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Mamma Mia, Preity Zinta Goodenough!

May/14/2022 / by ABHIJIT MASIH
Preity Zinta Goodenough

It was a hot summer afternoon and the Zinta family was on a hike up the tallest peak near Aurangabad in India. Barely in her teens, the young daughter considered abandoning the ascent due to the difficult terrain. She dropped her bottle of water to indicate she was giving up. Her father, a military man, commanded her to pick up the bottle, fix her gear, walk up and finish the climb. Once she made it on top he told her “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You should learn to fight and stand firm for your reasons.”

Seeking new summits to conquer comes naturally to Preity Zinta.

It is, in fact, in her Rajput blood, something which was instilled by her father, with whom she spent very little time in her life. She held on to every lesson he taught her for much longer; she held on to it much tighter because of the memories of him. An Indian army officer, her tragically died when she was just 14.

Preity Zinta has been scaling some lofty heights ever since and sets her target higher once she has triumphed over one. 

While studying English and criminal psychology in Shimla – a hill station in northern India, Zinta had no idea that she would end up in Mumbai and be one of the most successful actors of her time. She spoke to SEEMA from her home in LA, while she had some respite from changing diapers and sanitizing feeding bottles, of her 4 month old twins. 

She relives the circumstances which took her from the hill station to Mumbai, where her professional journey to stardom began. 

She recalls, “I didn’t even know I could ever be an actor. I lost my dad in an accident, and at some point, my choice was either to get married, or just run out and try to make my own life. In our families, you get married really early. I was studying and then I got to go to Bombay [now Mumbai] for a trip with a girlfriend of mine and when there I was like, Oh! my God, I’m gonna live here.”

Preity Zinta Goodenough

Though she had a conservative family, her dad was very progressive and had always told her not to be dependent on a father or a husband like most Indian women. She remembers what her father expected of her.

“He always told me, I don’t want you to be like that. I want you to be financially independent. That always stuck with me,” Zinta says.

It seems most of the major decisions of her life have in some way been influenced by her Dad. To be financially independent, so as not to lean on a man, was a lesson he taught her even though his family was very conservative. To get away from the conformist environment, she reached Bombay with no set plan for the future.

“Are your legs waxed”, was the first call for a job that Zinta received while in Bombay. A friend’s brother who used to work for an ad agency needed a “leg model” urgently. Bizarre as it may sound, after extracting a promise that he would not show her face, only her legs, Zinta went for her first ad shoot in Bombay. It must have been a drastic change from a protected life at home, with two brothers, one of whom joined the military as well, to navigate the big bad city that never sleeps. Zinta shares how she got through those initial days in Bombay:

“I think the best part when you’re really young, you think you can achieve everything in the world. I have a very positive outlook, that I can do it but it was very, very tough. Because we were used to being very cocooned and living a very different lifestyle and always had family around us, we never did anything on our own. So from there to come to Mumbai was amazing and scary, because I had to do everything on my own.” 

From the commercial showing just her legs for a clothing brand (for which she was paid Rs. 5,000) she moved up to bagging modeling gigs for major companies like Hindustan Lever. Another friend wrote the commercial for Perk, a popular chocolate bar, with her in mind, and asked her to audition for it. The current commercial for the same bar, has the latest Bollywood heartthrob, Alia Bhatt. Thus began the journey of Preity Zinta into the world of entertainment. 

But the commercial which gave her the most exposure and perhaps helped her put a wedge into the doorway to Hindi films was for the popular soap brand, Liril.

The journey from 30-second TV commercials to 70 mm feature films was quick. Soon after she was signed up for her first film, “Kya Kehna.” The cast of the film included Saif Ali Khan and Chandrachur Singh, and had a story highlighting a bold subject for the time: teenage pregnancy. Though the film was the first for Zinta, the stars aligned for her to have a bigger and a better launch pad. Her debut film as an adult was with a top director and the Badshah of Bollywood himself. Mani Ratnam’s “Dil Se,” released in 1998, had Shah Rukh Khan in the lead. The film was a perfect vehicle to for the new star. 

What followed was a film career that not just had mega hits at the box office, but in which the actor garnered rave reviews for her effortless portrayal of characters that others would not have dared to take on. Zinta played a surrogate mother in “Chori Chori Chupke Chupke,” the single mother in the aformentioned “Kya Kehna” or someone in a live-in relationship who gets pregnant in “Salaam Namaste.” 

Zinta explains the rationale behind such bold choices that could have probably spelled the end for her had the films not worked. 

