Was it ‘Insta’-nt fame for this internet sweetheart? Mallika Dua gives us the inside story
Comedian Mallika Dua did a little bit of this and a little bit of that, but in the end gave in to her heart’s calling — acting
Mallika Dua has always been effortlessly funny and notorious ever since her childhood. In class, she could never focus on one thing, or what her teacher was saying, and had a million things racing through her mind. “Board pe likh diya and yaad kar liya (Copying and cramming what was scribbled on the board) was never my thing. I was a really restless kid,” says the comedian, writer and actor. She was exposed to the media rather early, for her father, Vinod Dua, is a veteran journalist and a consulting editor at The Wire, who was honoured with a Padma Shri in 2008. Dua’s mother, Padmavati Dua, is a radiologist and she tried hard to ensure that both sisters, Dua and the older Bakul, had a healthy balance of academic and non-academic pursuits. She didn’t always succeed. “My poor mum always had a tough time making me study,” says the young star.
Her father insisted that the two daughters train in classical music, and the sisters went religiously for their classes in north Delhi. Dua says that most of her time was spent in that part of town and her school Modern School on Barakhamba Road too was located there. She was only four when she started her music lessons, and remembers those days as fun. But she never imagined singing as a career.
A long time ago, she wanted to become an astronaut. “That was till I reached fourth standard,” she says. “Then I realised that padhai toh humse hogi nahi (studying is not my cup of tea) and dropped that dream. Planets excited me back then and they do even now when I see them on television. But I was certain that I did not want to study so much.”
In school was also when she started what is her current profession – being a performer. “The only difference was, as a kid, I used to perform on stage in front of my schoolmates and professors. Now, I do that online through my videos. But, the reaction of the audience has always been the same, of open enjoyment,” she says. The first role Dua got was when she was 12, in a ‘The Sound of Music’ production, in which she played one of the Von Trapp children. She proudly remembers that she sang, and acted, in it.
After school ended, Dua was conflicted. Her father wanted her to study political science from the Hindu College, Delhi University. She gave it a shot, in 2006, for a whole year, but she pulled out when she realised how intent she was on honing her acting skills. Dua says, “The same year, I started preparing for my SAT (a test taken to gain admission into colleges in the US).” She finally left for Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 2007, when she was only 18 years old, where she had enrolled into a bachelor’s degree in theatre, at the Franklin and Marshall College.
Dua was at Franklin and Marshall for four years, and she recalls that period as “the most grueling experience of her life.” She says the education system is a universe away from what it is in India. “In India, we don’t study for an entire year and do last-minute catch up before the exams. That does not work there. Two weeks after I joined the college, there was a mid-term. To add to the pressure, no two subjects were alike.”
As a part of the course, Dua performed in different kinds of plays, from contemporary to classical, and trained for acting in front of the camera and on stage. Those were trying years, but she readily agrees that they made her independent.
Franklin and Marshall had definitely exhausted Dua. When she returned to India, she decided to take a year off and do only plays, just in Delhi, instead of taking up a job. Dua dreamt of eventually moving to Mumbai to pursue acting as a profession, but what held her back was her lack of experience.
She also valued discipline and professionalism at the workplace. Dua says, “I always wanted to be part of a proper working environment where I could focus on my work. I wanted a regular job. So, after my break, I joinedMcCann Erickson, the advertisement agency. I interned there for about eight months and then left, since my boss, who was very supportive, also quit and joined another agency. If you were in the advertisement industry, you would know that mass migration happens often. When my boss left, he took a lot of people with him and I saw no point in staying on after they left.” But this was not Dua’s last stint in advertising.
From McCann Erickson, she moved onto Contract Advertising, along with one of the colleagues from her previous job. She spent two years there, and had varied responsibilities. She did acting, recorded voiceovers and wrote scripts. Till her stint ended there in 2016, she kept attending auditions and performing in plays after working hours. “Both my bosses at Contract Advertising and McCann Erickson were supportive. I worked in office from 10 am to 6 pm, and then ran to try out for parts and for theatre. I always nurtured my dream,” she says.
