Six months ago, when she had a thousand Instagram followers and not 5 million, when she was just another teenager with a social media account and not a face that moved the internet to breathless, punch-drunk love, Priya Prakash Varrier, one month short of 18, celebrated Onam in college with her four friends. And did what all teenagers do: post it on “Insta”.
Here they are: five young women in Onam finery, the whites and golds of their saris set against the reds and pinks of trendy blouses and lip colour. It is captioned “Onam2k17” and hashtagged: #mypeople #lifeline #bestthingaboutvimala #wouldnthavesurvivedwithouthem #ducksforlife. The first-year B.Com students at the all-girls’ Vimala College, Thrissur, are as different as their dreams: the one who wants to be a chartered accountant; the one whose skills are in makeup and fashion; the one aiming to crack the civil service examinations; and the one who always wanted to be an actor. “We didn’t like college, we were struggling to adjust but we found each other,” says Priya. At 5’7”, she is the tallest in the group.
She hasn’t hung out with her four besties for a while. To be precise, ever since the 26-second footage of her wink in a song from the yet-to-be-shot Malayalam film, Oru Adaar Love (An Extraordinary Love), took over the internet’s neural network to lift her out of anonymity — to make her world famous in Thrissur.
On this morning, she is at the Don Bosco Mannuthy school for a couple of interviews, including one with the BBC. She has been here before, of course. This is the school that director Omar Lulu turned into a version of Riverdale High for his song, Manikya malaraya poovi. But something is different this time. From the group of schoolboys egging each other to walk up to her for an autograph to the kindergarten kids interrupting interviews with “chechi, chechi” and the school management that wants a photo shoot done for the annual magazine, everyone plays to a new script of fame.
Priya is happy to oblige, as if she has been scrawling her name on the arms of boys almost her age for years. She is dressed in a black top and a pair of jeans, lips coloured a deep shade of pink, and eyes dramatically set off by liner. But up close, there is still something of the un-Photoshopped girl next door about her. She is barely wearing any makeup and even the shining new magenta One Plus One phone in her hands has no SIM card.
“She is still not allowed her own phone,” says her father Prakash Varrier, whose often-knitted eyebrows give away that he is new at playing celebrity dad. “All these days, she has used her mother’s phone. Even now, it is only when we set up a mobile hotspot that she can use her phone,” he says. The officer with the central excise department realised his daughter’s dancing eyes were going viral when a colleague WhatsApped the clip to him. “I asked him if he knew who the girl was. He said no. I said that is my daughter. For two minutes, there was no reply,” says Varrier with a somewhat rueful smile. “I realised then the video had clicked, a bit too much I think!”
Varrier recalls her as a child with no stage fright, and an enthusiasm for singing and dancing. “She was really an ordinary girl, just with a different ambition,” he says.
“I am still the same person. The Priya on screen, that you see in the song, and the Priya in real life are very similar. I am not very shy, I do what I feel. If I have to take the initiative, I will,” says Priya. There is no denying, though, that in the wink of an eye, her life has changed. If her mother and chitta (aunt) shepherded her to fashion shows and college fests before, she now has a PR manager to handle interview requests and sponsorship deals. “She did a few Instagram posts for brands like Pringles, One Plus One and Hypster. But no more now,” says Venu OV, the director’s publicity manager, who now doubles as hers. Though he would not give out figures, sources say each Insta post earned her about Rs 5 lakh.
Two weeks ago, most days were spent shuttling between college and home in Punkunnam, an upper-class neighbourhood of Thrissur. Just the other day, she boarded an aeroplane for the first time, from Kochi to Trivandrum, to attend an anti-drug campaign organised by the city police. Strangers now come up to her in public and ask for autographs or strike up a conversation. “I like to go out a lot, to hang out with my friends. But I have not been able to do that. I’m not allowed to go out in Thrissur. My parents say your freedom is gone now,” Priya says with a smile.
To some, Priya’s tale might seem briefer than a Hemingway story in six words: pretty girl grew up, got lucky. But for the actor, this is not a random roll of the dice. This was meant to be. “Even as a child, I was very particular about the way I looked or the dress I wanted to wear. I was eight or nine when an uncle began to call me a model. It stuck in my head. Why not a model? And then, why not an actress?” In the 12-odd years she spent in the co-ed school, Sandeepani Vidya Nikethan, she was a regular on stage. “She has learnt Mohiniattam and Bharatanatyam for many years,” says her mother Preetha.
She had even landed a tiny role in Lulu’s earlier film Chunkzz (2017), a bawdy college caper that got rapped for its sexist jokes. “But since I was appearing for Class XII exams, I had to let that go. It was very disappointing,” she says. A couple of fashion shows and an appearance in a short film, Third Flip, directed by a schoolmate, followed. By then, Priya had made up her mind that she would try her luck in films, rather than study for CA exams.
Luck wasn’t on her side when she walked into the audition for Oru… “I was very nervous. I just didn’t do well. I was not surprised that I was chosen for a small role,” she says. There are those who snigger that Lulu cast her in a lead role after the phenomenal success of his song, but it wasn’t quite like that. “All I had to do was walk with Roshan (Abdul Rahoof, who is cast opposite her) down the stairs. But after that scene, Omar sir thought we looked good together. So I was made one of the five heroines,” she says.
