Thrissur: If you are an Indian with access to the internet, chances are you already know about Priya Prakash Varrier, arguably the biggest internet sensation the country witnessed in 2018. The nation grew very fond of this 19-year old emerging artiste from Kerala ever since a Malayalam movie’s less-than-a-minute-long song teaser released in February featured her as a schoolgirl who winks in response to the playful advances of a classmate.

If you are a millennial with an internet device permanently in hand, chances are you are also familiar with minutiae of information about her personal life that has been making rounds on social media almost every day since February.

As many were floored by her wink, the video went viral almost overnight. She propelled into one of India’s quickest internet celebrities ever. She now ranks among Instagram’s most popular accounts in India, with 6.2 million followers, adding an unprecedented 606,000 followers in a day. The BBC called it “The Wink That Stopped India". “Why weren’t you in my time?" lamented veteran Indian actor Rishi Kapoor on Twitter.

How could such an event of extreme popularity be complete without controversy in India? As it happens, religious clerics in two states found the “wink" tantamount to an insult to their religion and filed criminal cases against Priya and others involved in making the film. And while the song, Manikya Malaraya Poovi, has been a part of Kerala’s culture for at least four decades, Islamic clerics found its depiction in the movie as hurting religious sentiments. The wink was seen as against Islamic beliefs, according to these scholars, as the song describes the love between Prophet Mohammed and his first wife Khadeeja. Eventually, the case was squashed by the Supreme Court.

That she has rocketed into some dimension of fame far beyond anyone else’s experience is borne out by Google India’s annual search rankings released on Thursday. Priya was the most searched personality in the country among the search engine giant’s Indian users, the report said, putting her in the league of actresses such as Sunny Leone and Priyanka Chopra, other A-listers who climbed up in the list over the years.

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After days of trying to fix an interview—the networking consisted of sending recommendations from several prominent people, including a local MP who is also a film star—it felt a bit surreal to meet Priya at her home in Thrissur.

For Priya’s father Prakash Varrier, a customs officer sporting a big moustache that curls upward at its ends, taking personal interview requests from journalists like I has become a chore. He is trying to limit them to as few as possible, or get them done over the phone. Taking her outside the house for an interview on short notice is a strict no-no, as he worries of a mob attack by selfie-seekers.

Just before we met on Sunday, I pointed out to him that interviewing Kerala’s communist chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan, who is notorious for not giving as many interviews as publications would want, has not been this difficult. He shot back saying: “The CM has Black Cat security. My daughter has only me to protect her."

The customs officer is both her manager and guardian. This week was particularly hectic, he said. She was in London for most of the week, acting in a promo of a yet-to-be-titled Bollywood movie. After landing back in Kerala, before she could even get over the jetlag, she went to see off a friend who was going to Muscat. And then came Google India’s annual search rankings, followed by a flurry of calls from journalists seeking interviews.

But every so often, she has to return to her humdrum existence as a college-going student in Thrissur’s women’s-only Vimala College, a precondition to finish her commerce graduation. “It (the film career) should not collide with her academics. I don’t want others to tell my daughter later that, oh you have studied only until plus two," said Prakash.

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Close to the heart of the city, Priya lives with her family in a two-bedroom flat that ends not so long after it begins, filled with regular furniture and other items except for a huge flat screen TV hung on the wall. It has little to suggest that it is the house of a tinseltown A-lister who reportedly charges lakhs for endorsing everything from snacks to a shopping mall.

The father repeated his demand that the interview not take too long (of course, we overshot his deadline of 15 minutes) as she has to later attend a function in the city. The mother and another woman remained in the kitchen. A tall, jolly man walked by the door introducing himself as the grandfather.

Priya soon emerged from one of the bedrooms, having finished her makeup for the photo shoot and wearing a purple dress. She took a seat in front of us, hunched her shoulders and leaned a little forward, as though tired. The photographer with me later said he was worried if the pictures would look good if she remained in that pose.

But once she started talking, the excited and giddily laughing 19-year-old who took the internet by storm was back before us. Her large round eyes were bright, describing the strange tales of the wonderland she has slipped into this year.

“I’m enjoying it," she said. “The best thing happened this year was the song’s release. After that, I started working, which is the (next) best part... at this age… I always wanted to be an actress." She added: “And when I am not working I go to college."

Life is the same and not quite the same.

“We have always been a middle-class family. I have always thought of myself as a middle-class background. I still take the local bus to travel to college. At the beginning (after she became famous) my parents were very scared of me going out. But I love going out, I can never stop doing that. Sometimes it is bothersome. Even when you are eating, they come up and ask for selfies. But now I enjoy it."

She counts moments from multiple film award functions and movie launches to which she was invited, and meeting the who’s who of the Indian film industry, as some of the most cherished memories the year has brought. The virality, still, remains a puzzle to unlock.

“Maybe there was a freshness to it. Nowadays everybody is on their phones... texting... even while talking they are on their phone. Their faces don’t express anything. Maybe when that (wink) came out, (people thought of it as) something innocent, fresh thing, striking," she said.