She says, “I don’t know if it was doom. I just wanted to do stories that were exciting. I knew, I wasn’t the typical heroine who could do those extravagant dance numbers and stuff. I’ve never done dance classes in my life. As for my characters, I accepted the ones I would feel comfortable doing, because if I wore something crazy or I did something mad, I always look back thinking about my family. I told myself I don’t want to be involved with anybody I work with. I just want this to be very professional. And I’m going to work really hard.”

The realization that she had become an actor and that it was her job now sank in when she was shooting on location in Rajasthan for “Soldier.” She had requested the producer that she be given a few days off for her final examinations. Once on location and as the exam date neared, the producer told her why did she need to continue with her education.

“You’re an actor now,” he said.

Strongheaded as she is, she did go for the examinations – against the producer’s wishes. However becoming an actor was not easy. She was an outsider in the film industry. With no godfather to push her case, she put her head down and followed what her dad taught her to do: soldier on. She talks about the grueling work schedule she had from the very first film.

“I worked 18 hour days, and I worked once for a 36-hour nonstop shift,” Zinta says. “If you can get somebody to look at you and say, ‘You should be grateful you’re here.’ And I was.”

The hard work led her to be one of the first actresses to have had the privilege of working with the three Khans – Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir – and also being a Yash Chopra film heroine. The latter, an Indian film industry badge of honor, has gone to an impressive list of recipients, including Rekha, Sridevi, Madhuri Dixit and Kajol. 

But the accolades and the awards did not deter Zinta from keeping on improving her craft. Even after numerous box-office hits, she still felt the need to join an acting class to learn the dialect and mannerisms of a Punjabi woman for “Heroes,” in which she was paired with Salman Khan.

Holding the top spot and to be considered for all the coveted projects of the big production houses is hard in Bollywood, particularly for female actors. Successful leading ladies have a small window in which to showcase their talents. The industry worships the rising sun, but only till the next star is launched – in most cases the offspring of a former star, somebody from within the industry. 

Zinta feels that things have changed for the better.

“Today, it’s probably the best market,” she says. “Earlier, that was very difficult for a female actor to survive. Today, the market is so different. I would say as long as the content is good, you can really do some great work here and be there at the top for sure. For me, my journey was very different after my first film became a big hit. I realized that I’m becoming an actor, it’s my job now. So it was as uncluttered as that.” 

Zinta’s journey included a string of unforgettable cinematic gems, many of which had her romantically paired with Shah Rukh Khan. When asked about her most cherished role and the most memorable film, she replies without skipping a beat, “It cannot just be one, because the first is always the first. For me, my first really was something for me because it was very intense. Second, “Veer Zaara” for sure. Because working with Shah Rukh was just a dream. It was beautiful and I loved it.” 

Many friendships in movie town are built on the shifting sands of box-office results and can change any given Friday. 

Zinta agrees.

“Definitely, for me, not so much, but definitely yes,” she says. “Because you’re working with those people, meeting them every day. If you’re not working you’re in meetings with them every day. Where I’m concerned, it was different.” 

Zinta considers herself fortunate in having made friendships that have stood the test of time. She recently posted a picture of Hrithik Roshan, who was on the same flight as her and who helped her with her twins on their first long haul to India. She has managed to hold on to the friendships within the film industry – which is rare. The equations and relations perhaps didn’t alter also because she remained in the spotlight, moving from one national craze, Bollywood, to another – cricket.

“I always wanted to do business at some point in my life,” Zinta says, explaining how she got involved in the Indian Premiere League, and ended up being one of the youngest team owners of the multi-billion-dollar cricket franchise. 

Zinta was introduced to the lucrative business proposal by Lalit Modi, the man responsible for bringing the shorter format of the game to India. She wanted to focus only on the business – and films took a back seat for her. She also was not getting as many interesting roles. 

She talks about the shift.

“It was a conscious effort,” Zinta says. “I went to all my producers and directors and I met them one by one. And I said, ‘Listen, I love you, thank you for supporting me. But there are many awful movies right now and I’m getting into business. I actually moved away because you can’t do two things at the same time, especially not [as] an actor.’”

Preity Zinta Goodenough with her husband Gene Goodenough
Preity Zinta Goodenough with her husband Gene Goodenough

Punjab Kings (previously called Kings XI Punjab), the team Zinta co-owns, has not won the championship since its inception in 2008, though it reached the semifinals of the tournament in its inaugural year. The team has undergone some drastic changes this year, and won against better teams such as the Kolkata Knight Riders, incidentally owned by her good friend Shah Rukh Khan. 

