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The Serendipitous Life of Dia Mirza
Despite spending 20 years in the industry, the actor describes her life as a series of in-the-right-place-in-the-right-time events. We discover that it's nothing but a product of her faith and hard work.
Photographs by
Rohan Shrestha
; Styled by
Theia Tekchandaney
; Words by
Ashwini Arun Kumar

Dia Mirza is a busy person. Not the lackadaisical version of busy that we have come to associate celebrities with, but the real kind. She is preoccupied with things concerning all 7 billion of us and a few million other species with whom our fate is intertwined. She is busy saving the planet - and looking fantastic while she is at it.

When I interview her a few days after this shoot, I learn that she is traveling. "I have been really tied up. But how are you doing?" she asks me in her trademark chirpy voice, filled with a sort of optimistic energy that's also very contagious. In fact, optimistic seems to be her default setting - something I experienced first hand at Rohan Shrestha's studio, where I met her for the first time. To say she is the human variant of a Himalayan salt lamp would not be a hyperbole; she definitely knows how to make people feel at ease. The fact that she is very easy on the eyes and has failed to surrender to the usual norms of ageing (she just turned 39, good luck guessing without using Google) only helps more.

Lehenga,
Rahul Mishra;
necklace and earrings,
Golecha’s Jewels

Dia Mirza, born Dia Handrich, is biracial – a fact not a lot of people know about her despite the actor’s openness about it. Her mother, Deepa, is Bengali and her biological father, Frank Handrich, was German. After her parents divorced and her mother re-married, Dia went from living in a nuclear family-setting to living with her stepfather Ahmed Mirza’s extended Muslim family, whose last name the actor later adopted for herself. I can’t help but ask if this was confusing to her as a child. “When I was younger, I remember religion wreaking havoc in my life (laughs). I would go home and ask my mother, what am I? Because the lines are too defined, right? You are either a Hindu or a Muslim. I would perpetually be asked in school, what are you? So, I would go back home and ask my mom that.” Her mother, Dia tells me, asked her to just be a good human. Dia’s father died when she was still a child, and her stepfather passed away in her early 20s. Her immediate family today is her mother, who makes occasional appearances on the actor’s ‘gram - and, of course, the three-year-old Kenyan female rhino named after her that she once told Miss Malini is like her first child (although by the time you read this, Dia will have culminated her super-secretive relationship with Mumbai-based businessman Vaibhav Rekhi in marriage and added another orbit to her familial solar system).

Dia Mirza has an outsider quality to her, despite the fact that she is a big-time movie star who lives in a chic Bombay suburb, and calls Aditi Rao Hydari and Diana Penty her closest friends. Maybe it’s because she has grown up in an atmosphere far removed from the glitzy one of Bollywood, in Hyderabad, and never in her formative years considered acting to be a career for herself. “I was a dreamer,” she tells me reminiscing about life back then, “I loved entertaining and performing, but I could never see myself as a film actor.” Like any other girl from the ‘80s and ‘90s, she watched every movie starring Madhuri Dixit, Sridevi, and Rekha and danced to their hit songs. "I have vivid memories of dancing to Mere Hathon Men Nau Nau Churiyan Hain at a wedding. Little did the 11-year-old me know that she would be spending hours in the rehearsal hall learning the steps to the songs that she would be dancing to," she says, laughing at her own naivety. It wasn’t until a serendipitous call from The Times of India team, asking her to participate in their annual Miss India event, that she considered anything glamorous a real possibility.

Lehenga,
Rahul Mishra;
necklace and earrings,
Golecha’s Jewels

Serendipity, in fact, is a word that often comes up with Dia in conversations surrounding her life, which she describes as a series of in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time events.

Like every successful model, Dia’s story also starts with a happenstance discovery. She was at a Secunderabad club when a model coordinator spotted her and offered her a job to walk the ramp for a fashion show that was happening over the weekend. “I took the job because she was paying me 7000 rupees for one show,” she says with a laugh. What started as a one-off opportunity soon grew into a steady side hustle. “I would take these overnight buses from Hyderabad to Bangalore to do small shoots. In 1999, The Bangalore Times was doing a feature on women representing the new millennium. I was chosen for that shoot. While we were shooting, the journalist asked me my age and what I do otherwise; I told her I worked in a multi-media agency, attended college and modelled, too.” The journalist ended up interviewing her. “There was a full-blown column about me in The Bangalore Times newspaper when I was a complete nobody!” It was because of that interview and that photoshoot that I got invited to be a part of Miss India.”