She looks forward to 2019. Apart from the Bollywood movie, she has said yes to a Telugu and a Tamil movie. The Malayalam movie Oru Adaar Love that featured the song is also set to release on 14 February. The number of movies was deliberately kept low so her movie dreams do not come in the way of her college exams, said Prakash. “Of course, I want to continue working. But I don’t want to interrupt my studies. Definitely, my parents would not approve of it. They want me to complete graduation. I’m trying to balance both," said Priya.

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It’s tempting to see Priya’s rise to fame as a sort of Indian version of the so-called American dream. A woman from nowhere reaches everywhere.

Priya has surely achieved a degree of independence in her life, even before reaching her 20s. Many would dream to be in her shoes for sure. But then, it is also hard not to miss the contrast between the bright side and the other side of her life, and that of other women.

The internet that made her has slowly started eating her up. In the months after the song went viral, she was at the receiving end of wide-scale targeted attacks in the online space. It first started with allegations of marketing gimmicks behind her virality, and then slowly built an image of her as an arrogant, untalented, brash young girl. Her dress sense, more modern than traditional, also came under attack. From sexist jokes to morphed nude pictures, the internet unleashed a monster upon her.

On YouTube, people have made almost a troll empire around her. Two brand advertisements she did during this period did not fare well and ended up as fodder for further trolling.

“Initially, it was disappointing and disheartening, the hate comments. Because these were the same people who brought me up and then they started putting me down. But then, I understood this is a part of the system. If you’re famous, if you are a public figure, then you are up for this. You have to face this," said Priya.

What she also has to face is the system at her college. Vimala College, run by the nuns of the Syro-Malabar Church, the largest Indian Catholic church, emphasizes canonical culture and morality. Part of the reason why parents send their kids to Vimala is that there are no boys to get entangled in relationships, which means the very act that made Priya a star, winking at a boy, would have had a very different ending if she had tried it in real life.

Vimala College’s unforgiving discipline rules are famous in Kerala, even as it remains a sought-after higher education institution. Forget watching viral videos or using the internet, students are not allowed to carry cell phones to the college or hostel. A board outside the front entrance reads: “Visiting students during working hours is strictly forbidden." Inside, dozens of closed circuit cameras closely monitor students’ movements.

“Every college in the neighbourhood has similar disciplinary rules, only that ours get hyped a lot," said Beena Jose, the pleasingly warm principal of the college and a nun herself, sitting in front of a television that monitors visual feeds from all surveillance cameras.

She said she doesn’t know much about Priya, as she was appointed to the post only a few months ago. She then invited another tutor who is directly involved with Priya’s academics.

“She is a very studious student, she got in with more than 80-90% marks, and still scores about 70% marks in exams despite her busy schedule," said the tutor, who did not want to be named. “She never had an air that, oh, she is so famous. But in general, we don’t draw attention to such things. Other students will feel left out. I actually would like her not to pursue the movie career, but her academics," she said.

When told of this exchange, Priya said she is aware of such talk. “From a very young age, I wanted to do what I wanted to do, whatever people might say. I didn’t want to go by the perception of the society. The people here are very judgemental about whatever girls do. They can never accept me."

By the time we left the college, it was late afternoon. There was a small commotion outside the main gate that seals the high-walled compound. The girls gathered there wanted to go out for some reason, but the security guard refused to open the gates.

When we arrived, he slowly opened the gate, just enough for a bike to be let out. We could hear the girls grumbling at the gate while driving past: “Run, Run, let’s run out of the gate."

Maybe they should try winking in front of a camera.

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The spark

She was arguably India’s biggest internet sensation of 2018, rising to fame after her wink in a promo video of her debut Malayalam film went viral. She was called India’s national crush, the winking sensation, the wink queen, among others, in national and international publications, making her an overnight star.

The rise

In one day, she attracted as many as 606,000 fresh Instagram followers. Such a rise in followers is unprecedented among Indian celebrities. Soon after, with 6.2 million followers, she also beat some of the global giants on the popular photo-sharing platform in terms of followers, including Instagram and Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg.

The search

She emerged as the most searched after personality on the internet in India, according to search engine giant Google India’s annual analytics report released on Thursday. She toppled actress Sunny Leone, last year’s winner, and is second only to Priyanka Chopra’s spouse Nick Jonas after their wedding was prominently featured on the news.

The controversy

She also made news of the other kind after some Islamic clerics said her video went against the tenets of their religion. Criminal charges were filed against Priya and the movie’s makers also claiming that the song, long part of Kerala’s culture, hurt religious sentiments. However, these charges were later squashed by the Supreme Court.

The upshot

It’s tempting to see Priya Varrier’s rise to fame as a sort of Indian version of the so-called American dream. A woman from nowhere reaches everywhere. While society may rely upon personal success stories like hers to redefine the idea of womanhood and freedom, it does not mean the system now has changed in favour of women.

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