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Meet Dia Mirza – Actor, Activist, Nature Worshipper

Part of the Sanctuary family since 2013, and the face of the Leave Me Alone campaign, actor Dia Mirza is evolving into a key public opinion mover and champion for India’s wilds. Bittu Sahgal speaks with her on what moves her and why.

“Leave Me Alone!” It’s a tough line you hooked on to.

It just made so much sense to me! I can almost hear wild nature saying this. It’s a line that feels so personal. It’s evocative. And the rationale – that nature will heal all the damage done, if only we permit her to – is indisputable. All Nature asks of us is that we let her BE. Tigers and a host of other species, the gardeners of our Eden as you call them, ask from us just space, isolation and protection. In return they offer us and our children safety, security and health in perpetuity.

You grew up in Khairatabad, Hyderabad, a city of wildernesses and rock formations. Is that where your love of wild nature was born?

My early years were spent in Jubilee Hills at a time when the area had very few homes and a lot of wild open spaces, rocks, green cover and streams. Later, I moved to a home that had a front yard, courtyard and backyard. My mother spent hours tending to her gardens. The backyard had many large fruit-bearing trees that attracted many birds, butterflies and bees.

Your mother was a major influence in your life?

Absolutely! My mother talked to all her plants. Each one was her child. I will never forget the two cobras that lived under a massive rock in our garden. I must have been about three, cradled in my mother’s arms, and when I saw them go by, I squealed, “Mamma look!” And Mom just smiled and said, “Let them be. They won’t harm you. Just be still until they go.” And they silently went their way. I was taught not to fear snakes, or spiders or other ‘creepy-crawlies’ that most parents orient their children to hate. We often dressed the wounds of injured birds that our gentle dog would bring to us and set them free when they had healed. Those lessons in living came early. One of my father’s carpenters once brought us a baby python of all things and I remember taking care of it until it grew long enough to be set free on an early morning nature trail in the wilderness behind our home.

Clearly your parents gifted you this transparent affinity for nature?

Indeed. My father was a creative man. He drove cross-continent from Germany to India, stopping along the route to paint and photograph wild terrains. He would come to our school to speak to us kids, and once asked us to exercise our imagination and paint a wall in school. What emerged was an elephant hatching from an egg! He would use nature to help push the boundaries of our imagination. Our library wall was embellished with a rainforest painting done by the seniors. My father passed away when I was just nine but I felt his presence in school long after, because those painted walls were still there. Both my parents loved nature, they were ahead of their time, worried about forest loss, climate change and more. They created compost heaps and taught me about waste management when I was seven or so. They never used plastic. Buckets, mugs and water bottles were all metal or glass. My stepfather, was also a man who loved nature and sport. We would always run outdoors and dance in the first rain! He and my mother played a huge role in exposing me to the wonders of nature.

You had a pretty unusual schooling!

Yes. I was blessed. My school was established by Shanta Rameshwar Rao, an incredible lady who was inspired by Jiddu Krishnamurthy. I was blessed with a very holistic education. Though we followed the ICSE curriculum, we had no exams until class eight. No classroom had over 25 students. We grew up filled with wonder. We were encouraged to question everything and everyone, even our teachers, to explore, and learn without anxiety, distress or inhibition. The performing arts, crafts and sports were greatly emphasised. School assemblies involved chanting shlokas, singing songs from across India and listening to illustrious personalities who would be invited to interact with us. We were respected as individuals, and meditation was a part of our daily routine. Competition, rankings and percentage-chasing were actively discouraged. We grew our own vegetables, wore no uniforms and were taught to celebrate our individuality. Report cards were not mathematical evaluations, but personal assessments by empathetic teachers who knew us as individuals. They gifted us a childhood free from the traumas of structured learning.

Yes, my schooling was unusual, in the best possible way.

And how did the Miss Asia Pacific beauty contest fit into all this?

Has stardom been an asset or liability?I wanted to get away! I was 17, getting to know the world outside of the cocoon in which I was so safely brought up. Like any 17-year-old I wanted to discover my own path. My parents let me go because they wanted me to define my own choices. Thinking back now, I realise how brave they were. I moved to Mumbai, took part in the contest. And won!

That was a paradigm shift! And how!

Abba, wrote out Robert Frost’s famous lines on a recycled card that I kept by my bedside all through the international pageant in Manila: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep… But I have promises to keep… And miles to go before I sleep… And miles to go before I sleep.” He helped me understand that win or lose the journey continues.

I was brought up to believe that I was blessed. That sense of gratitude continues to offer me clarity and purpose over the 15 years of my film career and all the opportunities that have come my way. To answer your question, stardom has been an asset for me. It allowed me to reach out and communicate with a much larger constituency than is available to most. I have tried to use that to ‘make a difference’.

I know Dia Mirza is real. But do you struggle to be accepted as a wildlife activist?

No! If I was seeking some kind of ratification or acceptance from others I might have had to struggle, but I am in love with the wild... plain and simple. I care deeply about nature and wish to enjoin my mission with that of others who too want to make a difference! Celebrating wild heroes, bringing their message to the larger public and fighting to protect the tiger is a blessing, not a ‘struggle’. That said, I wish more people understood the rationale that is grasped so easily by your million-strong Kids for Tigers vanar sena… the tiger-ecosystems-biodiversity-water-climate reality that seems to elude most adults.

As I said, you are real. You even got slammed by the ‘empire’ for your position on the destructiveness of large dams. Would you do that again?

In a heartbeat. Being more experienced now, I would probably handle such responses better. For instance, I really don’t take criticism or opposition to my views personally. Nor do I tend to judge other individuals. Instead, I find addressing issues of policy and questioning ‘the system’ more effective, comfortable and rewarding. As for public opinion, I learned long ago that getting attention using emotion is all very fine, but that must be quickly followed up with a flow of rational communications, debate and interactions.

Is your husband, Sahil, a part of your mission?

(Smiles) Does he have a choice? My energy, love for nature and purpose are contagious! Seriously though, yes, he is part of everything I am, including my mission to protect Mother Nature.

Dia you are Sanctuary’s defacto ‘Brand Ambassador’. What drew you to us and are you in this for the long haul?

Bittu, you are someone I have deeply admired. From a distance I watched you change lives... working to protect wild nature relentlessly, with love, dedication and determination. I just wanted to find a way to be a part of what you were doing. If you remember, it was I who chased you… not the other way around! It took some time and relentlessness on my part to convince you that I would walk the talk. Thank you for embracing me and giving me clarity of purpose.

And your advice to young adults looking to make a difference in the way you have?

Rise up. Because you can. No matter what your circumstance, you are in control and can make choices. Tread gently upon this earth. Be aware of your own impact on the planet. Try to consume less. Don’t allow material things to define your standing and your beauty. Beauty is what beauty does. Listen to your heart. Work hard. Don’t underestimate yourself or the mission ahead of you. Don’t take yourself too seriously for that can be a burden. And remember the Dalai Lama’s advice: “It is your duty to enjoy every day of your life.”

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