Imagine being plucked from relative obscurity by Malayalam superstar Mammootty as you go about your routine job in Dubai.
This is precisely what happened to UAE-based RJ (radio jockey) Nyla Usha as she landed her first acting job because a seasoned actor like Mammootty saw a spark in her, prompting the makers of ‘Kunjananthante Kada’ to cast her with the age-defying superstar.
“Mammookka [ikkakka brother in Malayalam] was the reason behind me walking into movies … It was all thanks to Mammookka … He’s the one who told director Salim Ahmed to consider me and working with them was the biggest learning for me. Yes, he discovered me,” said Nyla in an interview with Gulf News.
The year was 2011 and Nyla had been hosting the morning show for a local station for over seven years. She has never been to an acting school, but observing a veteran like Mammootty proved to be her biggest crash course in how to perform in front of the camera.
“Legendary actors like Mammootty, Mohanlal, Suresh Gopi are so professional and they don’t need any cues to do any scene,” said Nyla. She remembers her mentor Mammootty had given her tips to cry on cue.
“You need to feel those emotions from your [heart] and that advice stayed with me … Now I can cry instantly,” said Nyla.
But despite the lure of fame, power, clout and money that being an actor in India can potentially amass, Nyla took the call to retain her job as an RJ in Dubai. She has been working with the same radio station in Dubai for a whopping 18 years and continues to juggle both acting and RJing. For instance, this 38-year-old has her film ‘Paappan’ led by actor Suresh Gopi releasing in UAE theatres on August 4, but she was up today at 4am to host the morning show on the day of this breakfast date with Gulf News at a coffee shop in Dubai Media City.
“Being an RJ is the biggest stress buster for me. It’s my happy place and hosting the breakfast show is my happy hour and radio is my happy place,” said Nyla.
Her amiable and charming personality is the equivalent of that perky wake-me-up morning coffee. To her thousands of Malayali listeners, Nyla can be that chirpy and cheerful voice.
“Being an RJ is something I will never let go of … The perks of acting in a movie is felt only when that film releases, but the actual process of making a movie can be very boring. You sit all day in a caravan waiting for your shot to be called. A person who has acted in movies for 30 years would have done actual work only for three years in total. The rest of the time, it’s all about waiting. I tell everybody that acting is all about waiting,” explained Nyla.
And for someone who describes herself as the bold and the restless, being an RJ makes her feel grounded and stable. And that steady pay cheque also means she can be choosy with her film projects and is never that desperate star who will clutch at anything to stay relevant.
Funnily enough, Nyla — who comes from a conservative Malayali family — was not sold on the idea of being an RJ initially but it was the prospect of living in an amazing city like Dubai that made her jump aboard. She was born in Al Ain, but moved back to Kerala during her formative college years.
“Honestly, I was never too happy with my voice and nobody ever told me that I had a voice meant for the radio … But the idea of working and living in Dubai was the biggest attraction … I remember when I was in my 20s, I was evening thinking of marrying someone in Dubai so that I could live in this incredibly city,” said Nyla, with a laugh. She remembers how her first Dubai gig was when she was asked to host a TV show about the Dubai Shopping Festival.
“It was back in 2004 and not many people even had a passport! But I did and I jumped on that plane and once I had to return to Kerala, I remember crying and swearing that I would be back,” said Nyla.
She returned and how. The UAE-golden visa holder is now on the speed dial of Malayalam cinema’s biggest filmmakers and she has acted in blockbusters such as the fierce ‘Porinju Mariam Jose’, ‘Lucifer’, and ‘Priyan Ottathilanu’. In ‘Priyan Ottathilanu’ she even convinced Mammootty to do a cameo because her team prodded her to use all the goodwill that she had earned with him.
So was she always a go-getter?
“I was never an academically brilliant kid and I was your proverbial back-bencher. I was never good at studies although the kids around me were all rank holders … I was that kid who took up subjects that nobody wanted in college … But I always wanted to be famous. I wanted to be recognised and loved,” said Nyla.
But her parents weren’t too keen about the prospect of her joining the movie industry as they were worried for her.
“But I still convinced them that I can join the world of television as a part-time job … My family is so conservative that my brother-in-law travelled with me to Dubai when I had a Global Village anchoring assignment in Dubai … But now they are very cool,” said Nyla.
Watching Nyla and how she was embraced by her fans in Kerala and beyond, her family are now open to the idea of her 14-year-old son or even her niece also joining cinema.
“But he’s shy and doesn’t like to flaunt that his mother is an actor,” said Nyla. But striking a balance between her daily job and acting offers isn’t always easy.
“I have been super committed to the world of radio for over 18 years … A lot of movies, business proposals, television shows, have come my way but I have never taken them seriously because I want to still stick to my morning show,” said Nyla. Unlike other UAE expatriates who take their annual vacation to tour other countries, she utilises her leave and weekends for her acting assignments.
“I don’t want to be in a position where I am waiting for someone to call me for acting work … I don’t want to ever be desperate … When you have a job, then you also have the power to say no to films … Waking up and making people happy with my happy voice comes naturally to me. Even if I wake up on the wrong side of the bed, I forget everything once I put my headphones on and the music takes over,” said Nyla.
In a few days, she will be heading back to Kerala for another movie shoot with actors Prakash Raj and Indrajit for 'Kunjaminni's Hospital'. But not before she goes around the UAE promoting her latest thriller ‘Paappan’. In the Joshiy directorial, she plays actor Suresh Gopi’s wife. She will be promoting the film along with its lead actor in Dubai in the next few days before she takes off for another shoot. So what has been the biggest learning after she plunged into the world of acting?
“Remember money is respect and my time is money … I will do a film for free if I love the script. But if you are able to pay a male actor a lot of money, then you should meet my expectations … As women actors, we need to raise the bar in every sense,” said Nyla.
The Indian film industry, like Hollywood, is notorious for the glaring wage disparity between male and female actors since the former is believed to be more bankable at the box office than women talents.
“If more women put their foot down and refuse low fees, then we might just pave way for a better path for other women,” pointed out Nyla. And on a lighter note, she reminds us that being an actor is a ‘high-maintenance’ job.
“Come on, an actor cannot be seen travelling economy class … But we are all grounded,” said Nyla with a laugh.
I became a star in the world of movies in my 30s … But it’s the love of the people that I get overwhelmed by. I want more people to love me. I am just hungry for love, but I am yet to feel like a true star
“Since I am a breakfast show presenter, I don’t have a nightlife … As a kid, I was never a morning person and couldn’t even wake up during my board exams, but for the last 18 years I am up and ready to go live on air at 4 am,” said Nyla.