Actor Dia Mirza on ageism in the film industry, soulmate Sahil Sangha and how her dream of buying a pair of expensive shoes landed her in the big league.

Actor Dia Mirza is basking in the success of the film Sanju. She plays Sanjay Dutt’s wife Manyata in the biopic and has been appreciated despite a small role.

“It was so good to be back in front of the camera. It was terrifying also. Raju (Hirani) knew that I was going through this crazy unsettling phase and he’s a friend so I would often confess to him that I did not understand why I was not being offered good parts. I was getting leading parts in films I knew I wouldn’t watch. The parts were inconsequential, and I find myself at a very, very perplexing juncture in Hindi cinema because I am 36 now. And I may not look 36 or that’s what I am told, which is flattering at one level, but it also makes you question why this obsession with being younger? Everybody is obsessed with working with younger leading ladies, especially the men,” says Mirza looking radiant in a brown and white dress.

What made the role particularly attractive for the actor was the fierce loyalty and respect that Sanjay and Manyata share as a couple. Respect, according to her is the bedrock of strong relationships and in a happy turn of events, in hubby Sahil Sangha, she has found a soulmate for life.

“He is a very confident man. He revels in the attention that I get and that’s wonderful because I have dated some fiercely protective and insecure men and it can be very exhausting. And thankfully, Sahil is not that person. But I feel a tad bit jealous. Like (sometimes, I might say), “Don’t you think you guys were flirting a bit too much? ” Mirza describes, with a laugh.

Mirza, a former beauty queen (Miss Asia Pacific winner) along with Lara Dutta and Priyanka Chopra were among the first to launch into a film career and has since even turned into a film producer with films like Bobby Jasoos under her belt.

The journey has been both tumultuous and eventful for the pretty actress who came to the City of Dreams from Hyderabad with stars in her eyes and hope in her heart at 17. She had always wanted to be a lawyer at United Nations, but fate willed otherwise and she took her first steps into show business.

It all started with a pair of expensive shoes that she really wanted. Mirza elaborates, “I was growing up in Hyderabad, we were very comfortable. My stepfather had this ancestral home, which was large, spacious—a front yard, a backyard and a courtyard so if you saw the home you would think these people must be really rich, but the fact is that he struggled financially. We never had a problem for food and clothes but we never went for foreign locations. Dussehra, Diwali ke woh dus kapde bante the and I would pretty much manage with that. Other than that there were hand me downs rest of the year. So anyway, I hit puberty, that scary age, and my friends were buying expensive stuff. And I discovered that I didn’t have these good-looking things so one day, I asked my mother if I could buy a pair of boots that at the time were priced at 5000!”

Her mother’s sharp retort – “There’s no way I am buying you those shoes. If you want such expensive things then you make your own money and buy your own shoes” – piqued Dia enough to make up her mind about being independent and heading to Mumbai to seek her fortune. She resolved that she would earn her livelihood and have her own house with a few luxuries to spare. Over time, her words turned out to be Prophetic.

Ever since, Mumbai has been home to her, where she has seen the glory of success, setbacks but above all, a normalcy, which had been lacking in her life.

“Mumbai is where I have built my home, built my life. It’s the place that gave me everything I have. Hyderabad for me will always be special because I was born there, I grew up there but much of the time there was so difficult– my parents’ separation, me finding my balance, losing my father. If you ask me whether I would be able to go back and live there, I would say possibly not because it just doesn’t feel the same without both my fathers,” she says wistfully.

Mumbai was also the city that witnessed a radical shift in her career plans—instead of a career in law, the city catapulted her into unprecedented fame when she won the Miss India Asia Pacific title in the same year as Lara Dutta and Priyanka Chopra.

“From an absolute rooted and humble life to having access to so much, especially in our year when Lara, Priyanka and I became household names and the fact that we went on to win our international titles, really turned the tide for us,” recalls Mirza.

Despite being the first among them to sign four films in quick succession soon after the win, it took the actor a good 3-4 years to settle in. Over time she became more selective about her choice of movies and soon veered into film production as well.

However, what’s more remarkable is that over the years Mirza has stayed true to the promise beauty pageant contestants often make – of giving back to the underprivileged in society. The actor who has worked on wide ranging issues was among the early evangelists to have spoken out on contentious issues like depression and suicides among the youth.

I quiz her on what prompted her to talk about it and she says, “I was doing a fortnightly column for Hindustan Times (then) and every year, the number of children suicides that were reported were increasing (because of) the pressure of examination and the pressure of failure. I had also started to understand what pressure within my work sphere was doing to me emotionally which is how I spoke about how I tried to harm myself at a younger age. And I know so many young people who do that. It was very important to emphasise two things – one was to help people understand that it’s okay to reach out and ask for help and, second, that 90 per cent of the people who try to attempt suicide are doing so not because they want to kill themselves but because they are asking for help.”

That many prominent voices – colleague Deepika Padukone for one — are joining the campaign, is certainly a big help in creating awareness about mental health issues admits Mirza even as she puts together an action plan for her other pet cause—protection of wildlife and environment.

Truly, beauty is as beauty does.

Priyanka Sinha Jha is a senior journalist, author, and digital-media specialist

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