Why Sumukhi Suresh can't help but leave a bit (or a lot) of herself in her fiction show and stand-up special
Comic Sumukhi Suresh discusses presenting a rare female 'stalker' in her Amazon Prime Original Pushpavalli, and why she refrains from big-girl jokes now.
Sumukhi Suresh says she does not want to be recognised as a woman comic, because she does not want to be boxed by her gender.
She says unlike her onscreen character Pushpavalli, she was much more sexually confident and worldly wise at 21.
She reasons why she has stopped cracking jokes on her weight is because the audience now sees her beyond 'just a big girl'.
As Sumukhi Suresh welcomes me into her talent management agency, Only Much Louder's (OML) office, she excitedly points to pictures of her put up on a wall, along with those of other clients. She assures me that a picture of her recent stand-up special on Amazon Prime Video India, Don't Tell Amma, will also elbow its way onto the wall.
Sumukhi has come a long way, from being one of the first women comics in India, to boasting of a stand-up special on a premier streaming platform. However, she claims she does not prefer being recognised as a 'woman' or 'female' comic. "Anybody should not be recognised by their gender because then, you're instantly putting them in a gender box, and within that box, they're the best. That's not fair to any gender. Like, if I tell you, 'You're the best male reporter,' you'll be like, 'That's okay, but I want to be the best reporter.' It's a natural instinct. I want to be the best comic, the best in my field rather than the best in my gender in the field."
But Sumukhi is quick to add that she is aware of where this label stems from. "If it's making other women, or other genders, come forward to try stand-up comedy, I'll be happy to take this tag and push it. But I feel soon there will be enough number of us and other genders, and that we'd say we don't want to be recognised as the best in our gender. Now, I've understood that in the bigger picture, it's a good call. If it's going to get one girl to an open mic, I'm cool with it," she says with a smile and a shrug.
After we finally decide on where to sit for the interaction ("Let's sit in front of these plants so they inhale our toxicity. At least someone feeds off on that), we begin our conversation, discussing her first stand-up special. "A lot of people say you shouldn't record a stand-up special too soon into your career, which is true, because your jokes need to be refined by then. But to each their own, I feel. I'm glad I did my first stand-up special, because now I know what mistakes I've committed in the process. I'll make sure to not repeat them in my next one," she says.
She feels her jokes did follow the usual trajectory of a stand-up special, as it was a part of her multi-city tour 'Don't Tell Amma.' "I started my journey as a comic with improv. So I practise a lot of that in my stand-ups too. I change a few jokes in every set, in every city. I also talk to the live audience there. It's not crowd-work, but just, in a way, asking them if they're having a good time."
She chose to record her stand-up special in Bengaluru. Sumukhi confesses she loves the city, but also maintains that the reason behind including digs at engineers was not because she was performing in the IT hub of the country. "No, that's just because I simply hate engineers," she chuckles. "When I used to perform at open mics initially, all my fellow comics would be engineers. So they'd come and crack engineering jokes, and the audience, most of them engineers, would completely relate to them. But I'd be sick of engineers by the time my turn came. So that's why I hate engineers," she says, with a smirk directed at the photographer, who happens to be an engineering dropout.
"Oh my god! You dropped out of engineering to become a photographer? That's literally MY joke (from Don't Tell Amma). Let me tell you, people with BA, BCom, and BSc (including her) have it the toughest, because they have to finish another degree to be eligible in the market. I know you guys have it tough too as sometimes you have to twitch your left eyebrow."
Sumukhi reasons how Bengaluru was also a wise venue for her to record the stand-up special, because she could get the tickets sold there. "Had the stand-up been in Mumbai, I'd have exhausted my audience by then. Doing it in Bengaluru was a way to assure the audience, since there was more excitement about my performance there, as opposed to Mumbai, where I'm relatively a more familiar face."
Bengaluru is also where her 2017 Amazon Prime Video Original, Pushpavalli, is set. The fiction show is based on 'a true-ish story' of a woman moving to the city in order to
stalk pursue her unrequited love. But the comic reveals that she has added a lot of characters or exaggerated traits and narrative points. "I went by the approach of 'if this is possible' then 'what else is possible?' For example, the character of Pankaj [played by fellow comic Naveen Richard] is an addition. He is her boss in the library she works in, and is an ass to Pushpavalli [the titular character played by her]. So throughout the show, you feel bad for her despite her questionable antics. You end up rooting for her more. But on the contrary, the people I worked with at the Bengaluru library were very sweet. Similarly, my landlady was called Vasu, but in the show, she has been exaggerated a lot to make her come across as extremely witty. I just knew the funniest character in the show had to be a woman, and it couldn't have been Pushpavalli."
She also came up with the characters of Pushpavalli's roommates in the show, Tara and Srishti. "I like the concept of twos, who walk around together all the time. Whether it was Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Alice in Wonderland or Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah in Maqbool, I was really fascinated by these characters who always exist in two," says Sumukhi.
She is also proud her show, being set in Bengaluru, had a majority of South Indian characters, from Tamil to Kannadigas. "I'm glad Amazon did not impose on me that the show had to be in Hindi. Even if the streaming services have subtitles, a Hindi show does immensely well. But I didn't want that. I wanted an accurate representation of Bengaluru, where everyone knows at least three languages. I'm glad I could present South Indian people with all their quirks and ticks. I was also accused of representing every member of the community as flawed. But my defence was, 'Look at Nikhil [the man Pushpavalli falls in love with and moves city for]!' He's a Kannadiga, and he looks like a bloody flower."
