Exclusive! Dia Mirza on how she’d rather break away from shackles and have a strong voice though her films than anything else
The actor and environmentalist speaks to Cosmopolitan India about playing strong, emotive characters, why her character in the recently-released Bheed matters and how her next movie brought up a memory of her father.
Actors come into their own when they essay their characters, which are very much like them, in stories that are immensely important in the day and age they live in. Which is why, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that actor and environmentalist Dia Mirza is enjoying the roles and films that she’s currently doing. With each performance that brings to light how we, as a society are, and the things that we care for and are ignoring, Mirza has very much found her voice in raising issues that are slowly seeing the light of day.
The actor, fresh off the success of her recently-released film Bheed, speaks to Cosmopolitan India in an exclusive interview where she talks about having made a conscious choice to play characters who are strong, emotive, and empathetic, what working on the film taught her about privilege, and ticking something off her bucket list in her upcoming movie.
Cosmopolitan India: Over your past few films, we’ve seen how you’ve now made it a conscious choice to play strong, emotive characters. Was there any particular moment that made you decide that this is what you want to do and will stick to it?
Dia Mirza: Oh yes. I think I’ve very consciously decided over a decade or so that I wanted to use my voice to further my purpose and help make a difference. I’ve used that outside of films and in films as well. I don’t think I would find it as comfortable or easy to play parts or do films that don’t make a difference to anybody’s life, you know. I really think that cinema is such a powerful instrument for social change that if one gets the opportunity where they can genuinely impact, inspire people or be a reflection of society that can help people internalize and make them think about what kind of people they choose to be, that for me, as an artist, is truly satisfying. I feel that after spending more than two decades in the industry, I have the luxury of saying no to characters and stories that don’t resonate with me. And to be secure in the knowledge that saying 10 no’s can lead to two good yes’s that will really matter over anything. Many of our choices are driven by fear. I think one of the things that the industry tends to do is that they tell you, as a woman, you have a shelf life and will only play certain parts till a certain point. Once you age and cross that stage, where you stop worrying about such things, you become more free and open to what truly represents who you are and what you stand for.
CI: Do you miss not having done such kind of cinema in the early stages of your career?
DM: Even when I was younger, in my early 20s, while I was doing very mainstream films, I did a few off-beat stories as well. I made some untraditional choices back in the day. What didn’t work in my favour was that I had a very mainstream face, and also, when you do those kinds of films, you aren’t considered by filmmakers of the other genre; unless you’re outstanding, and I don’t think I was, in my early films. I really think that it is my life’s experiences and those outside cinemas that have helped me understand and determine what my voice is. And that reflects in my performances. I don’t think I would have been able to play the parts I do today in the earlier stages of my career. I didn’t have the maturity or emotional depth.
CI: We’ve seen you work so closely on environmental and wildlife protection, is there any project or topic that you want to see highlighted on cinema? Is there anything in the works?
DM: There are great stories from the ground that must be told. It’s so inspiring that Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga have won the country an Oscar (for The Elephant Whisperers). It’s a lease of life for each one of us who wants to tell stories set in nature. The fact of the matter is that there are absolutely incredible stories. Yes, they must be told. Hopefully, there will be more takers. I have been trying to put stuff together for some years. But it’s not easy to get made, and that’s a fact.
CI: Do such choices stem from how socially driven you are as a person?
DM: Yes. You got that right.
CI: Even with Bheed, we see you play the role of a mother who’s desperate to reach her daughter’s hostel before her husband amidst a global pandemic. How much did putting yourself in the shoes of this lady affect you personally?
DM: I’ve always been curious about the role of empathy in privilege and how people lack it despite having it and tend to be so entitled. It was interesting, as my character (Gitanjali) is an empowered woman. She is a single mother, a working woman who is educated and trying to get to her child. Her crisis is as real as it could be to any mother. But in a moment of truth, she reveals an un-empathetic side to herself. And that to me was very interesting. Because that was real, it’s a human flaw. I don’t know if I would respond that way in real life. From what I’ve understood of myself so far, I tend to respond to everyone else—especially to people who are in trouble. Even if I have something going on, my inherent response comes from a very strong place of empathy. It was hard for me to switch off my personal empathy and essay the role.
CI: Did being a mother make you relate to the character even more?
DM: That part for sure. The moment of truth where this very ugly side emerges in this character was very hard to play. I had to abandon my own identity to play her, especially in that moment. And that’s what acting is all about—surrendering to the part completely.
CI: What do you have to say about Bheed being entirely shot in black and white?
DM: I thought it was a very powerful device, an interesting choice that I felt was very liberating for us. It’s the first film that we got to do where we didn’t have to fuss over the hair and where we wore the same costume every single day. That in itself was so liberating. The fact that it’s black and white is evocative of very strong emotions and there are many layers within that narrative that are emerging because the film is such (shot in black and white).
CI: A film like that can make you think about the things you didn’t think of before. Can you share what went through your mind?
DM: Oh yes, it does. There are so many issues that are revealed in the film and are focused on what’s not part of your and my everyday life. These are not issues that we deal with, but there people who have to do that. We read about honour killings, caste-based violence, but we don’t experience it. Just living through this story and understanding the world of these characters and where they come from was an eye opener. It really expands your understanding of what all this is about.
CI: Tell us about being part of the first film crew to ride from Delhi to Khardung La, the world’s highest motorable pass, for Dhak Dhak.
DM: It’s one of the most empowering stories I’ve ever been a part of. I was super stoked that it was being made. The ride itself was so liberating, exciting, and challenging to begin with. We started filming at the peak of summer in New Delhi. I was in a hijab and on the bike, riding on the highway. I learnt how to ride a bike in the process in just two days. My father was a rider and I always wanted to do the same. The image of my dad and I on the bike is special and I wanted to relive that with my kids. It was on my bucket list and it’s now ticked off.
CI: Set to release in April, what’s the movie all about?
DM: Dhak Dhak is a very empowering story that revolves around the life of four women. It’s possibly one of the finest stories that I’ve been a part of. I hope the audiences enjoy the ride as much as we did.