Today, participating in a Miss India contest is like applying for a job interview. Women, notwithstanding their beauty, have to audition alongside thousands of applicants for talent and personality. Dia knows this because she has since judged these competitions one too many times herself. Does she know how many women today would want to switch places with her? “Oh yeah. I totally lucked out,” she says in a voice still laced with slight disbelief. She became Miss India at 18 and went on to win Miss Asia-Pacific at 19 at the same time when Lara Dutta was crowned Miss Universe and Priyanka Chopra, Miss World.

Cape, top, and skirt,
Anamika Khanna;
necklace and earrings,
Satyani Fine Jewels;
shoes,
Dia's own

More pageant winners have been launched as actors in the early noughties in Bollywood than at any other time. Dia was working toward making a movie debut opposite Abhishek Bachchan when Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein came to her. It was RHTDM – the acronym it has come to be famously known as - starring R. Madhavan and Saif Ali Khan, that catapulted Dia into becoming a national sweetheart. The movie gained cult status (last May, when Dia invited Madhavan to join her in her Instagram video podcast, Down to Earth with Dee, the comment section was filled with people still addressing them as Maddy and Reena) and even helped Dia snag the award for Best Debut that year, but despite its massive pop culture appeal, the movie tanked at the box office. Rehnaa Hai Terre Dil Mein came with a ridiculous amount of hype and mad publicity. When the movie failed, it was like a grinding halt,” says Dia, who compares the experience to an untoward crash landing.

Tragically for her, it looked like her career had ensconced itself in this nadir. By 2003 when Lara Dutta’s highly anticipated debut movie, Andaaz, also starring Priyanka Chopra and Akshay Kumar, released, Dia had been a part of three other major movies opposite Salman Khan, Arjun Rampal, and Vivek Oberoi, all of which met the same fate as RHTDM despite her earnest performances. Andaaz, as it turns out, went on to become one of the highest grossing movies of that year. It wasn’t until 2006 when Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanjay Dutt-starrer Lage Raho Munna Bhai came her way that she had commercial success of epic proportions. Her role as Simran Singh – the virtuous daughter of a delinquent businessman played by Boman Irani – was applauded by people and critics alike.

Cape, top, and skirt,
Anamika Khanna;
necklace and earrings,
Satyani Fine Jewels

I am hesitant about asking her if she ever felt disconcerted by competition or jaded by the need to constantly succeed; I ask anyway. “Oh yeah,” she admits. A gentle reminder that she is only human. “When you are that young and impressionable, you forget how transient all of the fuss and attention is, and being able to maintain that kind of attention takes a serious amount of hard work. I went through many, many shifts in my early 20s, just understanding how to manage my emotions better because we take everything so personally, right? If somebody is writing a nasty article about an imaginary affair that they think you are having with someone, that hurts you; if somebody blames you for the failure of a film, it hurts you; there’s just so much that you are learning to grapple with.” Her genial smile does a lot to dilute the caustic in her story but does little to help you from imagining a 20-something, small-town import, totally out of her depth and dealing with the industry without the safety net of a support system. The fact that she is thriving here today is stuff that’s worthy of a motivational quote board. The key, Dia tells me with her inherent optimism, is to find your own path and do what makes you truly happy. Something tells me that on the list of things that make her happy, acting is just one of the many important bullet points.

Philanthropy must be in Dia’s DNA. Her mother, Deepa, is known for her volunteer work with alcoholics and drug addicts. Going by the apple and tree logic, it is not surprising to find Dia lending her support to various social causes, although, in her case, her brush with fame at a surprisingly tender age was the stimuli. “When you are young, driven by ambition, and constantly judged by the work you do, I think it removes you from reality. I recognised that if I remained focused on the material and what people think of me, I would go crazy,” she says. While working in films gave her a high, she says it wasn’t “soul satisfying”. That gratitude is reserved for her work with cancer patients, raising awareness for HIV and female foeticide, and spending time with kids as a part of her role with CRY and Save The Children. “I felt like I needed to be in touch with real people and be a part of the process that brings positive change. Funnily enough, it is these experiences that have, in so many ways, contributed to me becoming a better artist.”

