Dia Mirza shot into the limelight by winning the Miss Asia-Pacific International title in 2000. Her fame and popularity only grew after she debuted in the Hindi film industry with Rehnaa Hai Teree Dil Mein a year later. Today, she’s known as a climate activist, who uses her voice and position to highlight issues concerning both the environment and wildlife. As UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador and UN Secretary General’s Advocate for Sustainable Development Goals, the 41-year-old is excited to work with solution seekers—people who are innovating and doing extraordinary work on ground. “From being absolute climate-deniers, there are more and more people who acknowledge that climate change is real… it’s not happening in the future, it’s happening right now,” she tells Forbes India. Edited excerpts from an interview.
Q. Films are about looks and glamour, and box office numbers. When did the climate crusader in you come alive?
It’s a combination of a few things—my upbringing, the kind of environment I grew up in. I grew up in a home, and in a school, where a close relationship with nature was fostered. We were helped to understand that we are a part of nature, and a lot of conversation was around how our behaviour and consumption patterns were affecting the climate, and contributing to pollution, and biodiversity loss. Many of those conversations stuck in my head and reflected in the choices that I was making as a consumer. When I started to work in films, I got the opportunity to work with a lot of civil society organisations that were doing remarkable work on the ground. And my constant question to them would be, ‘What is the source of this issue?’ It was deeply affecting me and impacting every life around us, and I decided I would use my platform and voice to build a bridge between the extraordinary work that scientists and civil society organisations were doing in silos with mainstream media and, therefore, a larger spectrum of people.
Q. You’ve highlighted issues concerning the environment and wildlife. What is the change or impact you have seen over the years?
From the time that I began till now, I feel from being absolute climate-deniers, there are more and more people who acknowledge that climate change is real… it’s not happening in the future, it’s happening right now. And, of course, Mother Nature is doing her job in making that amply clear. It’s more than evident. The level of destruction that we are seeing, as frequently as we are, and the intensity of destruction that we are seeing… it's not a warning anymore. I find that more and more people, more and more businesses, more and more young people are using the access to science and the knowledge that we have today—and they have today—to make better choices. I feel there is a tremendous movement happening globally and in India not just to raise awareness and improve our choices, but there’s actual work happening on the ground.
Q. What is next on your agenda or priority as an activist?
The Sustainable Development Goals have experienced a massive setback because of Covid-19, but alongside that also because of the rate at which climate is changing. Climate change and the disasters that we are experiencing set people back everywhere. The truth is that we have seven years to ensure that temperatures don’t increase beyond 1.2 degrees and so, I guess what I am going to try and do—and have been doing, and will try and do more fervently now—is to push for greater ambition and more action on the ground, and just mobilise more communication—get more and more people to understand what the Sustainable Development Goals are, why we need to achieve them and how each and every one of us has a part to play.
Q. You have invested in sustainable brands. Was that a conscious decision? What is your investment mantra?
Of course, it was. I really think there is no greater power than the power of money. And while we may change or make or switch to more eco-conscious lifestyles, and just choose products and items of consumption that are more eco-friendly, it’s equally important to put our money also behind such initiatives. Sustainable products and sustainable consumption cannot remain the exception, it has to become the norm. And the only way it will become the norm is if more and more of us start putting our money behind it. Which is why I chose five companies that are all homegrown in India, three which are led by women. And nothing makes me more proud than the fact that I can put my hard-earned money and my savings into brands and companies that I use myself, that I truly care about and that I know impact change at a much larger level.
Also read: Building resilient infrastructure pertinent to face climate extremities: Amit Prothi
Q. Are you a hands-on investor or do you leave the business decisions to a dedicated team?
The business decisions have to be left to the dedicated team with the basic premise that our values have to be aligned, and we must not ever forget the reason why we stepped into this into the first place. What is good for people has to be good for the planet. And if it’s not, then it’s not good for people.
Q. You also have a production house of your own. What is the larger goal in terms of making films?
The main purpose is to just impact change. We are clear that we want to tell stories that bring about change. And, of course, do it while we entertain people. And that’s really the kind of choices that I am even making as an actor. I seem to be finding the kind of jobs that give me the opportunity to be a part of something that helps people understand social conflict better or social injustice better, or just help make better choices in life.
Q. Do you think with OTT, the canvas has changed for an artiste and how do you adapt to it?
Oh yes, it’s incredible what the advent of the OTT has done. First, I feel it has really democratised the system. It has opened up opportunities for a lot many more people because there’s just so much demand for content. I think there are so many talented people out there, who were struggling to find work, who now have work and are doing exceptionally well, and are being so loved and celebrated by the audiences. I think that’s such a big high and a plus. I also think that there’s more freedom on OTT. You’re not as limited or restricted in the language of storytelling or the manner of storytelling, or the way you choose to kind of engage. It’s interesting what OTT has done not just for the business, but also for artistes across the spectrum. It’s helped us tremendously.
Q. Topics like nepotism, pay parity, the age gap between heroes and heroines are being discussed openly now. Do you feel such debates can lead to meaningful change?
Oh, absolutely, as they always do. First, these debates educate and inform people. A lot of people aren’t even aware of how they are being discriminatory, or they are being sexist. So many people I have worked with have said and done things around me or to me or with me without even realising that they were being sexist. But I think today they are better informed, and, therefore, they will make better choices.
Also read: Sustainable growth and customer engagement in a circular economy
Q. What do you think about women’s representation on screen? Do you think they are getting their due?
I think for the most part. But I feel because content is largely still viewed by men… there is still a long way to go for us to find better representation, but yes, things are improving.
Q. The film industry went through a tough phase since the onset of the Covid pandemic. Is there a lesson for everyone from what has happened?
This is a question that even the most seasoned, well-oiled production houses in the country won’t be able to really and truly answer. My sense, as an artiste, has been that during Covid, and even before that… I think a very big percentage of our country enjoys viewing content for free. And post Covid, because of the kind of financial crisis many people have experienced, they are hesitant to go into theatres because watching a movie in theatres is not an inexpensive experience. And that is the big truth. I truly feel that unless and until theatre experiences become more cost-effective and easier on the wallet, we are going to be waiting for that one breakthrough film all the time. And the smaller films, and perhaps even the better films, are going to struggle to find an audience.
Q. What keeps you going after all these years?
Purpose. Just being aligned with your purpose. And, of course, it really helps to get the kind of love that one does from people.