Mallika Dua On Being A Natural At Bringing In The Chuckles
It was unarguably the most-attended session at the 10th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF), with audiences of all ages packed like sardines into the Charbagh venue. Luckily, I was already seated in the back row, thanks to my urge to attend the previous session, or I’d have to spend the next 50 minutes standing in a far corner, peeking through the gaps between people’s heads for a glimpse of the rising star. And as soon as Mallika Dua got on stage, deafening cheers drowned out her introduction. “I’ve always known of this concept of a human chain that security guards form around Bollywood stars, but at JLF, it happened to me. The best part was the audience I could view from the stage. There were people between the ages of 10 and 70!” she fondly states while chatting with me a few months later, as we talk about her journey. Such is the power of a viral internet video — it can make someone a star in the matter of a single click.
But the 27-year-old wasn’t unfamiliar with the media world before her new-found fame, what with her father being the media personality Vinod Dua. And through a childhood that revolved around the arts, she saw her fair share of the arc lights before internet stardom beckoned. “Our parents encouraged both my sister and me to take up singing pretty early on, being very keen singers themselves. Being on stage was something I was always fond of. It started with elocution and then went on to debate…I always wanted to act too, and got my first role at 12. It was The Sound of Music, where I played one of the Von Trapp children — I got to sing and act. That’s when it started for me — I wanted to be on stage all the time,” Dua says of her early years. After her schooling and early college in New Delhi, she made her way to Franklin and Marshall College in USA, where she majored in theatre, and it’s something that continues to be her first love. “I love it. Even now, I’m most excited when I’m on stage. Nothing trains you like theatre; nothing excites me like the stage, and nothing compares to the thrill of being in front of a live audience.” But with wisdom far beyond her then-early-twenties age, Dua knew that the capital city wasn’t a place to pursue a career in the field, as the theatre scene there wasn’t the best. So she settled for a job behind the scenes as a copywriter at the advertising agency McCann, to fulfil her creative urges. Though the video that propelled her to internet stardom (apart from her Snapchats and Dubsmashes), Shit Indians Say — Sarojini Nagar Edition, released last January, the decision to move from her hometown to the country’s entertainment capital came almost six months later. “I don’t believe in the ‘Mumbai struggler’ life. I think you should come with a plan, or just not come at all. I’ve always believed in life that you can’t rely on the one passion you have when you are in your early twenties, so I knew I had to work. I took six months to decide to move, based on the opportunities I got and the people I met. I think my first real breakthrough was the Sarojini Nagar video. It got a lot of coverage and people started calling and noticing me. Things changed dramatically for me after that.”
And ‘dramatic’ is the first word that comes to one’s mind whenever they watch Dua act. Her characters that make audiences laugh-out-loud — whether it is her very own creations (like the West Delhi newly-wed) or AIB’s Monica Singh (co-anchor to Tanmay Bhat’s Manoj Dance in Flirty Messaging League), and Tinder aunty, from the If Apps Were People sketch on YouTube, Nazia in Bindass’ webseries The Trip or Delhi’s designer-lehnga-loving Dolly in Bollywood film Hindi Medium — are all seeped in reality. Clearly, comedy seems to be this youngster’s forte, something she’s inherited from her dad. “I’ve grown up with a healthy sense of humour because of him. He’s very funny and irreverent, though he may not look it on screen. My sister and I grew up watching movies like Andaz Apna Apna and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. Even sitcoms like Friends came to India around that time. I was unknowingly influenced by all that,” explains Dua. “When I started my onstage career, I realised that I have a knack for comedy. It was something I was able to do easily, and enjoy while performing. I also think on the internet, nothing sells as well as comedy does. But I studied acting, not just comedy,” she adds. A fan of Daniel Day-Lewis, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Irrfan Khan and Pankaj Kapoor, the aspiring Bollywood actor would love to play a role written by Vishal Bharadwaj, or something like Kangana Ranaut’s in Queen or Meryl Streep’s in The Devil Wears Prada. “But they aren’t being offered to me,” she rues.
Speaking of roles, we wonder what she looks for before accepting one. “The medium technically doesn’t matter to me. Right now, I just take two things into consideration: where the role is taking my career — it has to be a step up from what I’ve previously done — and I have to gain something from it. I can’t do something just to keep myself busy. What also matters is how something is written. Even people who improvise like me would find it hard to do so if the role isn’t well-written.”
Jumping from theatre to on-screen mediums wouldn’t be without its challenges. For Dua, it was the relative lack of rehearsals as compared to theatre, but the fact that she is known to improvise often (she claims the best ideas come to her on set) and that her directors let her do so makes up for it. “Shooting is very irritating, yaar! You’re saying the same lines over and over again, there’s a mike in your back; someone is touching up your make-up and doing your hair every 10 minutes. It’s not as magical as it looks!”
Interestingly, stand-up is a genre most of our comedians have dabbled in at some point in their lives. But the shy Dua has been wary of doing so till now. “I’m scared of being myself live. I can, of course, perform characters. No one is stopping me from performing stand-up in character. There are many ways to do it. I’m open to it, it’s just a question of when, where and how,” she says, adding that her favourites are Louis CK and Russell Peters, and Zakir Khan and Kunal Kamra closer to home. Recently, there has been a lot of debate about inadequate female representation in the field too, but it’s something this actor doesn’t think should be a matter of much discussion. “I haven’t faced any bias. I wouldn’t allow that to happen. I’m aggressively ambitious — I won’t acknowledge a struggle, even if there is one. In fact, a lot of men have helped me in this little journey of mine. I think the focus should be on excellence. If you’re good, you’ll be accepted. I can unabashedly say that I get paid the same or more than some male artists. Women are under-represented in fields across the world. It’s because of the way we look at our women….”
Though her journey may have just begun — Dua sees herself in main roles on the big screen someday. She is propelled by audience adulation and fans’ love for her alter egos (her “psycho cousin” Shagun, make-up didi and a plethora of other characters) that she holds dear to her heart. “We get a lot of love and personalised gifts. I get a lot of love from Pakistan. There are people who’ve messaged me saying, ‘I’m going through a very hard time in my life and fighting depression, and your videos really help’. I think if you’re doing comedy, your aim should be to cheer people up. According to me, when people say I’ve done that, I feel accomplished.”
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