You need to have courage to choose a career in acting when you are a 90-per-cent-scoring-engineering student, especially when you live in a country where choosing acting thus is considered a waste of your knowledge. But Dilnaz Irani dared to be an actor when neither she nor her family had any ‘connections’ in the industry. “I am a software engineer, and so my parents were naturally unsure of my choice of getting into acting. In fact, they did wonder even through my college years why I was interested in acting when I was already studying to be an engineer,” reminisces the actor, who then went on to pursue the art as a hobby.
A touch of drama
For someone who is now known in the industry for her acting talents, Dilnaz was a shy kid. “My parents once enrolled me for ballet and I was terrible at it,” she says, laughing. “It was only when they got me into a speech and drama class that I became confident and came out of my shell, and even started participating in school plays.” Even as a child, Dilnaz loved watching films, but it was the idea of playing different characters on stage that spiked her interest. “Apart from the fact that I love being on stage, the thought that I could be any character I wanted to be made me realise that I didn’t have to make a decision of what I want to be in life,” she chuckles as she recollects. The actor went on to make a memorable presence in movies like Jodha Akbar, Heroine and Aligarh. Even so, the ‘indecision’ to choose between engineering and acting, kept her on her toes, literally. “By 5.45 pm, I would finish my university exams, which were scheduled from 3.00 pm–6.00 pm, and jump into a local train headed to the C.S.T. station. I would be picked up from there by my father, waiting there on a bike, to take me to The National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) for my play,” she tells us, the disbelief of the whole situation still writ on her face.
The big opening
So what was her first big break, we are curious. And Dilnaz becomes pensive. “I am not sure what I can classify as a big break. Because I thought I got one when, in college, director Toni Patel cast me in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice,” she says. “But then, Rahul da Cunha from Rage Theatre saw me in that one and cast me in I am not Bajirao, where I shared the stage with actors like Boman Irani and Rajat Kapoor. So I think that would be my first big break.” Then after Khoobsurat Hai Tu, a music video with Sandeep Chowta, the famed The Vagina Monologues happened. “And just when I began to settle in with the idea of The Vagina Monologues being my one big project, Aligarh came along,” she says excitedly. “That is when I realised that it will only keep getting bigger with each project. I am pretty happy about it though.”
Modelling and the works
As regards acting, the scene kept ever changing, with a good mix of commercial mainstream, as well as ‘art’ cinemas like Aligarh. “I couldn’t be happier that my first Bollywood film Jodha Akbar, was with someone like Ashutosh Gowarikar and Aishwarya Rai,” she says, the contentment showing as she spoke. But we remembered her modeling days too. Anything interesting she remembers from that phase of her life? “Modelling is not for dumb people and I am a living proof of it,” she responds with a chuckle. “Nevertheless, as much fun as it was in the beginning, for me as an actor, it was difficult to enjoy being a model. It got boring when I realised I had to give only about five expressions in total so that I looked pretty. You see, I wanted to do more than just look pretty. And honestly, I didn’t want to take on the unnecessary pressure of always having to look presentable all the time. But I guess that helped me decide upon sticking to acting.”
The impact of her vocation
She soon found something she could do to look more than just pretty, and how The Vagina Monologues had an impact on her like her other roles may not have. About a year and a half ago, Dilnaz and the rest of the cast performed the Hindi version of the show, titled Kissa Yoni Ka, at the slums of Dharavi, to raise awareness about women’s sexuality and their feelings. The first time the enormity of the play’s message struck her was when, after the show, a girl held her hand and began to cry. It was the first time in that girl’s life she had opened up to someone about being physically abused. “First I was appalled at the level of the women’s ignorance and the lack of sex education in these areas, for we heard a couple of people talk about the abuse or rape they had undergone imagining that they were the only ones suffering. They didn’t even know that people all over the world go through the same thing, irrespective of the class of society they belonged to,” Dilnaz recollects, unable to hide her shock. “And I realised that though I might not have changed 25,000 lives, I have touched five lives. This is when I felt like I was doing something substantial and felt good about it.”
But something as persuasive and upfront as The Vagina Monologues couldn’t have come with a backlash. How did she tackle that? “We get some really bizarre comments sometimes,” she replies, half laughing and cringing at the memory of the comments. “Some men commented, ‘Thank you; now I know how I am going to pleasure my wife.’ Another one asked us if we even host classes on how to pleasure women. Strangely, I am not sure if he was just being sleazy or if he was genuine. Even after responding politely to him, he kept insisting that we give him a class so that he could bring his wife along, as well.” But perverts aside, Dilnaz seems to have found her niche. She knows that as much as it can bring her the satisfaction she needs, acting can be a medium to help educate society. And the comments she receives for being a part of a group that helps that happen is just all the more incentive for her to do more.