The last few months have been really hectic for the team owner, as she tries to manage the auction of players remotely, while taking care of a growing team at home. 

“I’ve been there every single year,” Zinta says. “This year was the big auction. It was super hectic for me because it was 10 or 12 nights of government auctions or discussions, board meetings… There were just so many things. And it was all happening on Zoom. That was tough.” 

In India, films and cricket produce the biggest celebrities, and outstanding performances attract god-like reverence. Zinta describes from experience the reason for the cult status of these celebrities.

“Everybody who comes here has a high amount of skill,” she says. “Having said that, if I compared films and cricket, both are team sports. In cricket, there will be a star, but you will have a lot of supporting stars as well. Everybody cannot be a star. And movies are about working as a team because what you see on film is a very small percentage, or a small image, of what’s really happening behind the scenes. There’s like so many people, sometimes hundreds of people, behind the camera working. The same is true of cricket. You have to [be] able to hold your nose and perform at the right time.”

Whether in films or cricket she does not flinch in the face of adversity. When the film industry was threatened by the underworld and many big actors retracted their statements in court under duress, she was the only one who testified that she received an extortion threat from the mafia. Another incident that showed her mettle was when she called out the alleged abuse and assault on her by Ness Wadia, co-owner of her cricket team and her former boyfriend. 

She talks about the source for her strength.

“Since I was a kid, my father always taught us to be fighters,” Zinta says. “To learn to fight and stand for whatever reason. Those were a few things that kind of taught me to stand for what I do, and fight for it. Sometimes, you stand for the right thing, sometimes not. That’s what life teaches you as you grow up, and as you learn.”

Preity Zinta Goodenough with her husband Gene Goodenough
Preity with her bundle of joy. Even countless diapers and burp cloths can’t wipe that smile off

Zinta has recently undertaken the journey to motherhood. She and her husband, whom she married in 2016, welcomed their twins through surrogacy late last year. The news was broken by Zinta on her social media platforms on Thanksgiving. 

As a new father myself, we exchanged a few notes about our astonishment about the number of diapers used up each day. She has always been known for her cheerful personality but the joy of motherhood had her squealing about her twin reasons of bliss, and the change they have brought to her life. 

“Well, it’s been great, not changed my life but turned my life upside down,” Zinta says. “I’m somebody who’s always on the move, and really quick and in and out. And suddenly everything has come to a stop.”

The world is yet to see the twins, though Zinta has teased us with glimpses of them on her social media. Her mother was with her to help initially, but is now back in India, which must be tough when you have two infants to take care of as a first-time mother. However, she says she is up to the job.

“It’s amazing,” she says. “It’s wonderful. The first couple of months were kind of scary; we had to go a lot to the hospital to the NICU and stuff. But, it was great because we actually learned how to take care of the babies from the nurses. Once they came home, it was my mom who was here. So that was great.”

Both the babies – Jai and Gia – have reached the age they start recognizing faces and smiling at the new parents. This has made it all worthwhile – the wait, the longing and the initial incompetence that every new parent is guilty of. 

“It was a lot of work and we couldn’t understand what was happening,” Zinta admits. ”There was a lot of nervousness, to be honest, because I didn’t know why the babies were crying. So I would go, okay, nappy check. Oh, it’s the nappy. Oh, she’s still crying. Why is she crying? So going through all that is the worst thing, to be honest. Besides that, it’s been wonderful, and I spent most of my days cleaning bottles and sterilizing them.”

Zinta begins work on a film soon and will be heading back to India, so she wants to make the most of the time with her kids before she gets back to work. 

“Now I can see them smile and stuff like that and it’s amazing. I really want to spend as much time as I can. I love it,” she says.

Zinta may be ecstatic being a mother now, but was she prepared for it? Did it all pan out as expected?

“To be very honest, I’m just coping with this right now,” she says. “I mean, I read books and everything, but it’s nothing like practical experience. There’s no time to think if something really drastic happens. I have this friend who comes and helps me out – Mr. Google.”

Being a mom has made her realize the importance of a mother and perhaps the true worth of her own mother – and the sacrifices she has had to make. 

“I think the whole essence of being a mother is that you forget what you need, and what you want; it’s about taking care of them,” Zinta says. “It’s powerful and selfless. And I feel so ashamed sometimes for the way I treated my mother. Sometimes I just didn’t care. I was like, ‘Mom, I don’t want to make anything. Why are you here?’ And now I’m like, ‘Oh my god, Mom, I love you. Thank you.’”

