In 2017, alongside hovering near the hero’s shoulder, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub played a lead role. However, not too many people watched Sameer, in which Ayyub’s character infiltrates a suspected Islamic terrorist organisation. The movie was poorly distributed too, Ayyub pointed out.
“I knew it was a serious political film not likely to make the audience go crazy,” he recalled. “And the question of feeling bad doesn’t arise when it didn’t even get a proper release.”
Ayyub’s latest project has fared much better. In the SonyLIV web series A Simple Murder, Ayyub is both hero and anti-hero, the driver of a plot that revolves around coincidences and fate. As Manish, a loser who is not only mistaken for a contract killer but also bungles his first assignment, Ayyub displays the full range of his acting talent.
Manish is “a jumpy character whose attitude changes with every scene,” Ayyub observed. “There are shades to his character graph. It’s not something I had played before, and that got me excited.”
Saddled with character roles for years, Ayyub has mastered the ability to stand out. The National School of Drama-trained actor made his debut in No One Killed Jessica (2011). Ayyub memorably played a character modelled on Manu Sharma, who was convicted for killing model Jessica Lal in Delhi in 1999.
A series of well-regarded performances followed, starting with Aanand L Rai’s Raanjhanaa (2013), in which Ayyub played the lovesick hero’s wise-cracking friend. Ayyub returned in Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns as the protagonist’s wily admirer.
Ayyub had earned the right to be cast as the leading man’s indispensable sidekick – an honour usually bestowed on trained professionals not deemed to have the star value needed to carry a project. He infused his roles with enough detailing to earn a line or two in reviews.
It was Ayyub’s idea to carry a gamcha around his neck at all times in Raanjhanaa, as was whispering “Die already, pandit. Why are you still alive?” to the near-dead Kundan (Dhanush) in the final scene.
Although Raanjhanaa was a surprise hit, Ayyub had already grown weary of the other unexciting and poorly written roles he was being offered. Between 2015 and 2017, he went easy on the assignments. When he finally returned to the sets, it was for Raees, Rahul Dholakia’s crime drama starring Shah Rukh Khan as a bootlegger in Gujarat.
“When we met while shooting Raees, he [Khan] shook my hand,” Ayyub said. “There was a current in him that passed through me. Seeing him so invested in his work made me decide to not quit and keep working, make good choices, say no to what I don’t like.”
Raees was followed by Kabir Khan’s war drama Tubelight, in which Ayyub got to bully the hero played by Salman Khan. Sameer came and went in a jiffy. 2018 saw the release of the mega-budget duds Thugs of Hindostan and Zero, in which Ayyub was once again the number-one friend to Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan respectively.
Ayyub was cast against type in Article 15, in which he played Nishad, a charismatic Dalit leader modelled on Bhim Army co-founder Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan.
Ayyub was aptly cast as Nishad, who is a lot like the real-life activists who have inspired Ayyub since his theatre days in Delhi in the 2000s. Born in Delhi to theatre artists, 37-year-old Ayyub graduated from the National School of Drama in 2006 and worked with the Leftist theatre group Jana Natya Manch, among others.
Ayyub would love to play some modern-day revolutionaries. If anybody is considering a biopic on the Communist student leader Chandrashekhar Prasad, who was murdered allegedly on the orders of Bihar strongman Mohammad Shahabuddin in 1997, Ayyub is your man.
Anybody for a deep dive on the renowned Jana Natya Manch founder and playwright Safdar Hashmi? Ayyub will leap at the opportunity to portray Hashmi, who was fatally injured by Congress-led goons in 1989.
Ayyub would also like to play someone “whose politics I don’t understand, such as Sanjay Gandhi”. Ayyub is waiting for a feature adaptation of Dharamvir Bharti’s seminal novel Gunahon Ka Devta, about an idealistic student’s relationship with his upper-caste professor’s daughter.
Ayyub’s immersion in Leftist politics is evident from his role models and literature of choice. Unlike other actors, Ayyub has been forthright in expressing his political beliefs, especially when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government rolled out the Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens.
Like his Raanjhanaa co-star Swara Bhasker, Ayyub hasn’t hesitated to speak his mind on policies that are criticised for targeting and disenfranchising Muslims in India.
Ayyub was a highly visible presence at protests in Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata. He celebrated December 31, 2019, with the protesters at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi.
The issue is “personal” for Ayyub, he explained at a press conference in Delhi in December 2019. The conference was held to condemn police crackdowns on student protesters from Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi and Aligarh Muslim University on December 15.
“My mother is Hindu, my father Muslim,” Ayyub said at the press meet. “When somebody tries to create a division between our religions, it feels like my parents are fighting.”
The crackdown on the Constitutional right to protest has included the arrests of protestors and dissidents in Delhi and their characterisation as “anti-nationals”. Ayyub too has paid a price for his activism – the acting offers have dwindled, if not exactly vanished.
“Work will keep coming,” Ayyub reasoned. “I’m picked for a project based on my acting abilities, not politics. Come what may, I have to stay true to my conscience. Scared people won’t give me work, fine, but I can’t live staying quiet. I don’t even want to hang out with scared people, or else I will become scared.”
He quoted a line from Sarveshwar Dayal Saxena’s poem Desh Kagaz Par Bana Naksha Nahi Hota: “If one room of yours is on fire, can you sleep in the other room?”
Silence is not an option for the firebrand actor: “If I don’t speak out, I can’t sleep peacefully.”