Dia Mirza: Star with a conscience
The actress who is now more popular for her work in sustainability and environment than her films, is making a comeback of sorts with Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanjay Dutt biopic
We expected a long wait. It’s the usual ritual before meeting any Bollywood celebrity. Twiddling with our phones, making small talk with whoever is present in the hotel lobby, that’s what we do. But this time, it was different. We were on time, and so was the interviewee. But things couldn’t be that smooth and easy -- there had to be a slight build-up.
We rang the bell of the luxurious suite, and a chirpy voice asked us to come in. It was the secretary, “She’s just getting ready. Would you like something to drink?” we’re welcomed. Dressed in a Gaurang Shah salwar kameez that had illustrations of recreated paintings of Ajanta and embossed sequins, Dia Mirza looked aptly dressed for a grand evening.
As we tell her that she’s now more popular for her work in sustainability and environment than her films, she nods with a smile and agrees. “This year, I have worked on some really interesting content,” says Dia, and goes on to talk about her recent public appearances -- videos and pictures of which went viral on social media.
“I did something unusual. I went with 1,200 citizens to clean up Juhu Beach in Mumbai after the Ganesh visarjan (immersion) at the end of the recent festive season. I think, for the first time, many people got to see what really happens to the idols after immersion -- the idols get crushed by bulldozers and are cleared out to be dumped in a yard,” explains Dia.
The experience did shake up most people, she says. “I don’t think anyone understood the disrespect that they were doing to the essence of worship. This video perhaps made them sit up and say, ‘This is why we shouldn’t be using Plaster of Paris or plastic, and this is why we should not be celebrating our festivals in non-earth-friendly ways’.” But this wasn’t a one-off event, where Dia was able to connect with so many citizens not as an actress, but as a champion of the environment.
Leading a mammoth task
Two months earlier, in August this year, Dia who is the brand ambassador of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), launched Gaj Yatra, a 15-month awareness campaign on the shrinking space for India’s wild elephants, and the importance of elephant corridors.
“Gaj Yatra was born out of the realisation that, while Herculean efforts are being made by conservationists across the country, it is not enough. It is imperative that civil society becomes involved and joins these conservation efforts, the only way through which conservationists can see policy change, and improve awareness and understanding at a grassroots level,” urges Dia.
She goes on to say, “When you mobilise people and involve society, make them understand the deep connection with nature, and the impacts of loss of nature, loss of habitat, and loss of wildlife on their immediate lives, it percolates change at many levels.” Gaj Yatra, in essence, does exactly that.
“When we talk about the environment, there’s always a defeatist and fatalist attitude that people seem to have. What we want to do with Gaj Yatra is to celebrate one of our national animals, and use festivity to define our understanding of how we are connected to nature,” says the actress, who has been talking about this initiative at various forums, and was in Bengaluru too, at the RoundGlass Samsara summit, held at the Vidhana Soudha earlier this month.
But the larger task at hand for Dia and her team is when they set on the actual yatra (journey), the official dates for which are yet to be decided. “It is a massive task, as the yatra will reach 4,000 villages, from Kerala all the way to Meghalaya, covering all Indian states with an elephant population,” she explains. The exercise will require a huge amount of manpower and public support, and while work is in full swing, there is extraordinary support from artists across different vocations -- painters, sculptors, musicians and composers.
Lage Raho... to Sanju
The actress is now set to make a comeback of sorts with Rajkumar Hirani’s next production, a biopic on Sanjay Dutt, tentatively titled Sanju. Dia, who worked with Rajkumar on Lage Raho Munna Bhai earlier, has been cast in the role of Manyata Dutt opposite Ranbir Kapoor, who plays Sanjay Dutt. Filming has been completed, except for one song, and the film is scheduled for release early next year.
Talking about the director, Dia says, “He’s one of the most evolved, thought-provoking minds in the country. We are lucky that he has chosen cinema as his medium of expression, because while he tells engaging and entertaining stories, he also raises some really hard and important questions. I have been lucky to have worked with him on Lage Raho… which is one of my favourite films. Even if I wasn’t in it, it would have been my favourite.”
More importantly, everyone has been talking about Ranbir Kapoor’s look in the film. The prosthetics and make-up result in the young actor closely resembling Sanjay Dutt. Even his body language gives him an edge, something that’s visible in the handful of images that were leaked from the film’s shoots.
“He’s possibly one of the most extra-ordinary talents our country has ever seen,” says Dia, about Ranbir. “He’s a natural, effortlessly talented, and has a great temperament. He never had a bad day or a bad mood. We were uncomfortable even without prosthetics on our face or head, but he would be in make-up with prosthetics for six hours, even when it was really hot. It was amazing working with him,” says the actress.
Though she is active as a producer with her production company Born Free, and also working on content for TV, while being actively involved with various organisations, Dia hasn’t worked in a major commercial film in a while. “My doing this film has thankfully also busted some strange myths that every married woman in our industry has to deal with -- ‘Oh, she’s a producer now, and she’s also married, clearly she has very little time to act.’ Now, the people have realised that I am acting as well, so the offers are coming again,” she signs off.