Five years ago, Mallika Dua broke the internet with the YouTube sketch “S**t People Say: Sarojini Nagar Edition”. Since then, her wit has got her two web shows, The Trip (YouTube) and The Office (Disney+ Hotstar), online gigs as host and judge, as well as cameos in films, Hindi Medium and Zero. A significant part in a feature had been missing thus far. That changes with Indoo ki Jawani in which she is the friend the protagonist leans on for advice. In an industry prone to typecasting, Dua was glad to not be playing yet another “chubby sidekick of the heroine”. “She is a gyaan ki dukaan,” says Dua. “That it was directly offered to me suggests that thought went into this. The film is about sisterhood which is not often seen in films.”
Indoo ki Jawani has already drawn the wrath of right-wing fringe on social media for its story which centres on Indoo (Kiara Advani) meeting a guy through a dating app only to realise that he is Pakistani. Given that interfaith marriages have come under scrutiny with few states introducing “love jihad” laws and the ongoing Bollywood boycott of Pakistani artists, how audiences respond to the romantic comedy remains to be seen. “There will never not be a socio-politically or religiously charged environment in a country like India,” says Dua, daughter of noted journalist Vinod Dua. “We are living in a time where even if you upload a white blank picture, people concoct meanings out of that. The central message of the film is, don’t judge a book by its cover.”
Dua is operating during an exciting time for women in comedy. They are no longer oddities as they were few years ago when the likes of Radhika Vaz, Anuradha Menon aka Lola Kutty, Neeti Palta, Aditi Mittal and Kaneez Surka were filling the gender gap. “It is very aspirational to be a woman in comedy, but it’s hard too,” says Dua. In films, women still find it hard to demonstrate their funny side, especially in supporting parts, and are more often on the receiving end of jokes. The change, though, is gradually coming.
That women can hold their own in comedic situations was evident in Srishti Shrivastava and Farrukh Jaffar’s scene-stealing acts in Gulabo Sitabo, that released early this year. Just last week, Netflix released Bhaag Beanie Bhaag, a series about the misadventures of a woman (Swara Bhasker) trying her hand at stand-up comedy. For Dua, “the real issue lies in remuneration”, and the onus is on talent agents to “back their women artists as much as male ones. When I got an all-women team, I started making way more money”.
However, Dua’s ability to light up the screen and her tell-it-like-it-is delivery can also be a liability. The actress is happy to play the “cute, loud Punjabi girl, provided there is some unique attribute”. The opportunity to break the mould lends itself on the web. Comedienne Sumukhi Suresh did so with Pushpavalli, the Amazon Prime series which she created and acted in. Would that interest Dua? “I would have to really want to tell a particular story,” she says. “I like being in different places at the same time, judging, acting, doing comedy on Instagram.”