Dia Mirza made her Bollywood debut in 2001, when the industry was stuck in its old ways, with formula films ruling the charts and hackneyed roles being written for women. Much has changed over the years, just as Mirza herself has evolved as an actor, looking to experiment and challenge stereotypes. She speaks to Ranu Joardar about her film career and how it led to her first web series, Kaafir.
Q. Over the years, you have been very selective about signing movies and in each movie we have seen a different Dia Mirza. With Kaafir, you are experimenting for the first time with the online medium. But are you experimenting with your role as well? Which Dia Mirza would we see in your debut web series?
A. In this show, I play a Pakistani woman who, at the age of 21, jumps into a river in Pakistan—for reasons you will discover—and gets washed ashore to the Indian side. She gets imprisoned, gets pregnant in prison and for seven years she raises her child while being in prison, with no one to fight her case or even ask why she got there, how she got there and what the future holds for her, until a journalist happens to discover her. Kaafir is about what it means for a human being to be trapped in human conflict, and about the idea of “freedom” as seen through her eyes.
Q. What in your view is the X factor of Kaafir?
A. Kaafir’s theme is, “Humanity is my religion.” The theme addresses prejudices that we have against nations, communities, religions, castes, and regions; and also prejudices that we have against ourselves. What makes it truly powerful is the fact that this theme has been inspired by true events. The show depicts a true journey, which a real person has experienced. Hearing the script for the first time gave me the impulse to perform the role of Kainaz [the name of Mirza’s character in Kaafir], or rather to experience Kainaz’s torment. Remarkably, anybody who has either watched the trailer or the extended footage, or just looked at the posters, is getting goosebumps, which I myself experienced while working on the web series.
Q. Online streaming platforms these days have amassed a sizeable audience. Most people subscribe to some OTT service or other. For filmmakers, too, the online space presents new opportunities, with more creative freedom. What are you views on how OTT platforms are changing entertainment in our time?
A. It is because of OTT platforms that Kaafir will be releasing in 147 countries. Had Kaafir been a movie, it would have been just a story that we would have to tell in one-and-a-half or two hours. If it were a movie, it would also have been censored; we would have to change the narrative while cutting out several important bits that add to the evolution and depth of each character. However, in OTTs there is no censorship, thus making this a democratic environment. On these platforms, art flows naturally and honestly. Here, you don’t have to do something because you have to get box-office numbers; instead, you can be true to the story you’re telling. Earlier, OTT shows were becoming somewhat like a teenager who gets crazy with his new-found freedom. Now, however, I feel that web shows have achieved a level of maturity.
Q. With so many OTT platforms now available, do you think young artistes and filmmakers stand a better chance of showcasing their talent and making a name for themselves in the industry?
A. Yes, indeed. Nowadays, every OTT platform has web series with talented actors who might have got lost otherwise. These platforms have also created a bridge between TV and movies. We have terms like chota parda [small screen] and bada parda [big screen]. But now the question is: under which category does OTT figure? I feel that the media here is at fault as they are yet to break down the wall between chota parda and bada parda.
Q. Over time, the entertainment industry has surely evolved. But have you witnessed any progressive change in terms of how women are depicted in our films and shows now?
A. I feel proud when I see women refusing to answer stereotypical questions that have been around for years. Gender inequality is perpetuated through our storytelling. Even when you talk about Reena Malhotra in Rehnaa Hai Tere Dil Mein [Mirza’s first film, released in 2001, in which she played the role of Reena] there are several things that still trouble me. For example, why would Reena have to fall in love with a stalker? After all Maddy [played by R. Madhavan] was a stalker—he harassed her, lied to her. So why did she fall in love with him? There is something fundamentally wrong with that. We have seen several such movies, like Darr .
Today we talk about equality, feminism, environmental and social activism, because people have now chosen not to follow the norms and to question them.
Q. Some time ago, you featured in a documentary series called Ganga: The Soul of India. Are you planning to do more such shows?
A. I love doing documentary shows as they are engaging, personal and have a very strong social message. While doing Ganga: The Soul of India, I learned about my country, my people, our history, and about the meaning of this river in our lives. I would have never learned all that if I had not done this show. When you travel from Gomukh to Gangotri, meeting real people, having real conversations with them for a show that had no pre-written script, then you evolve as a person incredibly.
Q. You are also a fitness enthusiast and a keen yoga practitioner. In the wake of International Yoga Day, celebrated on 21 June, would you like to tell us how yoga has enriched your life?
A. Yoga is the most empowering tool that any person can have. The day I discovered the power of yoga and meditation, my life took a different track. While doing yoga, I not only exercise my body, even my mind gets to exercise, and I really feel that the mind affects the body. So I would suggest to youngsters that if you want success in your life, then you must bring the discipline of meditation and yoga into your lives.