Gorgeous and glowing with an inner calm. That was Dia Mirza as a guest on Ladies Study Group’s (LSG) ‘Beyond The Stardust’, a virtual session of April 24. The actor and producer who is an UNEP Goodwill Amabassador, United Nations SDGs Advocate, Wildlife Trust of India ambassador and an IFAW global ambassador among the many other hats she wears, spoke of her choices, career, empowerment and her commitment to nature. “I found my balance through meditation and the work that I do,” she smiled and left us with this lovely message: “The world needs more empathy and love and action. Please continue to question all that is unfair and do everything you can to help others and please don’t lose faith in humanity.” Excerpts from the Hyderabadi beauty’s chat with LSG president Diya Jaiswal.
I think the foundation that each of us gets is in the education system that we are exposed to and also of course our parentage, what they teach us through their own actions and choices. I went to Vidyaranya High School, which directly translates to ‘forest of education’. Conversations about human behaviour and practices were constant right through school. We had a rare kind of assembly. We would talk about and debate current affairs and we would be compelled to think about things that we normally didn’t think about. Consumerism was one of them and the fact that advertising in a capitalist society was driving consumerism, what kind of an impact that would have on nature and how we as human beings were moving further and further away from nature. Alongside that they taught us how to compost. A lot of our classes happened under trees, a lot like in Santiniketan. The school was inspired by J. Krishnamurti and a lot of the foundation of the school and the attitude of teaching was similar to what Rabindranath Tagore did with Santiniketan and what J. Krishnamurti did with Rishi Valley. Our school did not believe in the concept of competition and putting children in school uniform. There was no examination, grading, ranking in the percentile system till Class VIII. Even when we did start doing tests and preparing for the board examinations, we were still never ranked in class. On sports day, we would all get a laddoo. We were always only competing with ourselves.
It was a very similar environment at home. Both my parents loved nature. I spent many afternoons and evenings with my mother, planting trees, rescuing injured birds and animals, treating them and setting them free, watching her cry over the pain and anguish she would feel over an injured animal or bird that she couldn’t save.
We had carpenters at home and they found a baby python. They put it in a thick black box and brought her home to us and my father decided to save it and take care of it and release it into the wild till it was big enough. Fear was also another concept that was never introduced to me as a child.
I was 14-and-a-half or 15 when I saw this really expensive pair of boots which was about Rs 8,500 at that time and I asked for them. My mother said there is absolutely no way she would spend that much money on a pair of shoes. ‘You earn your money and buy them,’ she said. I was so hurt! (Laughs) I felt in that moment of rage that I was considerate and didn’t make unnecessary demands. I said to her ‘you wait and watch, by the time I am 18, I’d be making my own money, by the time I am 19, I will be having my own car and by the time I am 20, I’ll have my own house’. Interestingly the chronology of events unfolded exactly like that. I was 18 when I won Miss India (Asia Pacific 2000) and I won this car. By the time I was 20, I had bought my own house where I still live, in Bombay.
I never consciously thought that I want to model and was planning to pursue a career in law. I was spotted by Roma Gill at Secunderabad Club in Hyderabad. I was reading a book and she came up to me and said they were doing a fashion show… ‘you are a really pretty girl and would you walk for the designer?’ I think she said I would be paid
Rs 5,000 or 7,000 and I just sat up! (Laughs) That led to other jobs. It was extremely empowering to earn your own money at 15-and-a-half, 16….
I think the challenge really lay in the fact that I was on my own and was not being chaperoned by my parents, had to really find my own voice and rhythm and learn how to navigate egos and all kinds of people. It was terrifying also at many levels, but I did okay. I wanted so much to be independent… I really valued it when I got independent. I started filing my returns when I was 18 and set up my home when I was 18. Simple things like getting a landline connection or a gas connection, these are things that were not easy to do in a new city.
Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein…
This was actually the third film I filmed and was the first one to release. The film was a giant box-office disaster. Again a huge lesson for me. Being put up on a pedestal at such a young age and everything was going my way and things were happening the way I wanted them too. I was earning well, getting to travel and see the world, explore… and suddenly I had to face this enormous rejection… a flop. It made me lose projects overnight, changed people’s attitudes towards me. It was much later I realised that if something is meant to connect with people, it will in its own time.
A fresh lease of life…
A lot of the mainstream work happening at the time was misogynistic and patriarchal. I didn’t feel respected on a film set and was determined to do substantive work that would contribute to my growth as an artist. The way I looked didn’t help at all. (Laughs) The result of absolute abject frustration was me wanting to set up my own production company. If people are not going to create the opportunities I deserve, I will create them for myself. That’s when I set up Born Free Entertainment and made my first feature film at 26 as a producer (with Love Breakups Zindagi). I really enjoyed the process.
Kaafir (Zee5’s web series) came to me at a wonderful time because I think I was so ready to understand the politics of the story, the social and the psychological distress of the character…. It was a life-altering experience for me as an artist. It was deeply gratifying given the substance, the depth, the length and the gravitas of the part. It is a noble story. It gave me a fresh lease of life.
Dia, the “advocate”…
There is no separating the two (the actress and the advocate). The kind of parts I am choosing now stands for something, share about something, speak of something that is important to me. The work I do outside of cinema has in so many ways contributed to defining my purpose and helping me understand what it is that I possibly want to do and giving me unadulterated joy. A lot of this work is deeply personal and painful and I can’t tell you the levels of anxiety we feel because of the magnitude of the issues we are dealing with but the joy of being a part of the solution is unparalleled.
The sustainability journey…
I discovered in the early 2000s that so much of the ill health that the young children and people were suffering from was caused by environmental degradation. What I realised early was that scientists, environmentalists and those who work with wildlife and natural habitat protection weren’t getting an opportunity to reach mainstream society. I realised that I needed to act on it. What if I could become between a bridge between these incredible people who had the knowledge and science and take that to mainstream society by using my platform and voice.
While doing this work, there were so many big shifts that I had to create in my own life. I am learning to be a better citizen of the planet than ever before. Our choices and actions have an impact on the planet and on all other lives and living beings. We have the power of personal choice and we can make better choices and have the power to compel governments, industries and civil society to do better.
I think something you and I can easily do is to switch to a mostly plant-based diet, refuse all single-use plastics, compost and segregate waste at home and just reduce your levels of consumption and waste. I made a switch from regular cleaners to completely natural cleaners and my personal hygiene items have been completely replaced with totally sustainable and natural products… from regular sanitary napkins to biodegradable sanitary napkins because I didn’t know for the entire duration of my life that the sanitary napkins were mostly made of plastic. It is so ironical that something that is supposed to empower women and take care of their health and hygiene is actually causing cervical cancer… and polluting the soil, air and water.
We also need to choose forever fashion (over fast fashion). I look for the story behind the garment and choose textiles and garments that uplift lives, (are) sustainable, natural and have a long, durable lifespan.
Her ‘sustainable’ wedding…
I think the most sustainable thing about the wedding was the fact there were very few people who travelled. It was a very intimate wedding and 99 per cent of our guests were local and the decor was completely natural with locally-sourced flowers. We did it in our garden at the back of the building where I spend every morning listening to bird songs. Every other element of the decor was reusable and recyclable. The food was also catered with specific instructions. We knew exactly who ate what and the kind of quantities, so we had no waste. We ensured that there is absolutely no plastic at the wedding. You cannot achieve any kind of sustainability without gender equality. Sheila Atta, our priestess, was absolutely divine.