On February 9, 2018, Priya Prakash Varrier’s life changed. The 19-year-old college student from Kerala’s Thrissur became an internet sensation overnight when a short clip of her winking at a classmate in the video of a song from the Malayalam film Oru Adaar Love went viral. Varrier’s wink propelled her to stardom, landing her at the top of Google searches and bringing in movie offers. The actress is now set to make her Bollywood debut in the role of a troubled actress in the film Sridevi Bungalow.

In a recent interview, Varrier reminisced about the day that the song Manikya Malaraya Poovi was released and talked about how she has handled her newfound fame. “It was literally a tiny little video,” she told Scroll.in. “Overnight, it went crazy. Initially I didn’t know what to feel about it. But then we started accepting it. Slowly it dawned on us that it was actually quite a big deal”.

The actress is amazed by the the popularity of her wink. “I don’t understand how it went viral,” she said. “There are people who wink much better than I do. I don’t actually know what people saw in that wink that they liked so much”.

Varrier’s popularity prompted director Omar Lulu to increase the length of her role in the romantic drama, which is set to be released in Tamil, Telugu and Kannada in theatres worldwide on February 14. “They really liked me. They wanted me in there for a bigger role in the film,” she said. “Omar wanted to change the script and so the delay in the film, which was originally to be released in June [in 2018].”

Manikya Malaraya Poovi from Oru Adaar Love.

Oru Adaar Love explores the lives, loves and friendships of a group of senior school students. Varrier said the film’s premise could have contributed to the song’s popularity. “Maybe it reminded people of their school romance, the nostalgia and the memory of those days,” she said.

Varrier’s wink continued to get her attention throughout the year. The video of Manikya Malaraya Poovi has notched up more than 84 million views on YouTube. When Google India released its top search trends of 2018 last month, Varrier had overshot Nick Jonas, Priyanka Chopra, Salman Khan and Meghan Markle to emerge as the most googled person in India. Her Instagram account has 6.2 million followers, far ahead of Malayalam cinema stars Mohanlal and Dulquer Salman. And the wink continues to inspire memes and videos, bringing the attention back to Varrier even after unrelated events.

One such moment was when Congress president Rahul Gandhi winked after hugging Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a Parliament session last July. When she got back from college that day, reporters were waiting outside her home, clamouring for a reaction. She claimed her words were twisted in the media. “All I said was I felt happy he did it. The way it came out was that I’d said he was trying to imitate me. Trolls were out in force then,” she said.

Such trolling has been the collateral damage of Varrier’s internet stardom. “It was so upsetting that people who supported me started to pull me down,” the actress said. “There are still things that they say such as I wear too much makeup or comparing me to other Malayalam cinema actresses when I still haven’t had a chance to prove myself”.

The internet attacks have been accompanied by legal trouble. In August 2018, the Supreme Court quashed an first information report filed against Varrier and the makers of Oru Adaar Love by groups who contended that the Manikya Malaraya Poovi video hurt religious sentiments.

The teaser of Sridevi Bungalow has run into controversy after its launch on Monday. The film’s title and a scene in the trailer, showing Varrier’s character lying motionless in a bathtub, have prompted speculation that the movie is based on Sridevi’s life. The actress died of accidental drowning in a bathtub on February 24, 2018. Her husband, producer Boney Kapoor has reportedly sent a legal notice to the film’s director, Prasanth Mambully.

Sridevi Bungalow teaser (2019).

Exit privacy, enter fame

Varrier, a second-year Bachelor of Commerce student at Vimala College in Thrissur, said her days largely stay the same despite the newfound fame. “Before the song, my life was about going to music classes, college, hanging out with friends,” she explained. “It’s still the same. I go to music class, college, spend time with friends. Now, though, people recognise me, gather around and ask for selfies. Thankfully, I don’t get mobbed.”

The actress admitted that she enjoys the attention. “I have lost my privacy to an extent. But I also like the fame I have now and I enjoy it,” she said. “I’ve also got the chance to travel quite a lot because of the song and the film”.

Does she get asked to do the wink all the time? “I have to do it. People leave me with no choice,” she said.

The one thing that did initially unnerve the teenager was the constant presence of photographers and television crew outside her home in the weeks after the song’s release. “They’d just be there. They never asked if it was okay to be there,” she said. I’d walk in in my college uniform and be expected to pose for them and talk to them.”

The media attention was also hard on Varrier’s family, she said. The actress lives with her father Prakash, a Central Excise and Customs official, her mother Preetha, younger brother Prasiddh and grandparents. “We’re a normal joint family. But the crews would be there all the time,” she said. “My parents tried to ignore it but there’s only so much they could do.”

How did her brother respond to Varrier’s sudden stardom? “Initially, he wasn’t bothered. But then he started to enjoy the attention at school,” she said.

Varrier is thankful for her mother, who keeps her grounded. “My mum reminds me not to let it all get to my head. All I have to my credit is a song and a wink,” she said. “I have a long way to go to prove myself as an actress. The first step on that journey is waiting for Oru Adaar Love to release and see what people think of me as an actress”.

Oru Adaar Love (2019).