Naveen Richard, who has worked extensively with Sumukhi Suresh in the past, and shared screen space with her in Pushpavalli, points out to Firstpost, that they connect the most because of their 'South Indian' backgrounds. "She's a force to reckon with. It's a lot of fun since we connect because of our Bangalorian heart. She brings out the weirdest side of me and vice-versa. She is one of those people with whom you can let go of your inhibition. As a co-actor, she's so dependable that when you go into a scene or on the stage together, you know you're going to come out with gold. It's never going to be a 'maybe' or a maybe not.' You'll always blow the minds of the audience away."
Besides all the additions, Sumukhi also opens up about the parts of her life that she left out in the narrative. "The only part majorly true about my story and Pushpavalli's is we both moved cities to pursue a guy we had a crush on. But I was much more sexually confident than her at 21. I was more manipulative and worldly wise. She's more innocent, and doesn't know anything better. And that's why you root for her. You're always like, 'Don't do this, you dumbf*ck! You'll get into trouble!' You feel like why no one is stopping her, and that you would've saved her had you been there. That's the feeling I wanted for her character. I wanted to make everyone go all didi on her."
She also admits she is aware of the fact that the implications of 'stalking' in the show are problematic. But she has an explanation ready, "There are some depictions which aren't problematic, because the stalker never gets the one they're pursuing. For example, I feel Raanjhanaa was very well done. I sort of rooted for Dhanush. The character had a female energy so he didn't go all predatory. One of my writers, Sumaira, did some research, and figured out the difference between a male stalker and a female stalker. When a man pursues a woman, his behaviour is usually predatory, whereas for women, it's more of mind games. It emotionally hurts you, but the chances of physically harming you are less. Female sociopaths are very nurturing. They give you care, and then they take something from you. Had the gender been swapped, I would've made something like You from Netflix."
However, she mentions not having "picked a side in Pushpavalli." "There's a cycle we followed, where if something bad happens in the show, someone has to pay a price. And I always insisted — make her pay the price. We shouldn't let her go scot-free because we're also reacting to the moral compass of the audience. They know she's doing something wrong, but when she pays the price, then they're like, 'Haye bechari (poor girl)!"
Apart from offering a nuanced input for Pushpavalli, writer and comic Sumaira Shaikh also had some inputs on Sumukhi in store for Firstpost. "Sumukhi is naturally a very good leader, which I don't think she recognises about herself. She does a great job at leading the writers' room. There's always a lot of clarity. And when the room fails at something, she shoulders the responsibility instead of blaming someone else. She would even take the whole blame. Also, she's a great friend. She doesn't just say, 'I'm there for you,' but she actually is, every time without fail. It's easy to exploit her once she starts trusting someone because she's that giving and selfless."
Sumukhi reveals — and warns it might be a Pushpavalli season 2 spoiler — that Nikhil began reciprocating in real life eventually. "I was working with ITC in the kitchen, where the work hours extended to even 17 sometimes. I realised I couldn't possibly do my job, and then pursue my love interest. So I immediately snapped out of it, and came clean by telling him what I did. But he was also equally f*cked up, as he asked me out after that. But I can't show that in the show because Indian society is still not ready for that, even though it happened with me in real life. Breaking Bad mein chalta hai but Indian show mein nahi ho sakta (works when shown in Breaking Bad, but cannot be replicated in an Indian show). So I thought I'd leave it for now, and maybe explore it in season 2."
After several confessions — but not without a generous share of smirks, eye rolls and sarcasm — it is finally time for the last one. Sumukhi says she did not want Pushpavalli to be someone just battling big-girl issues. She insists the insecurity in the character stems more from daddy issues and mommy issues. "She doesn't have a father. So her mom, being a single parent, has become this cold woman. She is shown as mean to Pushpavalli because she doesn't have the time to deal with less important issues. She's a hustler, and that has also passed on to Pushpavalli. She just wants to achieve what she has set her eyes on, at any cost, without thinking too much."
"I know we wanted to address the big-girl angle through the show, but I wanted all girls to related to her, and not just the big girls. It was just about insecurity, when you feel nobody has ever looked at you. It could be a mole on your face or any such crutch. Had it only been about a big-girl issue then you just give her a makeover, and the problem gets solved. Yay! But being someone who has been trying to lose weight for one-and-a-half years now, I still have big-girl issues. No amount of weight reduction can change your mindset," she adds.
Sumukhi Suresh signs off by saying she is glad the audience is also rising above seeing her as just a 'big girl who uses self-deprecating humour on her weight to make people laugh.' "I use a lot of self-deprecating humour. When people tell me your stand-up special got bad reviews, I tell them they can't affect me because I make much more fun of myself than they do. My mother gives me gaalis, so I have a thick skin. But my weight is an old joke now. It's nothing to do with my pride about my appearance. I just feel it's not working anymore. But you can't push my journey, and not ask me to crack jokes on myself. Maybe my experience is going on right now, and I want to express it. Somebody asked me why I can't do self-deprecation like Nanette. But Hannah Gadsby has been doing it for 20 years! If I do a Nanette right now, I'd be a f*cking liar. If you asked me three years ago, I had three bits on my weight. But now, it doesn't work because the audience doesn't see me like that anymore," she says, smiling.
Photos by Rahul Sharda.
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