Dia Mirza is more than an actor. She is also more than an activist. Currently, as co-producer of the web series Mind the Malhotras on PrimeVideo, Dia is a multi-tasker who returns to a lead role of significance with Kaafir, another web series on Zee5. More than anything else, Dia is a rare showbiz personality who has spoken about her beliefs and her political values openly since the beginning. Beyond the excitement of bringing the painful experiences of Kainaaz to life, Dia finds Bollywood’s current engagement with politics ‘interesting’; and justice for women, be it onscreen or off it with perpetuating the #MeToo movement is on her mind.
How did you come on board for Kaafir?
Bhavani Iyer wrote Kaafir thirteen years ago. Siddharth Malhotra has been trying to make this into a full-length feature film for about eight years. Finally, when they decided to make it into a series as opposed to a film, I think one of the first meetings that they had to cast for this story was with me.
You are choosy about what you act in. How did you agree to act in a web series?
As a human being and as an artist, my instant response to that narration was thank goodness this story is being told. What a privilege to be chosen to tell this story. I think primarily because it is inspired by true events, but more so because it’s a theme that resonates very strongly and deeply with me as a person, and I believe it’s a theme that the world needs today. A world that is so conflicted and divided by polarized politics, by majoritarian thinking presently, by the whole concept of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’; a story like Kaafir comes along it transcends all these boundaries. Prejudices separate us from the essential spirit of love. I also think that for people, like us, it brings to fore what we essentially live for, which is love. This story does it in such a wonderful way.
I was telling Bhavani yesterday that the reason this film never got made is perhaps that the universe decided that this story needed more time. It needed a longer format that would give you the opportunity to truly and honestly express every feeling and nuance what these characters have experienced. A full-length feature would not have room for expressing all of that. Very rarely does such a nuanced story come along, and even more rarely that such a nuanced character comes along (for all of us).
Kainaaz is a new part for you. Her suffering and experiences are drawn from a real-life persona. How did you prepare for it?
For me, playing Kainaaz was extreme. One thing was very clear to me at the outset that I didn’t want to perform this part; I wanted to become Kainaaz. So I had to prepare my mind, my body in a way where I could experience the full extent of every situation in this series. That would convey her situation. The preparatory process really was to condition me to what she goes through.
We did readings and I did workshops with Atul Mongia. I think in many ways, the writing itself does a lot of the work in helping build a character like this. I also read poetry from the Progressive Writers Movement, whose work resonated during Times of Partition.
Empathy is a very powerful emotion. If you have the ability to empathize as a human being, if something resonates with you, then automatically you respond to it a certain way. Even if you haven’t had an experience like this, how do you make your body and mind feel that? As human beings, we are so conditioned to hold back a little, because we are afraid to give in to our feelings. I needed to drop that fear completely for this part.
While launching this series, you stated that ‘humanity is my religion ‘, resonating with its core message. You also spoke against the ban on Pakistani artists working in India. Do you fear a backlash in the current polarized and right-wing political climate?
I have never worried about backlash. Why should I start worrying now? I believe that there is nothing more powerful than truth and freedom. The finest of art is created in chaos. Its role is to bring balance in times of chaos. Now if we hold back art, then what are we doing effectively? We are fuelling fear. Fear fuels hatred. Fear disempowers us. When we are afraid, we are never able to live out the full potential of our lives. Fear has always been used to control people.
But this fear is omnipresent and impacting politics everywhere around the world today, isn’t it? Be it the fear of immigrants, of loss of jobs, of other religions and colour, it runs through dominant political discourse worldwide.
Of course, it is. But why aren’t we recognizing that? Why aren’t people who are allowing those that are controlling us with fear understand that we are allowing them to disempower us?
Isn’t it a historical fact that at any point in time, when has humanity flourished? When have individuals flourished? When we have lived without fear? If we let fear, anger, hatred, and animosity control our thinking, we are limiting ourselves.
Unlike you who has always spoken out, typically, the Hindi film fraternity has stayed silent on politics. This time around, we saw top cats of Bollywood filling up a front row at the Prime Minister’s swearing-in ceremony. How much of this engagement would you say is opportunism and how much is the personal political belief of those attending? It’s best to ask this directly.
It demands a direct answer. I think it’s a combination of both. You can’t speak to why any person from the film industry chose to be there, but I definitely think it’s a reflection of both these aspects.
The upside is that personal politics of people (from the film industry) have finally come to the fore for the right reasons. I think it’s very important for all of us to express our politics, that’s nothing to ashamed of, or be afraid of. As a tradition, artists across other fields have always expressed their politics for that is the function of art. But for the most part, in the Hindi film industry, by precedent there are many people who are stalwarts who have remained a-political or have chosen to be diplomatic. They have never expressed their personal politics in their personal lives.
They have sometimes expressed it through their cinema, which is a choice to make.
This time around there was a good deal of opportunism on both ends. I find it interesting to see how the current climate of politics demands the presence of the grandeur and opulence of this swearing in of a Prime Minister has happened; I have never known for any Prime Minister to be sworn in in this manner. So there is something to be conveyed by all of this.
When you spoke up in the Rajkumar Hirani case, were you sure that he was in the clean? How does one know that for sure?
I have no right to express an opinion on that ( on whether he is in fault or not). My comment was not justifying or protecting him or accusing anybody. I think what’s important in most cases that due process happen. That is what I said then, and what I will say now. I think it’s impossible for any kind of justice to be delivered if there is no system in place.
With Alok Nath back at work, Vikas Bahl’s case dismissed, do you think the #MeToo movement in Indian showbiz is dead?
#MeToo will not be dead till you (a journalist) and I keep asking questions. #MeToo cannot be dead because what has happened now is that the POSCH guidelines have been adopted in so many companies. More men and importantly, more women have realized that they do not need to perpetuate the culture of silence any longer. And that’s a big deal! I would say it’s a very very big deal. In any industry or any part of the world for that matter, this is important. Women need to realize this. Look around you. Look at America for example. What are they debating currently? They are debating abortion. I mean they are debating a woman’s right over her own body. It’s a woman’s choice on whether she wants to have a baby or not.