Walk on the wild side: Dia Mirza's yatra to save the elephants
We expected a long wait. It’s the usual ritual before meeting any Bollywood celebrity. Twitching on our phones, making small talk with whoever is present in the hotel lobby, that’s what we do. But this time, it was different. We were on time, and so was the interviewee. But things couldn’t be as smooth and easy — there had to be a slight build-up.
We rang the bell of the luxurious suite, and a chirpy voice asked us to come in. It was the secretary, “She’s just getting ready. Would you like something to drink?” we’re welcomed. The lady we were waiting for was crowned Miss Asia Pacific International, 17 years ago. Though, she is most remembered for her horizon-wide smile and her debut film with the actor R Madhavan, Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein. Just as we were thinking about all of this, a pleasant hello and a whiff of sweet perfume shook us out of our reverie.
Dressed in a Gaurang Shah salwar kameez that had illustrations of recreated paintings of Ajanta and embossed sequins, Dia Mirza looked aptly dressed for a grand evening.
As we tell her that she’s now more popular for her work in sustainability and environment than her films, she nods with a smile and agrees. “This year, I have worked on some really interesting content,” says Dia, and goes on to talk about her recent public appearances — videos and pictures of which went viral on social media.
“I did something unusual. I went with 1,200 citizens to clean up Juhu Beach in Mumbai after the Ganesh visarjan (immersion) at the end of the recent festive season. I think, for the first time, many people got to see what really happens to the idols after immersion — the idols get crushed by bulldozers and are cleared out to be dumped in a yard,” explains Dia.
The experience did shake up most people, she says. “I don’t think anyone understood the disrespect that they were doing to the essence of worship. This video perhaps made them sit up and say, ‘Oh my God, this is why we shouldn’t be using Plaster of Paris or plastic, and this is why we should not be celebrating our festivals in non-earth-friendly ways’.”
But this wasn’t a one-off event, where Dia was able to connect with so many citizens not as an actress, but as a champion of the environment.
Leading a mammoth task
Two months earlier, in August this year, Dia who is the brand ambassador of Wildlife Trust of India (WTI), launched Gaj Yatra, a 15-month awareness campaign on the shrinking space for India’s wild elephants, and the importance of elephant corridors.
“Gaj Yatra was born out of the realisation that while Herculean efforts are being made by conservationists across the country, it is not enough. It is imperative that civil society becomes involved and joins these conservation efforts, the only way through which conservationists can see policy change, and improve awareness and understanding at a grassroots level,” urges Dia.
She goes on to say, “When you mobilise people and involve civil society to understand a deep connection with nature, and the impacts of loss of nature, loss of habitat, and loss of wildlife on their immediate lives, it percolates a manner of change at many levels.” Gaj Yatra, in essence, does exactly that.
“When we talk about the environment, there’s always a defeatist and fatalist attitude that people seem to have. What we want to do with Gaja Yatra is to celebrate our national animal, and use festivity to define our understanding of how we are connected to nature,” says the actress, who has been talking about this initiative at various forums, and was in Bengaluru too, at the RoundGlass Samsara summit, held at the Vidhana Soudha earlier this month.
But the larger task at hand for Dia and her team is when they set on the actual yatra (journey), the official dates for which are yet to be decided. “It is a massive task, as the yatra will reach 4,000 villages, from Kerala all the way to Meghalaya, covering all Indian states with an elephant population,” she explains. The exercise will require a huge amount of manpower and public support, and while work is in full swing, there is extraordinary support from artistes across different vocations — painters, sculptors, musicians and composers.
“Every bit of effort will count,” enthuses Dia. “I hope the schools, colleges and universities join our herd and make the campaign their own,” she offers. Dia, who’s also the artist ambassador in India for the Save the Children NGO, and has always been keen on working with children across age groups, remembers her own childhood, when her parents were her biggest influencers.
‘I was gifted the moon’
“I can think about innumerable occasions when my parents, both of them in their own way, made me find my extraordinary connection with nature. On my 11th birthday, my mother gifted me the moon, the actual moon,” Dia reminisces.