Dua says she never meant to pursue advertising or comedy exclusively. “I still do not consider myself only a comedian. I still give auditions for ads as and when I feel they might be a good opportunity,” she says.
Hers was a pragmatic choice after all. Her venture into advertising may have helped build a professional network, which later helped her get one of her big breaks. It was in January 2016, when Dua did a video on Shit People Say: Sarojini Nagar with A Little Anarky Films and Little Black Book. She was the only character in the video, and she had also written its script. It got 3.1 million views. The viral video made her a few friends in Mumbai, who were producing comedy and web series, and this gave her a better understanding of the then-nascent industry.
The same year, Dua knew she was ready to move to Mumbai. “I knew that if I do not make the decision now, I would regret it later. I discussed this with my bosses at both the ad agencies and my colleagues, and asked them, ‘If I fail, will you hire me back?’ They laughed and said, ‘Yes, but don’t fail’.”
A career in art does not start out lucratively, and there is rent to pay. Dua asked her parents if they could help her out with the rent for the first two months in Mumbai. They agreed, but she had to ensure that she found work in a few months nonetheless. “They asked me if I could give it a try for six months and then maybe move back to Delhi, and try to work from there. I asked them if they would have asked me the same thing if I was getting married: ‘Try it for six months and come back if it does not work’.” Dua won that argument, and moved to the capital city.
The Viral Fever (TVF) was the second company to invite Dua to join them in 2016, and that was even before she had moved to Mumbai. “It was definitely encouraging,” she says. Dua had got her foot in the door, but to be wired into the comedy circuit she needed help. Dua says comedian Tanmay Bhat was extremely helpful with that.
Dua was set to fly high, but she did have an Achilles heel. She does not shine in auditions. “I am bad at giving them,” she says. “After first 10 auditions, I accepted that these are pointless. I do not understand how one can analyse anyone’s potential over a 15-minute interview. I have performed on stage all my life, and we get 30 days to prepare for the role. What I used to be on the first day of practice is very different from what I become on the last day. Auditions afford you no time.” Luckily, offers started coming in after her Sarojini Nagar video and she could skip the painful auditions.
Another stumbling block was the limited offers she was getting from the movie and television industry. “Most of them were sister roles of the lead actress,” she says. “And, since I am a comedian, the roles were not even properly written. They assume that we will improvise it on our own.” There was also the assumption that anyone on the heavier side would not be interested in working in romantic or serious movies, she adds. “If we have to do something, we will have to write it for ourselves, too.”
Comedy is lucrative, concedes Dua, but she adds that it is also a risky career to choose. Offers could stop any time, she fears.
Little things keep you going, though. “I was a new girl from Delhi in this city, and like any other day, I was in the TVF office when I got a call from Girliyapa. I got so excited that I literally jumped and told them that I was already in Mumbai. The next day, I went to their office, met Srishti who I had always seen just in Girliyapa videos and it all worked out smoothly.” Dua is now working with Girliyapa and TVF.
The next offer she got was also one that is dearest to her heart. The Trip, a running web series by Bindass, is about four best friends, and Dua plays one of them. The three other actresses in the show are Lisa Haydon, Sapna Pabbi and Shweta Tripathi. For now, they have shot two seasons of it and Dua says each day on the set is a celebration. “It is like living with three girls in a hostel, and it is definitely fun. They are all like sisters to me now,” she says. The first season of the show was aired on Bindass on December 15, 2016. Season 2 was aired in September 2018.
Dua has been in Mumbai for two years now, and she no doubt has stardust about her. Towards the end of the interview, four girls come running to her, to take photos with her and ask for her autograph. She knows she has made the right choice. “You ask me what my favourite is among acting, writing and comedy – and I would always say acting. I love the place I am at right now,” she says.