In an industry keen on playing the numbers game, she is the one on whom everyone is betting their big bucks.
Indeed, Preity Zinta's bag reveals an impressive list of films -- Hero, Armaan, Koi Mil Gaya, Lakshya and Kal Ho Na Ho. Try and find out more about her roles and you get a guarded response from everybody, including Preity. Secretary Inder Maulik clams up, saying, "It is a secret." And no, he is not kidding.
Trade buzz has it that Preity's scrip is rising. Save for Bipasha Basu, she has the most number of films -- five -- among the top heroines today. Kareena Kapoor, Amisha Patel and Aishwarya Rai have three projects each. Says trade expert Taran Adarsh, "Having her in any project is a big plus. She is the slow and steady turtle who is going to win the race."
Those who know her say professional understatement comes naturally to this actress. "Where on earth will you find an actress taking a month off every year to go camping or trekking in rain forests?" asks Suzanne Khan, who has known Preity for six years and was recently mistaken as her sister on a shopping trip in Canada.
Director Karan Johar, who signed Preity after a fallout with Kareena Kapoor, his heroine of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, agrees. "There is something very nice about her on screen that makes you like her instantly." Johar asserts he is not casting Preity in a very glamourous 'filmi avtaar' in Kal Ho Na Ho, and has spent time with her to tweak his script to fit her charming giggle, her exuberant energy and real life mannerisms in his film.
He recalls, with a smile, that when she had just joined films, he had told Preity that she should her hold her hand gracefully and face the camera at a tilted angle like Sridevi and Mumtaz to appear less fat. "I am glad she didn't listen to me then. The regular filmi emotions and anything slightly regressive would look very awkward on her. She is a New Wave actress and, luckily for her, the tide in today's films is moving to portraying a woman who knows her mind."
Rakesh Roshan, who cast her in Koi Mil Gaya, talks about her incredible ability to lift any scene she is a part of. "She has a lot of questions before she takes on a character. Once she is on the sets, she is spontaneous and completely understands her character. She is also very frank and outspoken. That only benefits a project. Besides being a fine actress, she has an audience which is very loyal."
For Roshan, her last film Dil Hi Tumhaara, a dud, is cause for celebration: "She carried the film on her shoulders. I think that says it all." He also urges you to look out for Preity in his film -- and her next release -- Koi Mil Gaya: "She has really gotten into the character of the girl next door."
Quips Preity, "I am sick of being called cute. But I am told men find me hot after Dil Chahta Hai." A statement designer Manish Malhotra, who worked with her on several films like Dil Se, Soldier, Kya Kehna!, echoes. He says, in relief, "After dressing in long gowns and pretty florals, she has finally agreed to sport sexy backless cholis and sensual saris in Rakesh Roshan's Koi Mil Gaya. Am I glad!"
Scriptwriter and director Honey Irani, who spotted her at a party, believes Preity is a thinking, sensitive and intelligent actress, "One needs to handle her well and she will deliver the goods." Irani reveals that on the sets of Armaan, after reciting a three-page dialogue which had to be shot in a single take, Preity broke down. It took her 10 minutes to get back to being Preity Zinta and not Sonia, her character in Armaan.
Early on in her career, the actress had director Kundan Shah worried when she didn't turn up for rehearsals for the lengthy climax scene of Kya Kehna! To his amazement, she shot the scene in one go, without retakes.
Filmmaker Tanuja Chandra, who signed Preity for Sangarsh, which propelled her into the 'serious actress' category, recalls time spent with her on the sets. "Both of us [lead actor Akshay Kumar and Chandra] would take turns to listen to her monologues because she is so talkative. That was a standing joke between Akshay and me: Preity can talk even in her sleep!"
While Preity displays an instinctive understanding of her roles and her characters, Shah warns that she could get stuck with typical 'heroine' parts. "[Yesteryear actress] Tanuja was vivacious. You could not take your eyes off her when she came onscreen because of her sheer joie de vivre. But it would be tough to recall names of her films. You remember her only in bit parts or songs. Preity needs to be careful about falling into the same trap. Today, audience expectation from her is very high."