Like, most parents, Zinta would rate holding her firstborns for the first time as the best moment of her life. 

“I was tearing,” she says. “I felt like the most extraordinary thing in the world. It was beautiful. There’s no way to describe that feeling especially when they are so little and vulnerable and you want to protect them and love them. You only realize how good it is when you become a parent yourself.”

The Goodenough couple is happy that they chose to opt for surrogacy. Zinta’s advice to women, who want to achieve their professional goals first before they think of becoming a mother, is chart a careful course. 

I think planning is very, very important. And I would tell women, if you really want to have careers and be out there and compete and work hard, then I think you should definitely go for it, bank your eggs early in your life and have that freedom to do what you want. You have to plan for it.

Zinta advices women

The rating of the husband as a father is high on the Zinta scale. She met Gene Goodenough, a senior executive in a renewable energy development company, on one of her trips to the US while she was having trouble parking her car. He was out for a run, offered help and was handed the key to the car for him to park it himself. Besides his three-point parking skills, Zinta rates him high for his parenting skills as well. She gushes, “He’s such a good father. He’s very sweet. He’s very involved. And he’s great, which is so nice to see. He lost his dad when he was very little. He didn’t have a dad so it’s great for me to see him happy and being the dad.”

Not one to be swept off her feet like in the movies, Zinta took her time to say yes to Goodenough. To move for love, leaving behind films and business must have been a big decision.

“I didn’t know he was the one, to be honest, when we first met. He just was a really nice and decent guy,” she says. “I didn’t think we would ever meet again, the way we met. But definitely I didn’t think he was the one at that point, because I don’t believe I’ve ever been in a situation where I’ve looked at someone and said, ‘Oh!’ Like in a movie. I don’t know about other women, but it’s never happened to me.”

Preity’s Must-Watch films

Dil Se – 1998

Though it was not her first film, “Dil Se” was her first film released in theaters. Seldom does luck favor a debutante so that she is paired opposite Shah Rukh Khan in her very first film. The film earned her the Filmfare Award for Best Female Debut.

Kya Kehna – 2000

The first film is always special, and “Kya Kehna” was the film that Zinta signed. The film dealt with the subject of teenage pregnancy and single parenting. The film star cast included Saif Ali Khan, who played the abandoning boyfriend.

Dil Chahta Hai – 2001

The film that perhaps changed the way scripts were written in Bollywood. The directorial debut of Farhan Akhtar, it had a stellar cast, which included Amir Khan and Saif Ali Khan and Zinta. The film received rave reviews for its accurate portrayal of urban Indian youth. 

Kal Ho Na Ho – 2003

Shak Rukh Khan and Zinta make this Dharma Production film, directed by Karan Johar, a must-watch, and one of the best films of the 2000s. The film won Zinta the Filmfare Best Actor award for her portrayal of a simple beauty who falls in love with a man with a fatal heart condition.

Veer Zaara – 2004

One of the best movies ever, and one of closest to Zinta’s heart, it is a love story based on characters on opposite sides of the India-Pakistan border. The film had Preity play a Pakistani girl opposite a dashing Indian Air Force officer played by Shah Rukh Khan.

Lakshya – 2004

The year saw another memorable film directed by Farhan Akhtar with Hrithik Roshan and Zinta in the lead. The movie had a great mix of romance, patriotism and drama. The well-written screenplay by Javed Akhtar and impressive performances by Zinta and Roshan makes it one of the most entertaining coming-of-age films.

Salaam Namaste – 2005

Produced by Yash Raj Films, the film set in Australia revolves around a couple in a live-in relationship who struggle with an unexpected pregnancy. The film cast included Saif Ali Khan opposite Zinta. It was role somewhat mirroring her own personality – that of a strong-headed woman standing up for herself.

Advice to South Asian women

  • There is no shortcut to success. You have to work really, really, really hard. 
  • If you’re a parent, and you’re working, you really have to focus on having quality time at home. Because you wouldn’t have the luxury of time in general at home
  • I think this is the best time for women in the world, and I would love and it’s beautiful to see women support each other and be positive and it’s not going to be easy. It’s never easy. 
  • Positivity is something that is so important. I would like for them to be thinking of themselves. Without that you’re not you and cannot make others happy around you. 
  • The fact that you’re a woman; you’re the center of the family. So it’s important to focus on yourself be positive.
  • No dream is ever too big to dream. If you can dream it, it is possible. 
  • So, you know one of my favorite quotes is – Don’t tell me that sky’s the limit when you have footprints on the moon.

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