DIA MIRZA tells JYOTHI VENKATESH in this frank and informal interview over e-mail
In the first place, how did you get the opportunity to be a part of Kaafir?
Producer Siddharth Malhotra and I have been trying to collaborate on something for a long time but for some reason those previous stories didn't work out. He met me at a social gathering and asked me if I could come and meet him in his office. I went and met him and he narrated a story arc of Kaafir to me and told me that it was based on true events and Bhavani Iyer was writing the screen play and the story, and Sonam Nair would be directing it. Literally within the first 5 minutes of hearing him narrate the story to me, I was convinced that this was something that was very important. A story that needed to be told and I was really excited because I felt like this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And given the fact that Bhavani was going to be writing it, I was very, very sure that it would have the humanity, the gravitas, the maturity and the range that I believe that the story would offer itself to everyone involved and especially the character that I was being offered to play. I, literally for the first time in my career of 18 years, said yes even before he had finished narrating the whole thing.
Was it essentially planned as a movie or web series?
Kaafir was a story that Bhavani Iyer wrote 13 years ago. Siddharth Malhotra was trying to make it into a feature film for almost 9 years. It was only when they decided on a web series that they met with me and Mohit and we both agreed to be a part of it almost immediately. Zee had the foresight and the understanding of how important and wonderful the story is and necessary it is to tell that this dream to tell the story could become a reality. I feel, personally, that the timing could not have been more perfect to tell the story. And maybe there was a reason why this did not get made into a feature film 13 years ago. I think it is better for the story that it was made into a web series because an 8 part episode over 4 hours- 20-30 minutes actually gives more time to the narrative and it gives the opportunity to convey so much more than what a feature film would perhaps have been able to convey. But I think also, we were meant to do this. Sonam was meant to direct it, Pratik was meant to film it, Mohit, Dishita and I were meant to act in it. I think that's why it didn't get made earlier and I think the universe wanted all of us to come together and made it possible to tell this story now.
In what way is acting in a web series different from working in a film?
I think the significant difference between acting for a web series and a film is the fact that your character gets more time to be developed, there are more layers and it's more nuanced and of course there's a lot more screen time and opportunity to deliver to the story as a character. As an artist and a performer, there can be nothing more exciting than that, especially if you're front lining a story, it's almost always more exciting to be able to do a more developed, fully fleshed and full bodied narrative and character. With films, it is a completely different challenge, I mean, in lesser time one has to convey so much. I think the joy of working in a feature film versus the joy of working in a web series is the same as reading an essay and reading a novel. In a way you can smell and breathe and sense the entirety of a narrative of a story that a web series offers you.
Would you say that the web series is the future of Cinema?
I think the future of all storytelling is going to be largely for the web because what OTT platforms have done is they have given access to consumers globally, have given access to global stories to people all across the world and an incredible exchange of talent is happening now. Courtesy this global consumption of content like, for example, Kaafir can be viewed in 147 countries. I'm not sure whether a theatrical release would have been able to give the benefit of such a wide audience to the story. Also I think OTT and web give stories a very intimate, accessible experience to consumers. They can watch it on the train while they are riding to work, they can watch content on their handsets, on their home screens, on their home theatre screens at their leisure, at their pace, at their time. They can binge watch it or they can watch it whenever they can make the time for the narrative. So it's something that's going to grow exponentially and it is a mark of incredible times to come because I think the human narrative has always been defined by the stories we tell and I think it's going to be a very exciting time for all storytellers
How tough was it for you to get into the skin of a character like Kainaaz in Kaafir?
Kainaaz was a tough part to get into the skin of because she belongs to a world where her life experiences are so removed from my life experiences. I consider myself an empowered, independent woman whereas Kainaaz is spirited but comes from such a background of conflict and disempowerment that it was so important for me to understand the mindscape and the landscape of her journey. It helped greatly that the writing was so, so profound, so self explanatory, so filled with sub text and nuance but I think it also helped that I got to do workshops with Atul Mongia. I got time to do readings with the entire cast and the director, the writer. And the time spent in investing and understanding the character and the story, deeply, served the effort well because this is not the kind of role one can act in, this is the kind of role one needed to just become the part. I needed to find a way to heighten my sensory perceptions to such an extent that no matter what the distraction on the day, no matter what the circumstance of the shoot, no matter how cold or how hot, I need to at all times remain completely aligned with the part and completely focused on the job at hand, to deliver the material as empathetically, as humanely with as much feeling and understanding as possible. So I think a lot of the prepagatory process was just to ensure that I understood the part fully and the story fully but more than anything else, I could be present, absolutely present, in every moment.
Would you say it is the best role in your career till date?
