Interview By: Ankita R. Kanabar

Back on screen after a while, the beautiful Dia Mirza is more than excited to be playing Maanayata in ‘Sanju’. We catch up with the actor-turned-producer at Rajkumar Hirani’s office to talk about the film and more. Excerpts:

What did you think when you got to know that Sanjay Dutt’s biopic is being made and you’ve been offered to play Maanayata?
I knew that Raju sir and Abhijaat were working on Sanjay sir’s biopic and they, unlike many others, sometimes take one and a half or two years to write a script. They really work a lot on the script, so during that phase, I used to hear a lot of anecdotes from them and there was a lot of anticipation. I’ve done six films with Sanju sir. Interestingly, when I was working with him on those films, it was a very critical juncture of his life because his court proceedings were on, they were live, the impending verdicts were around the corner. I also feel that there is some sort of karmic connection with Sanju sir, because ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’ was like turning point for me as an actor because it really kind of changed me and it also reset the course of my films in many way at that time. Because after that, the kind of films I did were reflecting the kind of films I wanted to do, the kind of people I wanted to work with and it became interesting. I watched his films growing up and I loved him as an audience especially films like ‘Khalnayak’, ‘Saajan’, ‘Sadak’, there’s such a sense of nostalgia, admiration and suddenly working with him after so many years, meeting him in person and I remember when we were working together on our first film, he asked me, where do you work out? So, I told him about the gym I went to. And at that point, we both lived in Bandra and he told me, come home and work out, I’ve got all the equipment. He was always so cool, honest, real, so protective and warm so there’s all of that emotional context. Then, Raju and Abhijaat writing any story as a team is super exciting. Personally, and professionally, I was hoping that there would be a part for me to play in the film because it’s been a while I did a film. People think it was a conscious sabbatical but it was not, but yes, I did say no to work I didn’t believe in. I did ‘Love Breakups Zindagi’, produced it, acted in it. We made ‘Bobby Jasoos’. In the interim, I did an Iranian film, a Bengali film but I had not done a Hindi film really, since 2011. Between 2014-2016, I got a few film offers which I just didn’t like and I said no to them. It was a terrifying phase, it can be for any actor, especially for someone like me. The only job I did was acting. We come alive in front of the camera. So, to continue to live a very public life and not be in films was scary. And when Raju sir finally called me and asked me whether I’d like to do the film and be Maanayata, I felt such a sense of relief and joy because here was an opportunity from a film-maker who I really respected. And somehow suddenly, it felt worth the wait; you ask any actor, the most difficult thing is to say no. Especially when there is so much pressure and expectation around. Just the awkwardness one can feel when someone asks, why aren’t you doing films? And you can’t explain them why. All you can say is, there’s nothing coming out, right now.

Did that also happen because being a producer you were keenly involved in the creative process of developing scripts and you had a better sense of the kind of work you wanted to do?
Absolutely. So my understanding of cinema improved and with that, my sense of responsibility and desire to do better increased. I was so tired of critics telling me film after film after film that I’d been under-utilised. And I was like, when is this going to change? I think it’s also because there are so many unfortunate stereotypes which bog women down. And that only we can challenge with the choices we make. And that time, they seem like difficult choices but when we see in retrospect, that’s the best thing we can do for ourselves because it’s only we who can redefine the narrative of the way we are perceived or treated, through our choices. First, we are professionals, then we are everything else.

So, when you are playing someone who exists for real, is it more challenging or is it easy since you have a reference point?
I think it’s both. The challenge and I think the desire is to be able to feel the emotion with absolute honesty. In order to do that, one needs to really understand, the full context of the circumstance and relationship in question and how I would react to a situation would be very different from how another person would. To understand that, be able to feel it is challenging. Also, there are so many public opinions of an individual especially if they are in the public eye and those perceptions get extended to the perception of you playing that part. Because that’s a myth and you need to be able to break that and make them feel what the person truly is.

Did you sit down with Maanayata to know the way she feels, or how she is as a person?
No. I watched a lot of her videos during that time but more than anything, I prepared based on the script. Raju sir had researched a lot. It’s not about your personal interpretation about the person, it’s about what the film-maker wants.

You said that it was difficult for you to say no to films, but the fact that you’re also involved in other social activities, did that help?
That helps your own evolution and that also helps your craft because the more life experiences I gain, or the more I am connected to the real world, it also contributes to the artist in me. I also think, that’s what kept me sane. Because it’s so important to stay connected to reality, to get a better sense of what you want. What tends to happen is, for us actors, because of the nature of our work, it’s isolating. The atmosphere of our work is very incubating, it’s removed from reality and sometimes through my social work, public discourse, through my engagement with real life situations and real people, it’s given me incredible stability, sense of reality and it has also kind of helped me in my perspective but it’s also kind of helped me understand that the ‘I’ becomes smaller. You look at artists across the globe. Firstly, I don’t feel that an individual should just be limited to their profession. There must be various assets to your personality. Life can’t be one dimensional and our existence can’t be one dimensional. More than anything else, our human engagement must continue at various levels because that’s how we grow as artists. What are you going to seek from, draw from, if you are not learning or growing?

So, how satisfying was this experience on ‘Sanju’?
It’s made me hungry. That actor’s bug has hit me with more enthusiasm.

It’s been 17 years since ‘Rehna Hai Tere Dil Mein’ released….how do you feel today? In terms of how far you’ve come or just your relationship with cinema?
That film itself has been a huge learning. When it released, I had so much anticipation and it bombed at the box-office, it was a disaster. And that impacted my opportunities in the industry hugely. When your first film fails, it affects your opportunities. And then, it’s gone to become a cult film. That film itself has taught me so much. That, when something good is made, it lasts forever. It goes beyond its assigned time. We as artists are not defined by a film’s box-office run. Of course, as artists, we can benefit from it, significantly. I think I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve had all kinds of challenges and obstacles but I’ve learnt so much from them. I’ve learnt to not take anything for granted. Specially a good experience, which is why I’m so discerning about ensuring that atleast the choice of the people I work with, is mine. And isn’t that a privilege? How many of us can choose what we want to do?

What’s happening on the production front?
There’s lots happening. There’s very interesting work happening on the production front. Excited about what is to come. There’s incredible stuff happening around the web-series space and advertising. The feature space is very difficult for any producer, unless you have mad passion to make films. There are two scripts ready and both the scripts have had two years of time and effort. And hopefully, the right actors will come on board!

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