Animal rights crusader, child education champion, Covid warrior, body positivity influencer - Amyra Dastur wears many hats. Embracing the new year with renewed optimism, Aza envisions the young actress as a fashionable and fearless bride for 2022
Surely, you know a girl who grew up idolizing the three Khans of Indian cinema; someone who pitted every boy who exhibited interest in her to Shah Rukh Khan's Raj or Rahul. Like most of us, she grew up dreaming of falling madly in love DDLJ style. It's exactly these innocently candid and highly relatable confessions that draw me to Amyra; she's every girl. Do you also know a girl who makes every Aamir Khan movie a family event at the theatre and still wakes up at the crack of dawn to catch the morning show of Salman Khan's latest, only to surreptitiously partake in all the hooting in the multiplex, courtesy the college crowd? Well, here's where the familiarity ends. Because here's a successful actor who gleefully does all of the above, but also voluntarily utilizes her time to help other beings as much as she can. For starters, she selflessly served as a frontline warrior during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic. Having successfully traversed the various stages of change to overcome her own body insecurities, she's unafraid to talk about her long journey to body positivity and self-confidence, something we all strive towards and struggle with. She willingly took on the challenge of making her cinematic debut with an adaptation a beloved Shakespearean masterpiece. She's fearless - she dreams with eyes wide open because she believes in herself and in a beautiful future for humanity - and that's what makes Amyra Dastur the perfect muse for Aza's "Brides 2022" theme.
For the longest time since her debut in Issaq in 2013, people referred to Amyra as 'Bachchi' or 'Juliet.' Bachchi was her character's name in the film, which was an Indian adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. At a glance, it's easy to understand why filmmaker Manish Tiwary chose Amyra for the role - in the words of the Bard, "She doth teach the torches to burn bright!" She radiates a magical, fairy-like aura as she smilingly glides into the studio in a short blue and pink floral dress. As the shoot progresses, we get to know a thorough professional who proactively invites feedback and constructive criticism so she can improve with each frame.
Having started her career as a model at 16, Amyra has come a long way starring in not just Hindi, but also Tamil, Telugu, and English movies. As her hair gets prepped for the first look of the shoot - for which she's dressed in a lightweight, bright-as-sunshine orange Mayyur Girotra lehenga - the actress shares, "I always wanted to act. It was modelling that I never wanted to get into. I was shy when it came to posing, and fashion scared me because I was so uncomfortable with my body at the time. Acting for me was a way to escape the world. I'd be in every school play there was. I would save my pocket money to take acting workshops after school or to watch the newest Oscar-winning movie as it released in the theatre." She winks conspiratorially as she confides, "It's my obsession even now!"
But while she's a thorough Mumbai born-and-bred girl, she didn't have any connections in the film industry. How, then, did she find herself in cinema? "Initially, my family and I didn't know who to reach out to. My mother had a friend, who was a huge model back in the day. She said I'd have to start modelling to break into Bollywood because that's the only way to get recognized by an agency, who would then send me on auditions. So, at 16 I got my portfolio shot and sent to a few agencies, who seemed interested. The rest is history."
Well, recent history had Amyra sharing screen space with Saif Ali Khan in Tandav, Prabhudeva in Bagheera (pending release) and Kunal Kapur in Koi Jaane Na. In the past, she has worked with South superstar Dhanush, and played a pivotal role in the international martial arts drama, Kung Fu Yoga starring Jackie Chan - the film was also released worldwide in English and Mandarin. Evidently still in awe of the Hong Kong actor, director, martial artist, Amyra gushes, "He's truly one of the coolest people I've had the pleasure of working with! Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd get a chance to meet my favourite action star, let alone co-star in a film with him. He's exactly like he is on screen - funny, humble and hardworking." Her voice takes on an affectionate note as she shares anecdotes from working with the international icon. "It took me a week to actually hold a conversation with him because I was so starstruck and nervous to even look him in the eye! But he made all of us in the crew feel so comfortable in China. He'd take us out to dinner to try different Chinese dishes. He'd train with us between shots to make the action sequences look better. He's truly one of a kind and has a huge heart."
As she takes position in front of the camera, Amyra transforms from a spunky 28-year-old into a graceful woman who deftly channels the oomph of a glamorous bride-to-be. Even as she makes funny faces before the camera clicks begin and lightheartedly chuckles, she immediately transitions into an enigmatic combination of boss lady and ethereal angel at the single call of 'action!" It's this undiluted charm and dedication that has bagged her several projects in films as well as on OTT platforms. But, as we continue our conversation, I realize Amyra is someone who truly celebrates the rise of OTT as one of the primary providers of entertainment. While her eyes get shadowed and cheekbones get highlighted for the next look, she says, "OTT has managed to shatter the perception of star power and establish content as the king. Good actors are finally getting their due because filmmakers are looking for performers who can hold a show of 8-10 episodes and keep the audience hooked for 10-12 hours. Several big stars are producing their own web series, and the budgets have increased. I'm really excited to see where this will go."
