There is no stopping these plucky women who prove age is just a number. With an active presence on social media, these grandmothers are making a mark in different fields with their talent, expertise and grace. The term for for grandparent-influencers is ‘grandfluencers’.
If 87-year-old Devi Varma won a Kerala State Film award with her maiden role as Ayisha Rawther in Saudi Vellakka, Viji Venkatesh, a corporate honcho, is the toast of tinsel town with her memorable role of Laila, aka Ummachi, in Akhil Sathyan’s Fahadh Faasil-starrer Pachuvum Athbhutha Vilakkum.
‘Dancing Muthashi’ Shyamala Xavier’s poise and dexterity as a dancer have won her hearts while Annamma Stephen’s culinary channel, Annamma Chedathi’sSpecial 2.0, has followers across the globe.
MetroPlus catches up with the four, feisty enterprising women.
Dancer and dancer instructor Shyamala has just completed acting as Mohanlal’s character’s mother in the much-awaited Lijo Jose Pellissery’s film Malaikottai Valiban. “Thanks to my newfound fame, I was able to travel on a flight for the first time when I travelled to Rajasthan for the shooting of the film.”
Prior to that she had acted in Valatty. Although she has age-related ailments, she continues to teach dance by keeping an eye on the students and teachers in her son’s dance school in Kochi.
Life begins at 65, insists Shyamala, who attained fame on social media with one viral TikTok video of her dance. Known as ‘dancing Muthashi’ on Instagram, the 70-year-old grandmother of a grandson laughs when she says she could have danced all day but for her aches and pains.
Her tryst with social media began during the lockdown when her eldest son, Biju Xavier, an award-winning choreographer, began posting short videos on TikTok (now banned in India). His dancers wanted to join in, and their dance to popular songs became viral. When Biju was working on another dance, on a whim, Shyamala asked him, if she could dance with him. He encouraged her. “That video changed my life. It became viral. I had no idea what it meant till Biju explained it to me,” she says with disarming candour.
Myriad expressions flit across her face as she moves to the music, in sync with Biju, in reel after reel on Instagram. Charmed by her effortless grace, advertisements and movies came next.
“Dance is an excellent way to keep moving the body and keep it fit. Your limbs have to move where the mind wills it and so there is concentration and physical movement too,” she points out.
Soon, many actor-dancers came forward to be in step with her. Anu Sithara’s delightful duet with her to the music of ‘Harichandan Malarile Madhuvay…’ from Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu, got more than two lakh views on Instagram.
“You know, I became beautiful after I lost my teeth. I did not look good in my youth,” she says, giggling all the while.
Dance, she says, is her elixir of life. Initiated into dance at a young age, she learned Bharatanatyam and used to participate in school competitions. After enrolling in RLV Government College of Music and Fine Arts, Tripunithura, then an academy, she topped the diploma and post diploma course in Bharatanatyam. She also learned Mohiniyattam from Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma. Eventually, she joined as a lecturer in her alma mater after it became a full-fledged college. When Biju joined the college, one of his teachers there was his mother.
“I can watch dance performances for hours without feeling restless or bored. It is mesmerising!” says the grandmother.
The octogenarian answers the call and wants to know all the details about the reason for the call before she opens up on her debut as an actor.
Film director Tharun Moorthy chanced upon a photograph of Devi Varma, a resident of Tripunithura, on her filmmaker grandson Sidarth Varma‘s Instagram account. Tharun was elated because he had found Ayisha Rawther for his new film Saudi Vellakka, a moving story on a senior citizen’s encounter with the Indian legal system, and all for the sake of a vellakka (unripe fruit of a coconut). Later, Tharun and casting director Abu Valayamkulam met Devi to persuade her to appear in the key role.
Devi said a firm no to Tharun. But the director told her he would not do the film without her. “I felt it would be arrogant of me to keep refusing. There are so many longing for a chance to act in a film and here I was getting it on a platter. I did not want to be seen as haughty and so I agreed,” recollects the grandmother of three.
The role required Devi to act as a Muslim woman in a small town in Kochi. Abu and his team gave her some basic pointers for the camera. As she found the dialect difficult, veteran actor Pauly Valsan dubbed for her.
Devi explains how theatre and cinema were considered taboo when she was growing up. As a result she had not acted even in a school play. She last saw a film in a theatre more than 20 years ago.
