Sumukhi Suresh on Pushpavalli season 2, comparisons to Fleabag and subverting Indian female narratives
Sumukhi Suresh opens up about Pushpavalli season 2 and what it took her team to create the web gem
Pushpavalli season 2 is the perfect sucker punch that the show’s loyal fanbase was eagerly waiting for. Comedienne Sumukhi Suresh’s fictional series successfully struck the balance between being a “hidden gem” and placing itself smack in the middle of well-deserved accolades which seem to know no bounds.
The Amazon Prime Video special brings to focus Pushpavalli, the titular character (a more-than-assured performance by Suresh), who navigates through life, obsessing over a single man (Nikhil Rao, played by Manish Anand), changing cities, lying incessantly and thrusting herself in acute danger — all to gain his affection.
Most of what she stands for makes you cringe beyond measure. Her antics (if we can even term it that) stand in stark contrast to the elevated ideologies of feminism and women empowerment — Pushpavalli is scheming, treacherous and downright problematic in the two seasons that Suresh and her writing team have developed.
Thematically, Pushpavalli’s misadventures are a stark reminder of one such beautifully chaotic web gem — Fleabag. Creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sadcom, where she plays and writes the titular character, highlighted the wonders that content could achieve through black-humor mechanism. As the world marvelled at Waller-Bridge’s nuanced portrayal of the ‘fairer sex’, it was more than apparent that audiences were ready to lap up characters with generous dollops of flawed, incisive traits.
Much like Fleabag, Suresh’s Pushpavalli introduced the palette of the problematic modern woman who defied any categorised description to Indian audiences — who have traditionally deified the female persona, or at least wrapped them up with layers of “innocent charm”, “chirpy magnetism” or “girlish appeal.”
It’s no surprise then, that Suresh confesses to Waller-Bridge being a must-watch. When asked what inspires her to create the delectable flaws in Pushpavalli, Sumukhi says she struck a chord closer home. “I didn't grow up watching a lot of content because my living conditions were very different. All my content watching is happening now. So, I am more inspired by my stories and family than other shows. But now that I am watching shows by Tina Fey and Phoebe Waller-Bridge — they are just too good!”
Striking the perfect balance between the helpless desperation of earning brownie points from Nikhil and evoking viewers’ empathy could have been a horribly difficult task. But Sumukhi assures us that her creative team, headed by director Debbie Rao and writer Sumaira Shaikh, were all simpatico. And this was crucial in building Pushpavalli for season two, especially since her character arc had to provide more than the already established creepy-stalker-with-body-image-insecurities persona.
“Pushpavalli as a character was very flat on paper. She was built by Debbie and me on set in season one. Although I was sure about pulling off the monologue in season one, episode eight (where Pushpavalli justifies her actions claiming Nikhil also led her on), I worked on my acting for season two. Because Pushpavalli was no longer just a funny cute character who went overboard. In season two she is legitimately problematic. So, I made sure my transitions from comedy to scheming to sad were not jarring. Also, it helped that Manish and I became friends and that camaraderie was seen.”
Suresh adds that Pushpavalli’s emotional mapping from season one through two was sacrosanct for the creative crew. “We have one cardinal rule in the writers' room- that if a character gets what they want then they have to pay a price. All of us as writers were clear that whatever happens, Pushpavalli will pay a price. She will have to pay for all the wrongdoings in some form or the other. So as her antics got intense her punishment/price also escalated.”
Not only Pushavalli, but season two introduced complicated strains to Nikhil’s character as well. Manish Anand's Nikhil seems to be running as a parallel narrative along with Pushpavalli — their tendency to take people for granted, their manipulation, their need to get what they want. When asked if that was a purposeful narrative decision, Sumukhi replies with a resounding, “Yes.”
She continues, “Thank you so much for getting this. Sumaira and I are very invested in Nikhil as a character and Nikhil-Pushpavalli as a couple. They are both manipulative, both selfish. Only Nikhil isn't as problematic as Pushpavalli. He is just being a charming guy who is ready to forgive this girl because she got engaged and is no longer a threat. Sumaira has always maintained that the two are toxic and that they deserve each other. Don't forget that if you keep all the scheming out of this, they do get along very well. Nikhil in this season is no longer just Pushpavalli’s muse. You see shades of his personality and understand why Nikhil and Pushpavalli got along at the food conference (in season one).”
Anti-hero portrayals always make room for richer content. Pushpavalli is problematic. But it is the profanity-hurling Pankaj (Naveen Richard) who makes Pushpavalli, and in turn the audiences, aware of her serial missteps.
Like Claire (Sian Clifford), Fleabag’s disapproving sister, Pankaj is that critical friend who fills in as the voice of reason in Pushpavalli's life. In fact, it is the only character on the show who cares about Pushpavalli. Sumukhi Suresh agrees. “Yes, he (Pankaj) has a potty mouth; yes, he is very brutal with Pushpavalli but he is the only guy who backs her, who is there for her, who cannot help but make sure she is fine. There is deep-rooted caring for her which I find absolutely adorable.”
The show, especially in the second season dabbles with thematic interplays that run amidst couples. On a closer look, one can see how dynamics in one relationship find a place in another. Pankaj’s insolence with Pushpavalli is mirrored in her ill-treatment of T Boi (Ashok Pathak); Vidyuth's (Vidyuth Gargi) clumsy-yet-adorable shenanigans are similar to Pushpavalli’s efforts towards Nikhil; while Pankaj gets manipulated by Pushpavalli, she herself falls for Nikhil’s sweet nothings.
Similarly, this season also plays around with themes of consent between- Pankaj and Swati (Preetika Chawla); Pushpavalli and Vidhyut; Nikhil and Pushpavalli. Talking about what narrative briefs each couple were given, Sumukhi says, “I wanted to make consent look like the most regular and obvious thing rather than an in your face gag. Because consent is cute; consent is sexy. And all the characters made it their own and Debbie made sure they asked for consent as their characters would.”
Shows like Pushpavalli give hope for truly wacky and meaningful stories, where creators take the leap of faith and dare to show their brilliance both off and on camera. Now that we are pretty sure the web is Indian entertainment’s new future, Suresh is quite easily one of its pioneers.
The inimitable Suresh signs off on a hopeful note regarding future projects. “I am developing three other fiction shows for India and for LA. I am writing a new stand up hour. I am also looking to just act in other people's projects. Amazon Prime Video will tell us if we have season three (for Pushpavalli)! Until then everyone needs to be appalled by our season end.”
(All images from YouTube)
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