A return to roots
It’s a return to roots for actress Dia Mirza. She’s getting ready to shoot her first Bengali film Bidhaatar Lekha and is hoping that the language barrier won’t be insurmountable. “My mother is a Bengali. I am doing the film for her and for my Bengali genes,” says the petite 24-year-old.
As she gears up for the shooting, Mirza has been taking Bengali lessons from her mother. And, she confidently rattles off a few words to show that the lessons have been well learnt. “I have always been terrified of doing regional cinema. I have been getting offers for Telugu films since I was 13 years old. I think in English and manage to speak in Hindi. Luckily for me, Bengali is my mother tongue,” she says.
Mirza has been busy in the last few months. She’s the star of Alag, produced by ace film photographer Subi Samuel and directed by Aashu Trikha. Also, she’s in Rajkumar Hirani’s Munnabhai Meets Mahatma Gandhi, Farhan Akhtar’s Honeymoon Travels, Neeraj Vohra’s Familywala and an Ananth Mahadevan film.
The first on the screens is Alag about a young boy with superhuman powers who has been locked up in a room for 18 years. Mirza is a psychologist who treats him and also teaches him about the world. Says Mirza, “I think the character I play, Purva, is close to my personality in real life. Purva is a pretty observant and sensitive person. She is someone who is emotionally there for the guy, but she doesn’t protect the character to the extent where he can’t grow on his own.”
If all this is not enough, Mirza, a former Miss Asia Pacific, is also working in a Indo-Chinese production. “The film is being made by a Chinese crew,” says Mirza, who’s tight-lipped about it.
She adds, “But I can assure you that every film I do has an individual personality. So when I retire, roll my pants up and walk in the sand, people can say, ‘Oh she did quite a bit’.”
Mirza has occasionally faced controversy. She was recently in the news for duty evasion while importing a car and stepping into the Narmada dam fray in support of Aamir Khan. But she lets nothing touch her composed air. “Right now I am feeling as good as I am and have my goals set. There’s this great sense of calm and clarity. But it’s frightening to think that there might come a day when I would wake up and know not what to do. I hope that day never comes,” says Mirza crossing her fingers.
To her fans she’s known as Dia Mirza, but her full name is Dia Mirza Handrich. She was born in Hyderabad, the daughter of a German interior designer and a Bengali mother. Her parents separated when she was just six years old. Mirza studied at Vidyaranya, a school based on the teachings of J Krishnamurti. It was a childhood well spent, where she says she spent lots of time, “in the library, playing basketball and on the football fields rather than in the classroom”. Dia went on to study commerce, economics and modern languages from Stanley College in Hyderabad.
“Being an actress was never a conscious decision. I had always wanted to do something for children or be a psychologist, or a lawyer or teacher. When I was offered films, I thought ? ‘What the heck, I can do it all in one lifetime!’” she laughs. But she’s also doing something for children and is working with groups like the Spastics Society of India and Crayons among others.
Mirza came into the limelight when she won the Miss Asia Pacific title at the beauty pageant (2000) in Manila. It was an experience that gave her fame and film offers and even more. “It was a platform that instilled a great sense of confidence in me. Winning the crown at Manila gave me an identity. People walk up and talk to me on a first name basis even though they don’t know me. It’s most definitely a high,” she says.
Then came her film debut in 2001 with Rehnaa Hai Tere Dil Mein opposite R Madhavan. The film was not a box-office success. A series of unsuccessful films followed, among them Deewanapan (2001), Tehzeeb (2003) and Tumsa Nahin Dekha (2004). In 2005, she appeared in supporting roles in two hit films ? Parineeta and Dus. This year, fans of the actress have seen her in the multi-starrer flick, Fight Club.
For an actress who has not had a string of solo hits, Mirza has no qualms whatsoever about her lack of success at the box office. “Time and space don’t matter. The point is to prove yourself in whatever restrained time you have,” she says. “There are no hard and fast rules for me. I never said that I should not do a film like Parineeta because I would not be the solo heroine. I have done my bit of experimentation. I don’t think there’s anything to regret because I have only grown with each film.”
But life is not only about putting on the greasepaint and standing in front of the camera for this Hyderabadi. She writes a column for a newspaper, reads voraciously, travels extensively and takes dance classes in ballet and modern jazz.
Her latest is getting herself enrolled in a cake decoration class, the end being to be able to “bake a proper Christian wedding cake with all its finery”. “I thought it’s a good retirement plan since I enjoy baking. I think a human being should learn as much as they can in their lifetime because you never know what you might enjoy later,” says Mirza. “And no, I am not talking about my wedding cake. Right now I am single and my only companion is my two-year-old Labrador, Sultan. He is really adorable, but sometimes he barks the building down if I don’t open the door for him.”
Dia doesn’t have too much to do with her German links. One recent German connection was an ad film shot with Boris Becker who was quite taken aback to find out she was half German. “Then he conveniently said, ‘Ah that’s where you get your looks from’. But I always maintain this that I have inherited my mother’s looks and her eyes. Only my complexion and hair is inherited from my father,” she says.
But she has been to Munich from where her father came. And she even found a portrait of a great-great-grandmother, who was very beautiful, in one of the palaces there. “I long to go back and discover my father’s family. It’s something that I have never had the time to do. I guess it happens to all of us. As you grow older, you feel more inclined to find your roots.”
Photograph by Rupinder Sharma