When I first discovered Bollywood, Preity Zinta danced across the streets of New York in Kal Ho Naa Ho(2003) and Kabie Alvida Na Kehna(2006) as the quintessential NRI (Non Resident Indian) working girl. Even in her début in one of my all-time favorite films, Dil Se(1998), she portrayed the contemporary counterpoint to the traditional constraints that created the heroine’s cycles of terror and revenge. In Veer-Zaara(2004), Zinta’s character loved Shah Rukh Khan’s across the sectarian divide and devoted her life to educating girls in her own tolerant image.
With a career secured as India’s ideal modern woman, what could go wrong? When I finally got around to watching Salaam/Namaste(2005) last weekend, two things struck me. First, could this film about a couple living out of wedlock only succeed if set abroad – in Melbourne – just as an empathetic portrayal of divorce (KANK) needed to be set in New York? Second, whatever happened to the actress who broke the Bollywood mold of the romantic heroine in both ground-breaking films?
The supposed problem lay with a fun bit of fluff that induced my husband, sons, and I to dance around our family room in pajamas called Jhoom Barabar Jhoom(2007). Again Zinta played a South Asian woman assimilated to western norms. Apparently, the critics panned it, but I can’t imagine how it could kill a career.
When I read that Ms. Zinta was the only Bollywood star who did NOT retract her testimony about mob involvement in Bollywood finance, I could understand the old familiar tale of the blackballed artist. I continue to wonder whether the type of courageous women she played – as well as the courageous woman she is – featured in the rapid burn-out of her stardom. Not that Ms. Zinta suffers too greatly. She owns a cricket team – like Shah Rukh Khan – and completed an executive short-course at Harvard Business School to much fanfare. A woman nearing forty with a master’s degree in criminal psychology, a modelling and acting career, major sports team management, and a Harvard certificate on her CV need not be pitied. Whoever made the premature decision to end her on-screen career, however, is simply pathetic.