Hoga toh nahin (It’s not going to happen),” said Zaira Wasim’s parents when she auditioned for a Hindi film. Only it did. The film, Dangal (2016), went on to become the second biggest film of all-time and won Zaira the National Award for best supporting actress at the age of 16. Wasim shared the anecdote in an interview with india today in 2017 while promoting Secret Superstar at Aamir Khan Productions’ office. She spoke of how people in Kashmir commended her work and asked her not to give up acting. Two years later, she has changed her mind.
“This field indeed brought a lot of love, support and applause my way, but it also led me to a path of ignorance as I unconsciously transitioned out of imaan(religion),” Zaira wrote on her social media accounts explaining her premature exit from Bollywood. “While I continued to work in an environment that consistently interfered with my imaan, my relationship with my religion was threatened.” The lengthy meditation evidenced a girl repentant about her decisions and one who found answers and purpose in the teachings of Quran. Next to be seen in The Sky Is Pink(October 11), the Shonali Bose-directed drama in which she plays Aisha Chaudhary, a motivational speaker who suffered from pulmonary fibrosis and died at the age of 19, Zaira has asked to be exempted from the film’s promotions.
Growing up in Hawal in Srinagar, an area often in the news for stone-pelting protests, Zaira was never a movie buff. “I have seen bits of films… I’ve not watched a film from beginning to end,” she said with a certain earnestness in 2017. Acting happened by chance. She wasn’t afraid to come across as vulnerable, admitting that she grew up with “social anxiety”. In an Instagram post from 2018, she detailed her battle with depression — from “feeling empty, restless…”, experiencing “nervous breakdowns and suicidal thoughts”, to finally overcoming her fear of being judged for it. Her decision to then quit an industry where one is routinely in the spotlight is hardly a surprise.
“[Her parents] are very protective of her,” said a friend in Kashmir, who stood by her when she was criticised in 2017 for meeting the then state chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, with the Valley still reeling from the repercussions of militant Burhan Wani’s death. Talking about her father, Zahid, a retired banker, Zaira said, “He can’t bear the idea of people saying something wrong about me.” It was Zahid who travelled to Mumbai to talk to Aamir Khan and was reassured that she would be in safe company. “The moment he met AK, everything was OK,” recalled Wasim.
Khan on his part saw a bright star in Zaira. “I feel she is one of the finest actors we have today in our industry, male or female,” he said in an interview to India Today TV in 2017. “When I look back at my first and second films, I was nowhere close to how good she is. It’s really wonderful to see such talent coming from different parts of the country.”
In her two films, Zaira stood out for her roles highlighting the aspiration, angst and zeal of today’s girls. “She is very impulsive and honest in front of the camera,” says casting director Mukesh Chhabra whose assistant found her while talent-scouting in Srinagar. “She worked with a pure heart, without overthinking about her role and that’s probably why she performed so well at such a young age.” Zaira would have been celebrated as a youth icon, an ambassador of the cherished dream of the assimilation of Kashmiris into the Indian mainstream. What better way to do it than through the medium of movies?
Zaira, though, was a reluctant superstar. “I want to make it very clear that I do not want anyone to follow in my footsteps,” she wrote in her “open confession/apology” in the aftermath of the backlash of the Mehbooba meeting. “I’m not proud of what I am doing and I want everyone, especially the youth, to know there are real role models out there, whether they be in this time or in our history.”
Close friends describe Zaira as an ‘introvert’. Close to her family and conscious of her identity as a Kashmiri, she didn’t want to move to Mumbai. “In Kashmir, social compulsions double for public figures and all these years she had to be very cautious and balanced in what she said, but she remained original,” said a friend, not surprised by her decision.
Zaira’s decision has evoked diverse reactions from the film fraternity. While some have respected her “personal choice”, others didn’t like that she had invoked her religion to justify her action. In a now-deleted tweet, Raveena Tandon wrote, “Doesn’t matter if two-film-olds are ungrateful to the industry that has given them all. Just wish they’d exit gracefully and keep their regressive views to themselves.” Nitesh Tiwari, director of Dangal, told a daily, “This was unexpected, but at the end of the day, it is her life and she has the right to lead it the way she deems fit… None of us has the right to pass judgement on what she has decided.”
Within Kashmir, Zaira has received support, including from those who trolled her two years ago on social media for meeting Mehbooba. Among the supportive voices is that of Kashmiri actor Mir Sarwar, who will be seen in a forthcoming Ashutosh Gowariker film. He says Zaira’s decision is a personal one and must be respected. “She is sensible and must have thought it through, not taken the decision lightly,” he adds.
Few know what is next for Zaira. After scoring over 80 per cent in her class XII exams, she will probably apply to colleges. She will likely find comfort in her home and in the company of her three cats. “I kept trying to escape, but somehow I always ended up hitting a dead end, in an endless loop with a missing element that kept torturing me with a longing I was neither able to make sense of nor satisfy… This journey has been exhausting, to battle my soul for so long. Life is too short yet too long to be at war with oneself,” wrote Zaira, who now, perhaps, feels liberated.