Updated: February 18, 2018 12:00:04 am
A few minutes into this interview, Sumukhi Suresh lets out a laugh. It is the stuff that would make Parliamentarians frown instantly and pot-bellied uncles on their morning walk stop in their tracks. The 30-year-old writer, actor, and stand-up comic has a variety of them — there’s that robust, full-throated one we heard in the beginning, and as the conversation carries on, she occasionally releases a cackle that’s more grandmotherly than wicked witch; and a “Ha!” that’s more final than full stop.
Suresh is all for women laughing out loud, freely and without judgment. One of the first things she did after moving to Mumbai from Bangalore in October 2016, was to organise an edition of Disgust Me, her invite-only, hour-long women-only comedy show at a brewery in Andheri (West). “I’d done the first edition in Bangalore in September, a month before I moved to Mumbai. It’s a secret show, and it is open to people who identify as a woman. It’s a safe space,” she says.
The idea came to her after spending a few years on the stand-up circuit, where Suresh noticed that women in the audience did not participate as much as the men. “The male-female ratio at comedy shows is like a mechanical engineering class. If I crack a sex joke, the women don’t laugh, because they are concerned about how they are perceived by people around them. But they will laugh when they are surrounded by women and can be themselves,” she says.
Suresh is right, for there is something to be said about the kind of humour women by themselves indulge in — it’s a universe filled with everything from snarky commentary, silent but tearful convulsions, brittle laughter to an unbridled blast of “Ha ha hee hee”. When it comes to humour, the difference between the sexes is simple — men like women who will laugh at their jokes, and women are drawn to men who can make them laugh. And now, with Pushpavalli, a black comedy and her debut show on Amazon Prime, Suresh shows us that women can be very funny too — just not in the way one expected.
In Pushpavalli, Suresh plays the titular character, a Tamil Brahmin 20-something year old in Bhopal who moves cities for a boy, no, job, (but it’s really for a boy). A recent graduate in food science, Pushpavalli meets Bangalore boy Nikhil Rao (played by Manish Anand) at a conference. Soon, she orchestrates a job in Bangalore, in a children’s library, not far from where Nikhil works, and befriends a chaiwallah (fondly called T-Boi) to keep another eye on her love interest. From the very first episode, our heroine is a delusional and broke but unapologetic stalker.
“Some people have complained that they didn’t like the show because they couldn’t like Pushpavalli; they didn’t understand that she’s an anti-hero. Tell me, have there ever been any likeable stalkers?” asks Suresh. Well, mainstream Bollywood has almost always endorsed stalking as a male-only activity and an accepted method to get the girl; the only female stalker to have been successful at the box office is Urmila Matondkar for her role in Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya (2001). But Pushpavalli is in a different league altogether, because she never relies on her feminine wiles — she uses her voice to mimic delivery boys to get Nikhil’s address, and, if breaking a leg means good luck, she’ll give it a try.
“When I started writing the show in August, I wanted to make people laugh but also feel uncomfortable about the blurred lines between persuasion and stalking,” says Suresh, who wrote Pushpavalli with fellow actors, Sumaira Shaikh, and comedian and long-time collaborator Naveen Richard, who plays Pushpavalli’s foul-mouthed and always enraged boss. Released on Amazon Prime in December, Pushpavalli is loosely based on Suresh’s life. Like her protagonist, she too has a degree in nutrition, dietetics and food science management from MOP Vaishnav College for Women, Chennai. Born to Tamil Brahmin parents in Nagpur, Suresh did not plan a career in comedy. “Like Pushpavalli, I moved to Bangalore for a boy, and worked at a children’s library. Then, I was with a small government laboratory that did food microbiology; later, I moved on to a certification company. The relationship didn’t last but comedy happened,” she says.
In 2013, Suresh joined the city’s bustling stand-up comedy scene that boasts of talents such as Kanan Gill, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Sanjay Manaktala, and Richard. In 2014, YouTube sat up and took notice of her when she played Anu Aunty, the know-it-all friend of your mother’s, in Anu Aunty (The Engineering Anthem), a parody song taking off on Iggy Azalea and Charlie XCX’s hit, Fancy, with Bangalore-based collective, The Enthu Cutlets. Two years later, Richard would cast her as Sumukhi Chawla, a sarcastic employee in an NGO, in the hugely popular web series, Better Life Foundation (BLF); its director Debbie Rao has also directed Pushpavalli.
“If you’re an English-speaking comic, Bangalore is a haven. I also wanted to set the story there, with a multi-lingual cast because I’m tired of shows set in Delhi or Mumbai. I wanted to have south Indian characters with distinctively south Indian names — not like Neha or Pooja Iyer. Pushpavalli came to mind, and it means a ‘flowering creeper’, so we had a suitable name for our stalker,” she says.
By writing her own show, Suresh has also been able to flex her considerable acting chops and break away from the parts that are offered to her, mainly because of her body type. “Before BLF, I was only cast as someone’s mother or the maid, or someone’s best friend. Then they’ll try to make it better by saying that the character is ‘quirky’,” she says. Not that Suresh hasn’t written such roles for herself — as Parvathi Bai, she plays a resourceful but opinionated maid, who switches between Hindi and English, not so seamlessly; and the American-accented Kiara aka Bubs, who thinks the Aadhaar card is just the “other” card.
Suresh’s most powerful and original creation, though, is a 10-year-old schoolgirl, Behti Naak, whose perennially running nose, acerbic punchlines and deathly serious unibrowed face is comedy gold. “Children are cruel. She’s based on what my oldest brother and I were like when we were growing up. It was a hard time, my mother was studying for her CA degree and she supported the family. Money was tight, and while I was shielded from poverty by my two elder brothers, I have an opinion on it. Behti will give back as good as she gets,” says Suresh. In a recent sketch on Son of Abish, comedian and host Abish Matthew throws facts about India her way. He says, “In India, only one in 100 marriages end up in a divorce.” Behti: “Also 101 marital rape cases are not considered as rape.” Matthew: “101?” Behti: “Shagun.”
In December, Suresh made her 70 mm debut in Humble Politician Nograj, an English-Kannada comedy written and directed by Saad Khan. “I play Nograj’s wife, Lavanya. My friend Danish Sait is the lead and I just want to support his journey as a comic,” she says. Suresh is now working on a new “cookery/talk” show, but wants to keep it under wraps till shooting begins. Okay, so does she have any advice for budding female stalkers? “Don’t do it. But if you do, please realise that if you can be that resourceful and multi-task that well, you’re sure to be able to do other things.”
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