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Verve People
February 05, 2016

Gene Junction: Dia Mirza

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photograph by Suresh Natrajan

Dia Mirza talks about her Hyderabadi heritage and growing up with diverse cultural influences

“I realised I was different while I was growing up.”

Her mixed lineage has shaped Hyderabad-born actor Dia Mirza’s sensibilities, given her a tolerant outlook on life and endowed her with a distinctive appearance. With a Bengali mother, Deepa Mirza, a German father, Frank Handrich, and a Muslim stepfather, Ahmed Mirza, the former Miss Asia Pacific International owes her humane life philosophy to her varied roots, eclectic exposure and hometown.

Heritage from Hyderabad
“The city gave me a sense of space and an indelible bond with nature. Something as simple as climbing trees, plucking and eating fresh fruit and watching birds can contribute richly to who we become as people. Then what is called tehzeeb, the respect and courtesy accorded to all, is a rich inheritance of being brought up in a city that truly respects this.”

Standing out in a crowd
“I realised I was different while I was growing up. When I was six or seven, I remember coming back home from school once and asking my mother, ‘What am I?’ The question was also sparked because of how different I looked from my peers. I had light skin and golden brown hair. My seeking of identity started when I was very young. My parents would always say one’s identity has nothing to do with social labels or physical features. ‘You are a human being and work on being a good one’ would always be the response at home.”

Diverse cultural influences
“I never met my father’s side of the family because they were all in Germany and I lost him when I was eight. Much of my childhood was spent among my mother’s relatives and my stepfather’s family and relatives. My early years had exposed me to Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi and other Western classical, rock and pop music. Then came ghazals and Sufi music, qawwali and Rabindra Sangeet. Weekends were spent at ICRISAT, swimming with other expats and being a part of the Max Mueller Bhavan’s art exhibits and workshops for children. Food ranged from German goulash and Hyderabadi biryani to Bengali kosha mangsho. I was inhaling, living and experiencing diversity at every level.”

Fitting in different milieus
“I am not big on rituals because my mother didn’t follow many, apart from a few set ones which weren’t done in a religious context. I developed a malleable attitude very early on. So, be it a majlis, pooja, or a prayer meet, I fit in. There was an earnestness with which I participated in all. I may have discovered instinctually that it’s all a process to bring people together.”

Interacting with extended family
“I am in touch with them. I met my 82-year-old German aunt for the first time last year and she handed me a bunch of pictures I had never seen before. It was a deeply moving moment…. In some ways so much of who we are and who we become is so connected to our history.”

Audience reaction
“Right from the beginning, they have perceived me as an individual. I also get ‘you are a good person’ a lot. My name has caused confusion in the minds of a few who ask, ‘Are you Hindu? Are you Muslim?’”

The shaping of gen next
“I would like to do what my parents did. Allow my kids to organically discover and do what they want. They will shape their individual identities.”

Currently working on
“A few films for my production company, an Iranian film and some TV shows. My work with conservationists and wildlife activists is also gathering momentum and a clearer direction.”

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