Her role might yet be improvised, says co-writer Sarang Jayaprakash. He describes Oru… as “the opposite of Chunkzz. This is about the innocent love of school life”. “There is even a fat guy who finds love in the end,” says Lulu, without batting an eyelid.
You don’t need to spend a lot of time at Vimala College to realise that this is, in a manner of speaking, a no-winking zone. Young girls move in quiet order in this forcefield of respectability. They are dressed in the regulation uniform — salwar kameez — but only in solid colours. Smartphones are not allowed inside. Here and there, a flash of a brilliant pair of danglers or dramatic eye makeup signals the persistence of flair. This is as far as it can get from the swinging, sighing fantasy of love that Oru… peddles. (“When we came here, we had imagined a colourful college life, but they were too many restrictions,” says Priya.)
Sister Marriette A Therattil, the principal of the college, shares an old-school scepticism for things in vogue. “How can I just talk about Priya? She is just one of many talented young women in my college,” she says. Efforts to talk about putting Thrissur on global #trending charts is snipped short, even if with a smile. “It is not Kerala, it is you people in the north who seem to like her more,” she says.
Priya, by Therattil’s account, is just another of the 2,500 students of the college. “There are some who have won reality shows, some who have gone on to become actors. Will you interview them?” she asks.
Therattil being the formidable woman that she is, I dare not say no. I end up in a chamber full of trophies with Shruti Paul, the striking big-eyed winner of Midukki 2017, a reality show on the Mazhavil Manorama channel. “Thousands of girls came for the audition, even Priya was there. But she didn’t make it,” says the 21-year-old triumphantly.
Priya’s supernova of fame might have blinded lesser celebrities but that hasn’t stopped them from asking what the fuss is all about. The questions popping up on Reddit and Quora suggest a similar disbelief: “Do you think Priya Varrier is overhyped?” Or the one that goes to prove that the sexiest thing to a certain type of unimaginative Indian will always be marks: “Will the topper of the NEET and the JEE get the same attention as Priya Prakash Varrier?”
Five decades ago, Andy Warhol had seen it coming: “in the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. But even the American pop artist, who was wedded to his gadgets (the tape recorder and the TV) and who would have fit right in today, might have been surprised by the ways of the internet, which has made stars out of Justin Bieber and Jacob Sartorious, grumpy cats and people who are not particularly good at anything.
Lulu knows a thing or two about stringing the internet along. “I was making a film with newcomers, I knew I had to make a splash,” says the two-film-old director. So, before he started the shoot, or his writers finalised the script, he decided he needed an offering for the internet. “We released the video on February 9, to time it for Valentine’s Day. When I saw the edit of the song, I was sure Priya’s wink would be a hit in south India. But this even I had not anticipated.”
If you think about it, fame 2.0 is a bit like love, a recognition of the extraordinary in the mundane. It just needs a special kind of electricity to see it. What if the internet hadn’t seen that spark in Priya? She would have been one of the four other lead female actors in Oru…, none of whose names made it to the internet hall of fame. “I am a big example of the importance of social media. People would not know me if it weren’t for YouTube,” she agrees.
And what is it to be 18 and fall in love in Thrissur? “It’s difficult to even meet boys. Parents are just relieved to put us in an all-girls’ college,” says Anjana Menon, one of Priya’s four lifelines in college. “This is still a very conservative place,” chime in the other three — Shreelakshmi Dileep, Dency Dennis, Shreelakshmi M.
At the Sree Kerala Varma College, where mundus swish with hipster flair and classroom walls are full of the graffiti of love and Lenin, where smartphones are allowed and politics a matter of pride, the answer is slightly different. “This is a campus for love,” says Sourav, first-year student of BSc (Statistics) and a member of the Students’ Federation of India. He takes us to “Ooty”, an overgrown patch of thicket, which gives lovers on campus some privacy. “Here, no one will dare bother them.” He has watched the viral wink, of course, and believes it is inspired by real life. “This is what happens at college fests. Girls and boys sit on either side and that’s how they signal to each other. I have done it myself many times,” he says.
The nation’s crush, though, knows that she is simply playing out a fantasy. Priya, “single as a Pringle”, is pragmatic about life. “I don’t think at this age any parent will allow this kind of love, at least in Kerala,” she says.
For now, she has other negotiations to make. The actor, who watches films in four languages — Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and English — says she needs to learn Kannada and Telugu so she can work across industries. Her parents, who till a while ago, had ordinary parenting challenges, are swimming in a new river. “For the next two-three years, we have to take care of her. She is getting lots of offers but it has to be balanced with her studies. Maybe, one project a year,” says Varrier.
What if, however, the “insta” is the only thing permanent about this limelight? What if this is it? Will she be able to stretch her 15 minutes and make it last a lifetime? Priya is aware of the terrible power of the internet, which never really forgets. “I don’t want to be known just as the wink. I want to act in other industries. I want to do so much more,” she says. A life less ordinary has only just begun.
Wink or the eyebrow move?
Your first crush?
Oh no! Okay, my classmate in Class II
When did you start wearing makeup?
When I was in Class VIII
Favourite shade of lipstick?
Favourite item in the onam sadya?
Asin or Alia Bhatt?
26 second of fame
In the 3-minute long song, Priya Prakash Varrier appears at 1.32. By 1.58, she has jiggled her eyebrows, winked, smiled and broken the internet.
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