Kainaaz Akhtar is the best role of my career, without a doubt, but it's also I think, one of the best parts written ever. It’s a once-in-a-life time opportunity. It raises the bar so high in terms of aspiring to play a character that I think I'm going to find very difficult to make choices now going forward, because no everyday does one come across a script like Kaafir, not every day does one come across a character like Kainaaz and not everyday does a writer like Bhavani Iyer gift you such an amazing story.
To what extent did Mohit Raina help you as a co-actor especially in the intimate and sensitive sequences with him?
I think the greatest help for an actor is when a co-actor never makes you feel like a scene is being performed. So the most magical thing about filming for Kaafir was that not on a single day did I ever feel like we were acting. It always felt like these things were happening. And the credit for that goes to Mohit and of course the child, Dishita who was such a natural. Also, goes to the director who ensured that the staging and the manner in which the filming happened, never once felt like a scene was being performed. It always felt like these events were taking place, these moments were our experiences, we were having them, and they were deeply personal. I think this was possible because for not a moment in the entire shoot were we ever skimming the surface. I think we were all so invested in becoming our parts, our characters and feeling the full extent of every emotion in every situation that we were so alive and present in the moment that it never felt like a scene was being performed. Mohit is possibly one of the finest actors I have ever worked with. His nuance, his craft, his intelligence, his sensitivity, his eyes convey so much and even though he is a very quiet personality type, he doesn't really speak much but his presence speaks volumes and his interpretation of the scenes, they way he gets it, the way he lives it and the way he expresses it is remarkable. I think Sonam had a very big part as a director in helping us become these people and feeling all these feelings that we felt and expressed through our performance. It takes a very special kind of human being to play the part which Mohit has played which is Vedant Rathod. The performance is indicative and reflective of his humanity. I would like to believe that every person who has been a part of Kaafir, the narrative is reflective of their humanity, of their understanding of how important this story is, of how important it is for people to feel what Kaafir makes them feel.
In what way was it different as compared to a male director?
I don't want to discredit a man by saying what I'm about to say right now but I really feel that because the story Kaafir has such a strong female view, it really helped that a female director was helming this narrative because I think there are certain aspects of what women feel and experience that women get better than perhaps men would. What does it mean to be raped, what does it mean to be childless, what does it mean physically and emotionally to birth a child, to lose a once-freedom... These are questions, these are narratives that I think just women know and it's almost like a physical understanding - they get it. And I think that Sonam has, through her innate intelligence, her sensitivity, her understanding, brought so much of that sensitivity and understanding to the way she has filmed the show and the way she has handled the material. I'm not sure whether a man would have been able to do as much justice to it. I find it a remarkably startling statistic that in my 18 year long career, I've only been directed by women twice. I really hope that more female directors helm stories because there is an innate sensitivity that women bring to storytelling which is essential for us to move forward and just bring that perspective to people. The other thing that I think was very important and was possible because Sonam is a female director, is that there are many questions that I asked while I was performing that I felt very strongly as a woman and she got it! And those inclusions were made in the narrative, wherever possible, because she understood how important these things are.
Can you elucidate with an example?
I'll give you an example- in the court scene when the lawyer is cross questioning Kainaaz about why she didn't abort her child because she got pregnant because of the rape. The line there was different and I felt very strongly that it was a great opportunity for us to express her desire to keep the child because she always wanted to be a mother. This was not a layer that existed in the story but it was there- subliminally somewhere. I feel Bhavani had felt it. But I lived it. And after I lived it, I felt it so strongly that I discussed it with Sonam and Bhavani and they instantly agreed that it was something that we must incorporate and what's amazing, Jyothi sir, is that a lot of people watching the program are connecting so deeply with that moment, where she says "I discovered that for the first time in my life I could make a choice, I always wanted to be a mother, and I wanted to keep the child. My child is nothing to do with the unfortunate circumstance in which I got pregnant." And I think these things happen and are possible when an environment of ownership, empathy and understanding exist. I think the fact that Sonam and Bhavani- both women, were so deeply invested in this writing material, made such a big difference for me also as an artist, as a performer and as a woman because it really gave me a kind of freedom that no film maker and no story has given me before.
Did the character drain you at the end of the day as an actor?
The character didn't drain me. Many of the episodes and the sequences that Kainaaz's character goes through did drain me. I mean they were hugely emotionally challenging, physically challenging and while I was in that moment and performing it, it was draining but so uplifting because as actors we always hunger for such opportunities, to become something, to become the part, to feel the full extent of the emotion in the manner in which Kainaaz and Kaafir allowed me to feel. So while there would be many moments where I would continue to cry even after the camera was cut or continue to be shaking because of how intense the experience was after the camera was cut. Then of course I would have Sonam come and hug me and cry with me and hold me but at the end of the day when I went back, I would go back with such a sense of joy, peace and happiness because of the victory and the triumph of experiencing the light, the darkness and the love of this character.
