With former models turned actresses like Zeenat Aman and Sushmita Sen in Bollywood as proof, the leap from the runway to the big screen isn’t anything new, or hasn’t been since the Nineties. And in fact, for the previous two decades, it’s getting easier for runway beauties. But while many top models tend to be pushed into the mundane ‘it girl’ category, there are those who have been sinking their teeth into roles with more substance.
The 37-year-old, half Bengali, half German, Dia Mirza is one of the finest examples in a long line of models who took the leap from fashion magazine cover girl and advertisements to the big screen starlet in India. Though her time in fashion was clamorous, winning the title of Miss Asia Pacific in 2000, she quickly made her way into the film industry with Rehnaa Hai Tere Dil Mein in 2001, starring opposite R Madhavan.
Although the film didn’t do well at the box office, it developed a cult among South Asian youth and Dia’s performance was well received by the critics nationwide. Ziyaus Salam, Hindi film critique, in his review for Hindu, wrote “Dia can take heart. Lesser girls have gone on to greater things in Bollywood. She is better than many beginners.”
Yet, there were several false starts after Rehnaa Hai Tere Dil Mein, she had indeed become the whipping girl for her movie turns.
Two decades later, Dia is a movie star. With Sanju (2018) kissing the box-office mark, she’s grabbing the eyeballs, although her appearance in Sanju was post hiatus of six years from acting.
Dia has never played by anyone’s rules. After about two decades in the acting business, she has made her name defying expectations, by coming forward in support of #MeToo movement in India and starting a dialogue about environment sustainability.
Given her unique career trajectory, it seems fitting that Dia is Bollywood’s multi-hyphenate, adding ‘producer’ to her list of specialities.
When Dia was not on the silver screen for six years, she wasn’t only producing films; she tied the knot with her long-term beau Sahil Sangha, Bollywood director and producer, in 2014, and joined forces with many local Indian organisations to create awareness about conservation of wildlife, environment and nature.
In recognition of her contribution to environment conservation, joining the likes of global celebrities such as Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Angelina Jolie, Katy Perry and Emma Watson, Dia was recently appointed as the UN Environment’s Goodwill Ambassador for India on last month.
Dia has been extremely busy recently mentoring Miss India 2019 contestants. As she takes a lazed breath from the clamour of work, Community talks to her about her upcoming web-series Kaafir that is scheduled to premiere on Zee5 Global on June 15, and her take on sustainable environment and #MeToo in India.
ZEE5 is the digital entertainment destination launched by Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited (ZEEL), a global Media and Entertainment powerhouse. The platform launched across 190+ countries in October 2018 and has content across 17 languages; Hindi, English, Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Oriya, Bhojpuri, Gujarati and Punjabi, and now also Malay, Thai, Bahasa, German and Russian. ZEE5 is home to 100,000 hours of on-demand content and 60+ live TV channels. ZEE5 offers features like 16 navigational languages, content download option, seamless video playback and voice search.Two decades in Bollywood. What’s changed?
OMG! So much. I was very young when I started out and I think I had very little understanding of how I wanted to use my voice and what I wanted to do with it. Now, I think it has become abundantly clear to me than ever before. I think that is the standout juncture between the person who started out at age 19 and to the person whom you’re speaking to right now.
Do you think web-series are somehow taking over the place of conventional cinema?
I don’t think that is possible but I do believe that these platforms are giving much more moved imperative to the story tellers — without the conformities and with absolute freedom and devoid of the pressure of box office and censorship. These platforms are breaking all the loose end stereotypes and giving more people an opportunity who want to tell true stories and the stories they believe in. As an actor because I do know when you’re doing a film together there are so many permutations and combinations one has to worry and think about, that web series doesn’t demand of us. In web-series you just need to make sure you’re telling the story you want to tell. In a happy world, we would like to believe that the box office is the same for story tellers and actors but unfortunately, the economics of the box office hurdles the freedom.
You’ve been very selective about the kind of scripts you choose. Is there any mantra to it?
I find myself in a place where I believe that one has to give their voice to do something substantial. What drives me to work every day and have motivated, inspired and driven me all these years was being aligned with the voice that echoes everything I want to hear and express to the world. Many of my earlier choices were driven out by fear — the fear of losing out, fear of being out of mind and sight, fear of rejection … so many fears. When you evolve and mature, you realise and recognise that fears only handicap you when you really can go out there and do something with yourself.
Kaafir is one of the most powerful, relatable story I’ve been exposed to as an artiste. It is everything that I hope for in the world. It is beautifully written, so nuanced, has so much gravitas and is so relatable and recognisable. The spirit of humanity that it has is just so compelling that
I had to be a part of this story. When I met the producer and he narrated me just one line of the story, I was like I have to tell this story to the world. And then of course when I read the script, I was blown away by it. I consider myself privileged to have had the opportunity to play this part and embody the spirit of Kainaz, not because it was the right thing to do but I believe because it was the only way one could’ve done it. Perhaps, the first part in my career, that has compelled me at such deep human level, influenced my pursuits to become the part of the story as opposed to the actor part.
Are there beauty secrets lying somewhere in the corner that other aspirants could make use of?
I really think beauty is what beauty does. So much of how we choose or think, is how we look. So, I have always maintained that the primary focus is to align my mind space in the best way I can and then of course some regular exercise helps. A good natural vegetarian and fruit diet also helps. Look, I’m giving you all the secret answers! Diet, exercise and managing your mind space really really determines how you look.
What issues are the closest to your heart? Is there something that you have found more fulfilling doing than what has made you famous?
Planet and people. When I say planet, I mean all encompassing it, including children, health and environment. The planet is my primary concern.
You’re UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador for India, so how do you plan on bringing about change?
There’s such a strong disconnect between the science (of environmental degradation) and the people. And that people don’t have access to the science. I myself have been struggling to make this science accessible to people, and when they are, it’s going to affect policies, law and just how our government works. We are confronted by enormous challenge of being a Third World country with soon to become the most populated country in the world, but inhabiting a very, very small geographical landmark, which means that interdependence between people and natural resources lies in 90% progress. It is my mission to be able to advocate on the necessity for India to become absolute and total champion of climate action. There’s no other way we can comfort the people if we don’t become a primary climate active nation.
You were an integral part of the #MeToo movement in India — among very few celebrities who came forward to talk about it openly. How do you think this movement has affected the film industry in India? Do you think this movement brought justice to those who needed or was it all in vain?
I don’t believe it (#MeToo in India) was in vain at all. I think it triggered consciousness, understanding and education which I think was the most important thing it achieved. It is ongoing, it not going anywhere until there is justice and an equal opportunity. I think this movement would continue. I think because of it many workspaces have become safer. There are many, many companies who have implemented the guidelines, have understood them, but more than anything else what’s done is that it has given a very powerful message to women, which is that you DO NOT need to accept being mistreated at the work place, you DO NOT need to be sidelined. I think that in itself is very empowering. This whole tradition of silence has been broken and that is a remarkable transformation.
Any message for your fans in Qatar?
I want everybody to watch Kaafir. It has been an amazing journey and means so much to me. People would get to see a side of me they never have. I simply love Kainaz and Kaafir as much as I loved playing a part in it.