Zeenat Aman interview | On social media, mental health, pay gap and ‘Bun Tikki’

“Is it Dior, Chanel?” Zeenat Aman wonders aloud when I ask her about her lavender-tinted sunglasses. It is Gucci, someone pipes in, and Aman nods along. “It is Gucci,” she beams sweetly. Aman, 72, is the only source of stately exuberance in the stark conference room where I meet her. The veteran Hindi film actor recently rolled up for the #WeSeeEqual summit, a corporate symposium to drive conversations on parity, inclusion and mental health. The event was held at the Procter & Gamble offices in Mumbai. It was a fit for Aman, who has leveraged her social media popularity (she debuted sensationally on Instagram in 2023) to lend her voice to a variety of causes. “Can I refer to my notes?” she politely asks as we get on talking.

interview quest iconYou have struck a phenomenal connection with the youth, especially the Gen-Z. What’s your advice to them on using social media purposefully?

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Firstly, I feel the current generation is more aware and well-informed than anybody of my time was at their age. It’s been wonderful for me, as a septuagenarian, to connect with them. I recently learned that 60% of my Instagram followers are between 25 and 44 years old. It’s a delightful, unexpected, and exciting position I find myself in.

My only word of advice to youngsters is that they should see the Internet as a space for more than just uploading selfies. They should educate themselves on DEA — diversity, equity, and inclusion. Because this generation is so clued in, it’s important for them to find a cause, campaign or organisation that appeals to them and find a way to support it.

interview quest iconMay is mental health awareness month. In India, there is a lot of stigma, still, around seeking help.

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If anyone in this world is feeling overwhelmed by life, they should get support. There’s no shame in seeking therapy, and now there are so many avenues that are open, both online and offline. Among the youth, I have observed, there is a lot of peer pressure, especially on the Internet, that affects their mental well-being. They need to be kind to others as well as themselves.

Parents, too, should be supportive towards their kids no matter what they are going through… be it at work, school or in their private relationships. In India, families have a lot of onerous expectations from their children. Everything from their careers to marriage is often family-dictated. We should allow a young person to find themselves and to lead their lives according to what makes them happy.

interview quest iconYou have spoken before about the gender pay gap in the film industry. In the near future, with raised awareness, do you anticipate a positive shift towards paying women equally?

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I think the conversation has started but there is still a long way to go. Basically, it’s a patriarchal society, and films are largely written for men and about men. The business of cinema still revolves around who the leading man is, and subsequently the pay cheques for men are much larger. That’s the way it is. Women all over the world are struggling for equal pay. It’s not unique to India or Hindi cinema.

interview quest iconEven in your heyday, you challenged the image of the traditional Hindi film heroine. What inspired you to take up those roles?

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It has something to do with the fact that I came from an unconventional background. I was born to a Hindu mother who first married a Muslim man. When they separated, she married a German Protestant. As a young girl, I was academically accomplished and eventually won a scholarship to go to southern California, which at the time was the hub of Flower Power, love and hippiedom, so to speak. All these experiences helped shape my worldview. So when I was offered parts that were unusual or had shades of grey—in films like Haré Rama Haré Krishna, where I was a troubled drug addict who commits suicide, or Roti Kapada Aur Makaan, where I dump a poor man for a rich man but eventually sacrifice my life for the latter — I could take them up with conviction.

interview quest iconYour Instagram posts regularly make news. Inevitably, they get opined upon and reactions are sought from other celebrities. Does this take you back to the tabloid circuses that swirled around you in the 1970s?

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I know, I know (laughs). It does take me back to those days when everything was all over the place. But I have learned to come to terms with it. I’ve realised it’s all part of the journey. As the saying goes, ‘logon ka kaam hai kehna” (people will talk). In the digital age, everyone is entitled to their opinion and so am I. Whether someone agrees or disagrees with me, it’s fine.

interview quest iconTell us about your upcoming film, ‘Bun Tikki’, with Shabana Azmi and Abhay Deol

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Shabana and I had worked together in Ishk Ishk Ishk (1971) and Ashanti (1982). We had a lot of fun on those films. The same held true on Bun Tikki. The story is really not about Shabana and myself — it’s about Abhay and the little boy who plays his son. Shabana plays the grandmother and I play…. well, never mind, it’s a surprise! I am doing a special appearance in the film. At this point in my career, I don’t want to prove anything to anybody. Because I’ve been there and done that. I just want to do little parts that bring me joy and that wouldn’t exhaust me.

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