good and be a bimbo, and I can't do that". But what's her objection to serious 'great' movies?
    "It's too taxing on the brain. All that crying. It's like cancer."

    What she would like is to maintain a balance. Given a choice, she'd prefer "my roles to be more funny. Not cheesy funny, but real people-comedies."

    And then there is always that great fantasy, to do a "great love story." Not what usually passes for a love story in Hindi films but something larger than life. "Epic, classy."

    Meanwhile, she's undergoing a change of image which is more to do with changing perceptions than any change in her.
    "When I first came to Bombay, I didn't even think of joining films. I used to go to all the parties and I used to bump into film journalists. They would see me partying all the time, having a ball. It was my age for partying. So they called me a wild child. But now they've stopped calling me that because it doesn't fit anymore."

    Then, with Kya Kehna, that 'wild child' branding changed to "a girl who knows everything, is in control of herself."
    And soon, after Mission Kashmir and then the schlocky dance comedy, they're probably going to end up confused again.

    But then, that's quintessential Preity.
    A bunch of contadictions that are somehow held together by her own tough-jawed straightforwardness.
    And when all the veils are finally off, you realise that what lies beneath is a woman who knows what she wants, isn't afraid to get it, and doesn't take any BS, no matter what the consequences.

    In a world of wide-eyed bimbos, that's true sexiness.

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