Nevertheless, she did not find it difficult to emote for the camera. “I did what the director told me. I did not find it difficult but for my health issues, which should not be a surprise for a woman of my age. Everything has its pros and cons,” she says.
The biggest surprise was when the debutant actor won the Kerala State Award for the best character actor for her role as the dour, short-tempered elderly woman who mellows and has a change of heart as time passes by. “I am certainly happy,” she says about the award and continues, “My family is proud that I won an award for my first role. There are so many in the industry who have not been honoured thus, says the grandmother of three.”
As of now, she has not signed any film. “But, if there is something that I feel I can do justice to, maybe I will give it a try,” she says.
When she got a call from casting director Gayathri Smitha for a role in Akhil Sathyan’s new movie, Viji refused without hesitation. The busy Region Head of Max Foundation, South Asia, a resident of Mumbai for many years, was not comfortable speaking Malayalam and she had never acted before.
“I work with cancer patients and am very active on social media. It helps a lot in terms of cancer awareness and in raising funds. That was how Gayathri came across my photographs.” Her instagram account vvsquare has 35.4K followers.
Apparently Gayathri had seen her at a restaurant in Bengaluru and “had stashed away the look”.
“Then she told me that Akhil would like to meet me as he was travelling to Mumbai on a Sunday. That meeting changed my mind. Akhil had the complete script with him. He was so down to earth and charming! He assured me that I would not have a problem at all,” recalls 71-year-old Viji, grandmother of two teenagers.
The story about a woman determined to help a young girl continue her education touched a chord in Viji. “I decided to be fearless and do something that is completely out of my comfort zone.”
During her screen test, Akhil suggested she say her lines in Hindi and emote accordingly. And before she knew it, she was donning the greasepaint to play Ummachi, an important character in the feel-good movie.
Viji says the cast and crew of the film made her feel at home and helped her hold her ground in the midst of experienced actors like Vineeth and Fahadh Faasil.
Akhil sent her lines as voice notes and she would listen to them on her ear phones during her morning walk. Akhil was confident that Viji would be able to breathe life into the spunky Ummachi.
“Oh, but they were so helpful! To help me with my lines, Vineeth told me that I should speak my lines loudly to feel it on my lips. He told me that would help me find several ways to say the same dialogue. That helped me a lot. In fact, I used to hear Vineeth muttering all the while, saying his lines aloud. All of them went out of their way to help me,” she says.
She says with a laugh that she is game for more characters if she likes the role and the storyline.
“It was such an enjoyable experience, the feeling of being in front of the camera and emoting. I never thought I would be able to do it.”
With 196K subscribers, 83-year-old Annamma Stephen with her culinary channel, Annamma Chedathi Special 2.0, is a star in her own right.
Annamma, a resident of Nadavayal in Wayanad, used to cook for a home for the aged in their vicinity when a local resident requested her to cook a fish curry for a video. She obliged him.
Then he requested her to do some more videos. Annamma’s son Babu Stephen asked him why he was shooting the videos. “That is when he told me about this platform called YouTube and how he was planning to upload the videos on a channel and so on. That was around 2019,” says Babu.
With the help of a partner, they began a culinary channel, Annamma Chedathi Special, which showcased the octogenarian’s culinary wizardry. In no time, her rustic charm, candour and straight talk made her an influencer.
Annamma laughs and says cooking came naturally to her.
“My mother began teaching me cooking when I was all of nine. When I was 18, my father moved from Ettumanoor in Kottayam to Wayanad and settled there. The next year I was married. I had six children. All but the youngest are still there with me. The kitchen has been my domain for several decades now,” says the matriarch with 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
After about three years, Babu decided to go it alone. That was how Annamma Chedathi Special 2.0 was launched. Since Annamma was unwell for some time, she now supervises the cooking and Babu follows her instructions.
“I get about ten calls every day. Some of them tell me how much they enjoyed my recipe, some others call to chat with me and ask about me…I enjoy talking to all of them,” she says.
Last Onam, authorities of the lower primary school in their neighbourhood invited her to the school to demonstrate how to make yam payasam. She taught the students the recipe and served them the payasam. This year, she made pumpkin payasam for the students.
“She is a star. When people recognise her, they rush to get clicked with her,” says Babu.
Annamma says she is content to be with her children and their families. “I am happy that the channel has been of help to others.”