Long before Mallika Dua went viral with a little help from Snapchat filters, she was already something of a minor celebrity. “My biggest source of inspiration was teachers in school,” recalled the alumna of Modern School, Barakhamba Road. “I’d hold court, imitating them. And people would come and just watch me do it. It gave them so much joy because it was a kind of release, you couldn’t say anything to teachers, right?” So much so that soon she was fielding requests. “That was one thing that people really liked and I used to get more shae by doing it.”
Dua often breaks into the colloquial (“shae dena” in Punjabi loosely means “to encourage”), and you can’t quite comprehend her appeal without appreciating the colloquial. “I was the biggest nautanki at home. Like I’d go to my dad’s closet, pick out a karakul hat, and pretend to be a qawwal. Anything I heard, all the sights and sounds, I’d incorporate them into the rubbish I say.” It is this streetwise rubbish that allows her to accurately render her world in her videos, complete with language and mannerisms.
A large section of her followers on Instagram and Snapchat possibly identify with her as PLU – a private school-educated upbringing of both hard work and comfort. And while she’s not Punjabi herself, (half-Derawal and half-Tamil Brahmin), her inspirations are clearly Delhi Punjabi. Her repertoire is equally a joke on and a love letter to Delhi’s Punjabi excesses and aggressions.
There’s Rummy-playing kitty party-hopping Dadiji. Then there’s Make-up Didi’s perennially upset, ignorant and upwardly mobile client for whom Chinese and Japanese are all the same. Her DU (short for Delhi University) spoofs are pitch-perfect, with their references to K-Nagz (Kamla Nagar), 10-year-papers, kunjis, and youngsters who want to try a sutta (cigarette). The hashtag JaiMataDiLetzRock binds these narratives together. And though her characters are based on stereotypes, her treatment is nuanced. Note the way a given character’s lips will curl just so or how they’ll say “loin” for “lion” or “carrier” for “career”.
This appreciation of stereotypes is also how her viral video Shit People Say: Sarojini Nagar Edition came about. Written, styled and enacted by Dua, this is the video that really got people talking [beyond the small fanbase that her dubsmashes had already started attracting on social media]. “A friend of mine, Suchita [Salwan] runs Little Black Book [a local discovery platform] and she got in touch because they wanted to start video content. I’m a massive shopaholic, so she said why don’t you do this guide of Sarojini Nagar telling people where one gets discounts and what’s best for what. I said let’s not because everyone does that, you can watch NDTV Goodtimes for this.”
Dua came up another idea. “There’s this one problem that I have which is that the way people portray Delhi girls like there’s only this one stereotypical Delhi girl. And I was like aise nahi hai yaar, dus stereotype hai, baara hai (there are 10 or 12 stereotypes), and no matter who you are you have shopped at Sarojini. So I said let’s show the different people that shop there.” Buzzfeed picked it up off Twitter and soon she had her phone ringing for interviews. And so Dua’s star began its ascent.
Until now Dua was juggling her love for the theatrical with a day job as an advertising copywriter. A theatre major from Franklin and Marshall College in the US, she opted for the discipline and routine of a 9-to-5 job when she graduated. Her advertising career started as a trainee at McCain Erickson and later at Contract Advertising, which she quit recently. “It was one of the best decisions I ever made because it taught me humility. People who’ve never worked in their lives don’t understand these things. There was accountability along with credit. And writing scripts on scripts on scripts.”
In fact, she credits her time in the advertising industry with the idea of Make-up Didi. “We deal with a lot of clients like all these marketing people from FMCGs and MNCs. And so the idea, that clients are difficult. Similarly Make-up Didi’s client will never be happy, she’ll find a way to diss her.” Of course, Make-up Didi is also fuelled by time spent at the salon. “There are these girls ki bal itne golden hai but aur golden karane hai. Then there are these girls who only get their hair washed when they have it blow-dried. That’s the thing in Delhi. They’re like ‘Yaar I have too much hair I can’t wash it, I’m going to the parlour.’”
Her family plays an important role in her creativity, Dua acknowledges. “My sister is a huge influence and we scout [for] mad weirdos, while my dad [veteran journalist Vinod Dua] is hilarious and has always encouraged the crazy in me. My mum is the nicest and never stopped me from doing anything. They’ve been my biggest support and each time I discuss an idea, they add to it. “
Starting August, she is formally making the switch to being a full-time entertainer. She’s launching her own YouTube channel. Plus she has moved to Bombay, where Only Much Louder, a new media content creator, has signed her on. “That’s where the industry is and I ought to give it a try because I’m not someone who wants to do just comedy or stand-up. I want to do everything. “
Is she scared? “Yeah, very. The thing is the more adulation I get, the more scared I get. When no one knows you, you have nothing to lose. But literally my only concern is my hair in Bombay. It’s such a superficial line, who’s going to talk to me with that hair.” Yes, frizz can undo the best of us. “The other thing I’m worried about is that I know my mojo is here, in Delhi. Like my coordinates are here. You know Driver Bhaiya, and someone to give me food at home. And that helps because I have nothing else on my mind here except stupidity. So of course it’ll be different in Bombay but I suppose I’ll get other kinds of inspiration.” Here’s to that.