In her twelve years in the film industry, Preity Zinta has broken the mould of what an Indian heroine should be: both on-screen and off. Yes, she may be the cute, bubbly, dimpled star, who in the early to mid-2000s ascended to the top her game with box office heavyweights Kal Ho Naa Ho, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna and Veer-Zaara. But there is also the festival film actor of Heaven On Earth and the art house The Last Lear. Preity is, however, more than the sum of her parts. An outspoken social activist promoting women’s empowerment and a tireless campaigner for human rights, it is for this, her humanitarian work, as much as her contribution to cinema, that Preity has been recognised by the University of East London with an Honorary Degree. BollySpice attended the graduation ceremony, and we got the chance to speak with the 35-year-old star about the award, education and her return to commercial Bollywood film.
What has been your reaction to being awarded an Honorary Doctorate for your work in the humanitarian field and in world cinema?
I am humbled and honoured. It is wonderful to receive this honour. In my career I have always won awards for films, but this the first time I am getting something for my cultural contribution or my humanitarian work, so I think this is always going to be extremely special to me. At first I wondered why I was getting it, and had this ‘ting’ smile on my face when I heard the news. So, I think this one is going to be the closest to my heart.
You have turned down doctorates in the past…
When I was told that I was going to get this doctorate I wanted to know why, and for what reason. I was told it was for other things besides film and I thought that this was honour, and I did not feel that I deserved it just for films. It is not that I left my education half way. I studied, and I know the effort it takes to get something like this. You have to study for a couple of years, you have to make that effort and then you can achieve it. So at that point in my life I felt that just because I am doing a film or giving a performance I did not really feel that I deserved it.
How does it feel to receive a degree specifically from the University of East London?
I went around the campus with the Vice Chancellor and found out that there are a lot of Indians studying here, and not just Indian. I believe that one third of students are white, one third are black African/Caribbean, and one third Asian. I also believe that they are working towards women’s entrepreneurship. So this is actually the first time I have come here and seen all of this, and this is fantastic, and I hope that having taken this first step, my relationship with the university continues and I am in some way part of the university in times to come.
What advice or message would you want to give to students?
I think the message, or rather, the two messages I would like to give to all the students is: Make use of your time here because this is probably the best time of your life, these are the building years of your life, and what you do here is going to determine how well you do or where you end up in life. And two, because it is so multi-cultural and diverse here, I would like to tell everyone that people blend better than governments, so we are all global citizens, we are all citizens of this planet. I don’t think we should think about our respective religions or cultures, we should bring the best of all the world together and live happily.
How have you used your own education (a Masters in Criminal Psychology) in the field of cinema?
I think I learnt the art of breaking down characters and doing a background to the character: their early childhood, their present scenario and what their aspirations were — and I could break that down and use it my scenes. Everybody used to ask me what I was doing because on my script i would actually have two pages of a character sketch, and based on that I would sometimes work on my body language. Or if I knew I was lying in a scene, the way that you move your hands and touch your nose and get a little fidgety. Little things like that. But more than anything else I think it helped me in keeping my character realistic. Having said that, I don’t want to take all the credit, I have worked with some amazing directors and co-stars who always help me in doing what I am doing.
Was it difficult to continue your education once you entered Bollywood?
When I had to take my final papers for Criminal Psychology I was shooting for a movie called Soldier and I left the set standing for ten days in Rajasthan. I remember telling my producer I will only do the movie if you let me go back to take my exams for Criminal Psychology. Later when I was filming in Rajasthan I said that I have my exams, and they said: ‘You have become an actress’. But I said that I had to do my exams. I know the hard work that goes into studying and I really appreciate the fact that UEL have honoured me.
Apart from cameos in Main Aurr Mrs Khanna and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi we haven’t seen you on the big screen for a while. When are you back with a new project?
2011. I will be back with a lot of movies. I was planning to start a film a month or two ago, but certain things went upside down in my life so things have been put back. But it is only movies, movies and movies for me. I feel really humbled because I decided to go on Twitter, and all of my fans on Twitter say one thing consistently every single day, and that is: ‘When are you coming back in movies?’ I didn’t even think people missed me that much. So I am really excited and I am coming back with some really fun things.
Are you coming back with a commercial Yash Chopra type film or something art-house like The Last Lear?
No, just commercial.
We were also in the audience to see Preity receive her degree. In her acceptance speech she said, “When I was a little girl, my father always told me that an Indian woman when she is young is dependent on her parents, when she is married she is dependent on her husband, and when she is old, she is dependent on her son – and I don’t want you to be like that. I want you to have independence, I want you to be the master of your destiny and the only way you can do that is if you are educated and can stand and your own two feet. I was really lucky to have parents like this who gave me opportunities of a great education, and let me do what I wanted, so today when I am standing on my own two feet I decided that I was going to work towards women’s empowerment in India.”