How was your bonding with the kid who played Seher?
Playing Seher's mother helped me understand something so important. That one does not need to biologically produce a child in order to become a mother. Seher made me a mother. It's been my most profound, most wonderful experience because the driving force of my performance in Kaafir has been the mother - daughter relationship and the embodiment of what it means to be a mother. Dishita, who plays Seher is such a gifted, such an emotionally intelligent, beautiful child. It was a privilege and joy being her mother and working with her, she was the light of our lives. It is a precious relationship that I hope to carry forward for the rest of my life.
As an actor, how did you draw the line of demarcation between melodrama and sensitivity when you set out to get into the garb of Kainaaz in Kaafir?
I think the line of demarcation between melodrama and sensitivity is possible when one is internalising an event, an emotion and not really performing it. I think that internalisation is what makes it as real as it can be. I think the narrative never gave room for melodrama and I think, more than just the narrative, I don't think there was room for melodrama because everything, every moment was so real that it compelled you to go inward. It compelled you as a human being to respond from a place of empathy, understanding and trust.
In how many days was the web series shot?
347 pages of written material were shot over 40 days. It is like shooting 2 and a half feature films in 40 days. It was quiet a remarkable feat. Given the nature of the material, given the intensity of the material in the story, I don't think this would have been possible if, as a team, we were not equipped to deal with the material. It's a triumph, really, of the team to have pulled off what we have in the limited time we were given.
Which are your five best films till date as an actor and directors in your wish list?
I think my 5 best films till date as an actor would be Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein, Tehzeeb, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Paanch Adhyay and Love, Break ups, Zindagi . The directors on my wish list as an actor are Zoya Akhtar. I'd love to work with Reema Kagti again. I really loved working with her on Honeymoon Travels. I'm mentioning all women so far because I guess I've just discovered the joy of working with women. I'd love to work with Alankrita. I'd love for Sonam to direct a feature film as well.
Ever since you started your own production house Born Free Entertainment with your husband Saahil Singha and Zayed Khan, you are being seen in very few films.
I think I'm seen in fewer films after I started my production Born Free Entertainment because of a couple of reasons. One is that I think women, when they diversify and do things outside of just acting, for some distorted, strange reason, people think that they are no longer interested in acting any more. And the only way one could combat that stereotype was to act in films. What also happened unfortunately was that the kind of parts that were being offered to me was just not inspiring. I have felt more than ever before that in the last 5-6 years, I'd rather not do a film and be a part of something that is meaningless than be a part of it for the sake of being a part of it. The third reason being that after a woman crosses her late 20s, early 30s; it becomes very challenging for parts to come our way because very few parts are written for women in their early and mid 30s. It's an unfortunate state of ageism within the industry and only writers will be able to change that. I hope it this.
In what way have you evolved as an actress since you had made your debut way back in 2001 with Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein till Kaafir in 2019?
I started working in films in 2001 when I was 19 years old. What has changed since then is that I have evolved as a human being, I have experienced life, and I’ve had some remarkable real life experiences that have really shaped the way I think and feel. And i feel all of that contributes to my craft and my understanding of storytelling. I think also when one becomes a producer, you understand the nuance and you gain a wider, a more magnified perspective of the process of film making. That in turn again supports the intention of your craft and yeah I hope I have come a long way!
Do you feel that you were rated less as an actress since you came into them industry with the crown of Miss Asia Pacific in 2000?
I think there may have been a certain baggage of the beauty title winner. The fact that for some reason, it is a stereotype that takes more effort on the individual's part to break but I think, to be fair, I just didn't have the opportunity in the early phase of my career to be a part of very meaningful films. Had I had that opportunity, maybe this trajectory that was formed early in my career would have been changed. In fact I think for most part of my career, post the first 3 years, I have actually invested time and effort to dispel that myth. But I think what has continually worked against me is the way I look. While most people may consider beauty a big advantage, I think in many cases, in fact in many stories, that I would have liked to be a part of; it has been a disadvantage because many of these film makers would rather work with women who they don't consider very beautiful. That's really the irony of the situation. While I believe any actor can play any part, looking the part from the outside perspective without actually giving the actor an opportunity to be something is what disallows many film makers from casting actors who could very well qualify to play the parts that they don't eventually end up getting.
You have acted in just one film in Bengali which is your mother tongue- Paanch Adhyay, for which you even dubbed in your own voice.
I would love to do more Bengali films. It's a language that I love and as you say, it's my mother tongue. But it's also an experience that was just so deeply enriching. As of now, there are no more regional project offers but I would definitely like to do more regional work because it really widens your horizon and gives you an opportunity to widen your audience and there are just such wonderful stories being told in other parts of the country that I would love to be a part of.
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