Sumukhi Suresh's Amazon Prime stand-up special Don't Tell Amma loses relevance in a sea of shallow humour
Through Don't Tell Amma, Sumukhi Suresh hardly drives home any important point, let alone leave a lasting impact.
Language: English with some Hindi and Tamil
Comedy is gradually becoming very serious business. With growing polarised societies across the globe, stand-up has essentially gained the power to punch up to unfair privilege, without the monotony of becoming too obvious.
More and more comedians are opening up avenues for new ways of thinking (or, in most cases, the logical way of thinking), in the face of acute bigotry.
The Indian stand-up scene was always a tricky terrain to deal with. Having gained momentum in the past five years, this new-ish art form was still taking its baby steps when reality shows like The Great Indian Laughter Challenge and Comedy Nights With Kapil ruled the roost in terms of TRP ratings. But these, unassuming, often highly self-deprecating stand-up comics changed the way audiences consumed the business of humour.
Garish, OTT jokes gave way to intelligent, self-aware humour, which often served as whistleblowers of a society comfortably enmeshed in patriarchy, hypocrisy, and prejudice.
We, as a nation, have always lacked in being critical of anything, but stand up comedians were seen bringing up uncomfortable topics. In such a society then, female voices in comedy were accepted as a welcome change. Driving the attention away from the testosterone-ridden issues of male comics' "nagging girlfriends" and "whiny wives", the likes of Kaneez Surka, Neeti Palta, Sumukhi Suresh, Anu Menon and many others were heard taking up important issues through their sets. In fact, Comicstaan season 1 even had female contestants talking about periods, and women's libidos.
Suresh's first fictional special Pushpavalli charted the narrative of a highly problematic woman who begins stalking her crush, and how she almost starts bordering on obsessive behaviour. But the refreshing turn in the plot was the protagonist's unapologetic streak and the gut-wrenching levels of denial she purposely kept herself in. Suresh was amply lauded by her comedy compatriots for this work. She has even confessed the show bolstered her equity within the community, and that she was taken "much more seriously" as an artiste after Pushpavalli.
Though she had earlier made an appearance in the sketch comedy special titled Go Straight, Take Left (also featuring Naveen Richard), Sumukhi's first solo special is Don't Tell Amma.
Still from Sumukhi Suresh's Don't Tell Amma. Image from Amazon Prime Video
The stakes were high, especially since Suresh has always enjoyed the reputation of being one of the edgiest female voices in present comedy circles. But what she presents to her audience is a whole lot of been-there-done-thats with a dollop of sarcasm.
Building a brand withing an already niche genre is never easy, and all my congratulations to Suresh for having done it. But maintaining the brand with hard-hitting sucker punches is not only necessary, but imperative. Having such a fortuitous timing for a special, Suresh could have gone after multiple burning societal issues through her set — whether it be the rampant mansplaining women face on a daily basis to India slowly and steadily living up to its sorry epithet of being the rape capital of the world. But Suresh chooses to be safe, which even though understandable, is too convenient for a critic to digest during such grave times.
Now, coming to what she did choose to talk about.
Sumukhi's set, in most parts, seemed to be penned by a charged-up adolescent, newly learning the thrills of "non-veg humour." From her rant about poverty to her self-aware section on body image consciousness, multiple sections are stacked with sex jokes and almost-slapstick moments.
Calling herself the ever-beta female, Suresh openly admits to putting on a bimbette mask when encountering a self-centered man. "They (the men) don't have to know, that we know (sports). Just exit a situation saying, 'Bye... I don't understand. My brain's a peanut. Sorry'." Through this section, Suresh enables the self-doubting nature most women struggle with and end up placating the male egos around them. If, on the other hand, Suresh's bit is sarcastic, she hardly lets it on, and goes along with the I-am-okay-pretending-to-be-dumb charade.
This is followed by a detailed section on how poor Suresh's family was when she was a child, and how their middle-class ideals hardly did anything to improve their lifestyles. The only empowering bit here was the account of her father demanding a female child and being the ever-so-positive "veg momo" of a man, amidst all the patriarchy around.
The next part dealt with how Suresh had always been a big girl growing up. Sumukhi pads this section up with cliched jokes that hardly resonate with women (large or small). She takes on a rather patronising tone when describing girls having their periods in school, positioning it almost as a badge to show off in front of the teenage boys.
In the following bit, Suresh enacts a conversation she had with her rich, female friend and the ridiculous lifestyles the privileged can afford. Though funny, the entire bit screams of an undertone of meanness, especially when Suresh quips, "Rich people understand 'feelings' most because every weekend, they are playing therapy-therapy."
By the end of the set, she even explains why she chose to call it Don't Tell Amma — the only section that is admittedly funny.
It is not woke enough just to have material on class and gender. It is important to weave it in a manner that is impactful and funny. Suresh completely fails to drive home any point, let alone leave any lasting aftertaste. The set, appropriately named, should not be discussed or told about, since its existence hardly makes any difference. It is about time artistes realise the power their positions hold, and begin utilising it for meaningful content, rather than to garner quick laughs with shallow humour.
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