Anarkali,
House of Kotwara;
necklace and passa,
Satyani Fine Jewels

Maybe this is the secret sauce of Dia’s life as a Bollywood actor because when she did re-enter the public consciousness with Sanju after a six-year long hiatus, there was no stopping her. Sure, Ranbir Kapoor was the bigwig in the film, but Dia’s portrayal of Manyata Dutt - a woman, a wife, and a mother, fighting to keep her family hermetically closed off from Sanjay’s very public trial - cannot be eschewed.

What has also changed is the kind of roles Dia is saying yes to. Back in the day it was rather common for actors to upstage their female co-stars. It is unfortunate that Dia’s early filmography is a misogynistic flashback of the atavistic arm candy roles that were offered to her, not in spite of, but because of her freakishly good looks. “The industry has become a more democratic place because of the various platforms today that you can use to tell stories on. It has really widened the playing field for storytellers and empowered the actors. Women, I think, have benefited greatly from it.” she says. A quick then-and-now, considering the actor has spent nearly two decades in the business. Today, she is dictating her narrative by choosing roles that represent women better. Case in point: her role as Kainaaz Akhtar in the web-series, Kaafir, a story that traces the life of a Pakistani villager, mistaken for a militant and subsequently jailed for years that resonates with women across all borders. Or her role in Thappad, where she plays the part of Shivani Fonseca, who is upending patriarchy by choosing to continue living life as a single mother despite the naysayers. “I want to do roles that stir me, better me, and carry a strong social message. It is important to stand for something,” she says when I ask her about the kind of roles that she wants to embody. “I need to feel passionate about it.”

Saree,
Niharika Kamani;
maang tikka, earrings, and kada,
Golecha’s Jewels

Passion, I understand, is at the crux of most things Dia does. Which is how we get to discussing about the environment. For the uninitiated, Dia is a UN Environment Program Goodwill Ambassador, a title she shares with some very influential boldface names like Katy Perry, model Gisele Bündchen, and Leonardo DiCaprio to name a few. She is also one of the 17 hand-picked advocates of the UN Sustainable Development Goals program that is working toward solving vital questions posed by climate change, environmental pressure, poverty and inequality by 2030. “I was working with several organisations in the country at that point, and obviously using my social media to highlight a lot of the environmental issues. The Environment Programme was looking for representation in India, and they found me,” she says, narrating the life-changing opportunity as yet another one of her serendipitous instances.

Dia Mirza may be doing her bit for the planet, but she is also a part of an industry that dodges most conversations about its responsibility toward the environment with much chutzpah. I talk about my favoruite part about last year’s Oscars - Joaquin Phoenix championing animal rights issues after winning an award, that too his first, for Joker, and draw parallels with Bollywood. I ask her if she ever feels like she is at moral cross-roads here. “When I started talking about the environment and wildlife, there were very few people in the entertainment business who had the awareness, let alone the interest, to speak about it. But I am really happy to see that it’s changing rapidly,” she says to counter my nihilism. “The younger generation of actors like Shraddha and Alia are environmentally conscious, love wildlife, care about nature, and are unafraid to use the power and strength of their social media to make a difference. It is very encouraging to many other people who at one point felt alienated, singled out, and alone. Our community is expanding and that is a great thing.”

Saree,
Niharika Kamani;
maang tikka, earrings, ring, and kada,
Golecha’s Jewels

A conversation with Dia Mirza must have felt like a means to syphon my environmental concerns (a side-effect of doomscrolling on Twitter, I suppose) because I can’t help but bombard her with more questions. What about not letting the temperature go over 1.50C? Are the fossil fuel giants backing off? Can the nature really course-correct itself? Are there more pandemics on the horizon? “The human species definitely cares deeply about its own survival. They are very resilient,” she says. “So, to answer your question, if we manage to convince that small percentage of humanity that is polluting and destroying the planet that all of human survival is at stake, we should be able to correct the course.” And just like that, I am reminded that optimism is Dia Mirza’s default setting after all.




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