- Born and raised in Dubai, Divya Pillai attended Indian High School and New Indian Model School
- Graduated from Anna University in Chennai where she acquired a B.E. in Electrical and Electronics Engineering
- Worked at Emirates and flyDubai, while chasing her dream as an actress in Malayalam Cinema
- Starred in eight movies while balancing her work and personal life, and has now chosen acting as a full-time job
Dubai: When Divya Pillai attended her best friend’s wedding in Kerala, little did she know that it would change her life forever.
Pillai, who was born and raised in the UAE, worked in Human Resources for cabin crew recruitment at Emirates and assumed that she would remain in the airline industry well into her career. But fate had different plans.
“A friend of mine, who grew up with me in Dubai, got married to a celebrity’s brother in Kerala and I happened to be at the pre-wedding rituals. The videographer captured a moment where I was telling the bride-to-be how to smile, and how to pose, and as it was an emotional moment, it was all captured on film,” she said.
Those precious moments shared between the two women almost instantly became a highlight during the celebrations and ultimately, the wedding reception.
“One of the directors of Malayalam cinema, who was at the wedding, saw the video and then contacted my friend, asking if I would like a role in his movie. And that was my entry into the world of cinema.”
Speaking to Gulf News before embarking on her full-time career in southern India, Pillai narrates her journey and struggle, and explains how she chased and realised her dream of becoming an actress on the silver screen.
“Growing up, I never imagined that I would be an actress. On Thursday nights, my family and I would gather around to watch Bollywood movies on Channel 33,” she recalled.
And that was about the most exposure that Pillai had to the world of cinema.
Being your typical pupil growing up in Dubai, Pillai dabbled in cultural programs and extracurricular activities – dancing and performing on stage – while attending Indian High School and New Indian Model School.
Academics was the main priority and focus of her ambition as a teenager, and after graduating high school, Pillai enrolled at Anna University in Chennai where she acquired a B.E. in Electrical and Electronics Engineering.
“I did not pursue my career in engineering and came back [to Dubai] where my first job was in Emirates as cabin crew recruitment. I thought I would be in the airline industry forever, and would keep growing there, and that would be my career path. I enjoyed my job, I loved it… But I knew something was missing,” she said.
Once Pillai had her foot in the movie industry, she never looked back. Her discovery by film director Vineeth Kumar at her friend’s wedding in Kerala led to her starring in 2015’s movie Ayal Njanalla, which featured Fahadh Faasil as the male lead.
“When I took the plunge, my friends and my family encouraged me to do it, nobody stopped me. Then when my second movie Oozham came along, with one of South India’s prestigious director Jeethu Joseph, and Prithviraj Sukumaran was the male role, I couldn’t say no as I was playing the lead actress.”
Being in front of the camera was a challenge at first, as Pillai had to learn how to express and show emotions on cue, such as like anger, sadness, happiness, and everything in between.
Juggling career and acting
“Then each and every movie that I did afterwards, even if it was a small part, I kept taking three or four days off from work trying to balance everything. It wasn’t easy juggling family life as well as my career, but that was my calling and I kept at it and gaining my confidence.”
From 2015-2016, Pillai’s schedule continued to pile high as she travelled back and forth between Dubai, Kochi and Chennai, which would not have been possible without her husband’s immense support. Her career in the airline industry also bloomed as she moved from Emirates to flyDubai, and worked her way up to Senior Sales Executive.
After a short hiatus, Pillai was watching a movie that was shot partially in Dubai when she realised that she had found her calling. Watching another actress on screen, who played a role that she was perfectly suited for, was when Pillai finally understood the extent to how much acting had left an impact on her life.
“I had taken a break from acting for about one year to concentrate on my career and that was when I realised I really missed acting. When I saw that movie, that was when I knew I had to continue my passion for acting.”
Soon after, Pillai enrolled in a 10-day workshop in Pondicherry where she met like-minded people with a passion for acting. That phase of her life was a milestone as it gave Pillai a different perspective towards becoming an actor and in particular, a performer.
“And now, eight movies later, I know I have taken the right decision and want to do acting full-time instead of a part-time job,” she said proudly.
Pillai humbly points out that she owes her success to her co-workers, family, and her friends Anupaama Varghese, Manish Mehta and Swapna Hirosh, who helped her take the giant leap forward to realising her dreams. Her mom, however, is her true inspiration.
Her parents, Narayan Pillai and Chandrika, arrived separately to Dubai during the early 1980s as they searched for a better future, where they then met, fell in love, and got married.
“We are all very connected to this place. When I think of Dubai, I see it as magical, it is a blessed place that gives you opportunities.”
Pillai’s father initially started out his business with a bookstore before moving on to different ventures, while her mother worked as a nurse who then went on to become a clinical auditor.
“My mom continued studying and got her degree from Wollongong University, and became a quality auditor after that. And even now, after retiring, my parents went back to India and she continued to study. She now practises acupressure and has opened a small clinic back home in Kerala.
“For me and my sister, our mom instilled in us the values to keep pushing ourselves and that there’s no time for rest. She taught me that you have to keep tying and pushing yourself to achieve your dreams. My mom’s my inspiration.”
Pillai has recently wrapped up two Malayalam films schedule for a November 15 release; Jimmy Ee Veedinte Aishwaryam and King Fish.
But the path to get there was not easy, as Pillai’s struggle to balance her acting career and her professional job in Dubai.
Pillai handed in her resignation last June after having a heart-to-heart talk with her manager Sudhir Sreedharan.
“When I took the decision to quit my job, it was not easy and I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing. But he had faith in me and was convinced I had the capabilities to [follow my passion], and encouraged me to find that confidence within,” she pointed out.
“Now, with all my ammunition ready, I am ready to go back to India.”