Perhaps one of Amyra's best qualities is that she values time - her own as well as others'. She's swift in her takes and knows exactly what she wants to depict on camera. After she changes from a vibrant Gopi Vaid creation into a spectacular lehenga from Vvani by Vats Vats, I perch on a bench across the make-up room to understand the events that led her to serve on the frontlines in combatting the Covid crisis. "I've been living independently in Mumbai since 2016. After the pandemic hit and India was locked down, my father - the medical director of a city hospital at the time - helmed efforts to do whatever was necessary to prevent the spread of the pandemic. He was 67 in 2020 but determined to go to the hospital every day. We knew nothing about Covid-19 at the time, only that it severely affected people over the age of 50. Mom asked me to stay with them again and help keep an eye on dad. At the hospital, my father was grappling with extreme staff shortage. He asked if I could help and I was more than happy to because I'd be around to make sure he's okay. I took on some of his secretary's responsibilities, taking notes for him. I helped his marketing people with social media as everyone was looking for beds in hospitals via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. I helped dad set up online consultation for patients who couldn't get to a doctor physically. I connected him with a few charities and NGOs when the hospital's kitchen staff tested Covid positive to ensure a steady supply of quality food to recovering patients... I'll never forget that time," she sighs. "I was so petrified because dad was overwhelmed and exhausted. No one knew much about this disease. He always put on a brave face whenever he went to work, but I knew he was stressed. Today, I can't be prouder to be the daughter of a doctor." I promptly thank her for her contribution, too.
With her father being a former surgeon and mother a volunteer with The Red Cross, giving back to society must come naturally to Amyra, I wonder aloud. Aligning the bangles on her wrist, she shares, "My brother and I didn't grow up with a lot; our parents started earning well much later. But even my remotest memories of mom see her as a real hero. She rescued every animal we've raised. She's someone who will starve, but ensure you have food on your table. She's the one who inculcated in us the virtue of sharing. I'm an ardent supporter of girl child education in India. Currently, I'm financing the education of three girls for Shiksha Foundation. I finance World for All initiatives and help create awareness about animal rights. I feel if you're doing well in life, it's your duty to make the world a better place for others."
Amyra and her family have rescued and adopted multiple abandoned animals, either from charities or after receiving SOS messages. Looking like a vision in a striking green floral print Anushree Reddy lehenga, Amyra cheerfully embarks on one of her favourite subjects. "I've lived with animals all my life. We have a family home in Khandala, where we’ve raised the rescued dogs. My first dog was Elsa, a brindle boxer who was subjected to physical abuse and solitary confinement for the first 6 months of her life. The remnants of that trauma remained with her and she used to be very aggressive. But my mom coaxed her into trusting us and our love for her. Eventually, from a scared dog, Elsa transformed into the most loving creature I knew. After Elsa, we've had four more dogs over the years. I'm hassling my mom now to rescue one more but it's taking longer than I thought. I do have a feeling there will be a four-legged addition to our family soon," she winks with an optimistic twinkle in her eyes.
Professionally, 2021 has been a great year for Amyra as she bagged several brand endorsements, films and a web series. At the moment, Amyra is shooting for Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani's Amazon Prime web series, Dongri to Dubai, based on Hussain Zaidi's book, Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia. The year also saw the actress turn showstopper for Rocky S at the Delhi Times Fashion Week. But despite her work schedule, Amyra - a firm believer in holistic well-being - always makes time for workouts. Temptingly wooing the lens in a striking blue embellished lehenga by The Indian Bridal Company, Amyra has the shooting crew enamoured. So, it takes me by surprise when she confides in us about her body insecurities. She shares, "A lot of people don't know this, but I've only recently become comfortable in my body. I've had major body issues since I was a girl. I have cellulite and stretch marks. I was so scared of not looking perfect all the time that I'd try to avoid going on trips with my family and friends. Getting into fitness is what changed me and my mindset. It brought me closer to loving my body for what it is instead of what it should be. Today, I love working out - it's my meditation and Zen time."
As I ponder over her words, I'm in complete awe of Amyra's inner strength and determination. In fact, it makes me feel proud of this Parsi girl who self-admittedly doesn't know how to cook but can survive on dhansak and rice. "I eat what I want to eat, then I go and burn off the calories," she laughs before elucidating, "fitness is important to me, but I perceive looking fashionable as being like a chameleon. It calls for risks - sometimes it'll be amazing, sometimes you'll go down in flames. Fashion is so subjective that you'll never please everyone with your outfit. But if you're confident and if you feel good in what you're wearing, I'd say your battle is already won. I dress for myself and I always will. It has taken me years to accept myself, to accept my body and be as confident as I am today. That to me is my most fashionable moment." With this transformative acceptance of her 'self' and her insistence on putting her mind over body, she garners more admiration from me.
While Amyra aces every single editorially curated look in the shoot, for me, she steals the show when she steps out of the changing room in a scarlet Ariyana Couture lehenga. In this, she personifies the quintessential Bollywood heroine. I recall reading that she has always been a huge fan of the three Khans, so I ask her about this. She endearingly giggles before responding, "As an Indian girl, I think I can speak for all women when I say, you can't not be a fan of the three Khans! For a Salman Khan film, my friends and I always go for the morning show that college students usually catch, cheering and hooting in the multiplex. Aamir sir is one of my favourite actors. It's a family event watching his films at the theatre. And SRK probably set the bar for every relationship I was in. He was my definition of romance. I feel really bad for my boyfriends now because I had high expectations from them. For every teenage girl like me, SRK set the benchmark for what the perfect boyfriend should be! The three Khans have devoted their lives to Indian cinema. I hope that one day I can do half as much as them." Amen, we say.