“It was a full moon night. She covered my eyes and took me out in the balcony. She said, ‘I have the most precious gift in the world to give you, and I think you will like it and every time you see it, I want you to know it’s yours.’ I opened my eyes and looked up, it was the moon! I was blown away. I thought that’s the most beautiful present any mother could give her child.”
When we tell her that this isn’t how children being raised in a consumerist world might react, the actress says with a laugh, “Kids today will be like, I have never seen the moon!” She goes onto insist, “Now is the time when parents and educationists must build that relationship between children and nature. We all know Buddha didn’t receive enlightenment in a five-star hotel or a sky scrapper — he was under a tree.”
While she has been inclined towards nature and the environment since her early days, Dia admits that being in the race for stardom had a significant impact on her. “About eight years ago, I started feeling lost, because I was so consumed with the competitive and all-consuming nature of the work I do. I started feeling anxious, restless and scared. These weren’t emotions I was familiar with. That’s when I took a step back and paused.
I reached out to people who I believed were doing extraordinary work. When I began working with Bittu Sahgal from Sanctuary Nature Foundation and Vivek Menon from Wildlife Trust of India, I started feeling a sense of peace. I started feeling my life again,” she says.
Eventually, Dia combined her craft with her purpose to work on the popular TV series, Ganga The Soul of India. “I found my way of expression. I enjoy writing, doing content videos that help generate awareness, advocacy, and I feel more aligned now, in my purpose, my understanding about why I was born.”
That new sense of being is rubbing off on her husband too. “On some days, he is confused about where we’re going with this,” says Dia. “Whenever he orders food, I look at all the packaging and say, ‘It’s plastic’. And he’s like, ‘I’m looking at food and you are looking at plastic’. I keep replacing things in my life that are harmful to the environment, and he has started seeing things for what they are,” she explains.
“We have replaced our plastic toothbrushes with bamboo toothbrushes. He is glad that though I have a crazy bent of mind, I keep finding solutions rather than whining. He’s an incredible partner and we are both growing together and it’s wonderful — that’s what marriage should be about,” adds Dia.
Lage Raho... to Sanju
The actress is now set to make a comeback of sorts with Rajkumar Hirani’s next production, a biopic on Sanjay Dutt, tentatively titled Sanju. Dia, who worked with Rajkumar in Lage Raho Munna Bhai earlier, has been cast in the role of Manyata Dutt opposite Ranbir Kapoor, who plays Sanjay Dutt. Filming has been completed except for one song, and the film is scheduled for release early next year.
Talking about the director, Dia says, “He’s one of the most evolved, thought-provoking minds in the country. We are lucky that he has chosen cinema as his medium of expression, because while he tells engaging and entertaining stories, he also raises some really hard and important questions. I have been lucky to have worked with him in Lage Raho… which is one of my favourite films. Even if I wasn’t in it, it would have been my favourite.”
More importantly, everyone has been talking about Ranbir Kapoor’s look in the film. The prosthetics and make-up result in the young actor closely resembling Sanjay Dutt. Even his body language gives him an edge, something that’s visible in the handful of images that were leaked from the film’s shoots.
“He’s possibly one of the most extra-ordinary talents our country has ever seen,” says Dia, about Ranbir. “He’s a natural, effortlessly talented, and has a great temperament. He never had a bad day or a bad mood. We were uncomfortable without prosthetics on our face or head, but he would be in make-up with prosthetics for six hours, even when it was really hot. It was amazing working with him,” says the actress.
Though she is active as a producer with her production company Born Free, also working on content for TV, while being actively involved with various organisations, Dia hasn’t worked in a major commercial film in a while.
“My doing this film has thankfully also busted some strange myths that every married woman in our industry has to deal with — ‘Oh, she’s a producer now, and she’s also married, clearly she has very little time to act.’ Now, the people have realised that I am acting as well, so the offers are coming again. I am looking forward to more films,” she signs off with a glowing smile.