Sumukhi Suresh has always been open about her uncomfortable relationship with the term ‘female comic’. So, when she started her own company with the aim to usher in women-centric content, I was intrigued.
“I was the person who started on being in team A, and then switched to team B. But I understand the weariness that comes with being called a ‘woman’ artist,” Sumukhi Suresh admits. Today, instead of vehemently shunning the tag, she has a more evolved understanding. “I have an issue where women are put in a separate box and made to compete with one another. I don’t want to be the ‘best among women’; I want to be the best. There is this idea that women don’t support women; that they are forever fighting among themselves. I don’t think those are gender-specific traits. Also, hum saath mein bhi toh best ho sakte hain.” Sumukhi doesn’t mind being called a female comic anymore. “If I am called a ‘female’ comic and that tag gets me more women in the audience, I don’t mind it. If that inspires more women to do this, I don’t mind it at all. It is a very small price to pay,” she explains.
Sumukhi has decided to launch Motormouth — a content platform dedicated to telling stories about female characters — simply because she wanted to play to her strengths. “I can write stories about men also if I am asked to. But this is what I prefer. People often say that a story is a story, why do you need a platform to tell stories only about women? The very fact that this is still a conversation topic is proof that there is a need for this. It is not that we are having 200 stories that are led by women.”
She points out that although an increasing number of women are today taking onus of the fact that they have to change the narrative, they often find themselves saddled with the responsibility to create issue-driven content. “Women need not have the burden of having to be serious to be taken seriously. It can be a deeper conversation, but it can also just be a fun watch. There is this whole idea that if women are telling stories or making movies, they need to talk about women’s rights. Haan, hum woh bhi karenge. But we will also make stuff that is just entertaining. Rhea Kapoor’s Aisha was such a fun movie, but it got so much hate. Yes, it was not something as deep as an Arth or a Masoom, but every movie need not be an Arth or a Masoom. Why can’t we make a big-budget mass entertainer like Pushpa, sans the misogyny of course, with a woman playing a larger-than-life lead?”
While we talk about the need for diversity in content, I am tempted to ask why most female standup comics, while taking offense at being called women comics, seem to be unable to move beyond topics related to boobs, vaginas, and periods. While one needs to normalise conversations around women’s biology and sexuality, isn’t it becoming too much of the same? Is sexual liberation the only liberation worth talking about? “Women are treated as sexual objects across the globe. Our sexuality has always been repressed. I will talk about whatever I want to. Also, if people are laughing and if it is working, why should I change anything?” She is emphatic. According to her, the real problem is the fact that the people don’t really accept the fact that girls can be funny. “Funny boys are cool, funny girls aren’t,” Sumukhi Suresh adds.
Sumukhi, however, never planned on making a career out of being a funny girl. It was sheer serendipity that brought her to standup comedy. “During a theatre audition, I heard that some guys were looking for actors for a show called The Improv. Assuming it to be the name of a play, I auditioned, and that went really well. It was then that I got to know that improv is a genre of comedy. I had absolutely no idea what that was before that,” laughs the 34-year-old comic.
She wanted to become an actor and she would settle for nothing less than the lead role. “I was going for auditions but since no one else was making me the lead character in their stories, I decided to write my own. I had no idea how to go about it, I had never written anything of this sort. My ignorance about the industry really helped. I would go to people and ask them to help with the writing kyunki mujhe toh heroine banna hi tha (I had to be a heroine). But it took time.”
That is how Pushpavalli, the clutter-breaking, bitter-sweet, Amazon Prime Video series starring Sumukhi as the lead, was born. But it almost wasn’t. “Although in my head I wanted to be the lead of the show, there were moments when I contemplated casting someone else as Pushpavalli instead. I was asked by many people if we should take someone ‘cuter’ for the lead. I was told that she needs to be likable, and hence she needs to be ‘pretty.’ I was so focused on getting the show made that I didn’t even react to people basically calling me ugly.” But Sumukhi had created Pushpavalli almost in her own image. It is part fiction and part truth. Much like the eponymous character, Sumukhi holds a degree in nutrition and food science, and had worked at a library when she shifted to Bengaluru. And much like Pushpavalli, she has faced the struggle of being a person having a bigger body type in a society that is reticent in awarding space to women.
“Anybody who looks a bit different than the norm will be bullied at some point. I was extremely big. And I was bullied, especially in school. There is a difference between bullying fat people, and general bullying. As a fat person, you are told that fundamentally you don’t deserve a certain attraction or a certain love. Yes, thin shaming is also a thing and if you have been through that, I can’t take away your emotional trauma, but you are not part of our narrative. Because you are part of something that still looks regular. Whereas we are constantly told that we are irregular,” she explains. So, did self-deprecating humour start as a defence mechanism? Was humour her best bulwark against her bullies? “More than being able to laugh at yourself, I think, we who are bigger than the conventional body type, need to develop a good personality very early on in our lives. Since we are constantly been told that our body type is not attractive, we try to get some attention by having a crackling personality. Once you start developing your personality, you stop taking yourself too seriously. And that is important in standup. But yes, one of the reasons I am funny is I was told from early on that I am not the pretty girl, so I became the funny girl instead. If I am not attractive, I am fun and quirky.”
Inside this confident woman we see today is a little girl who still has these comments playing on her mind, because of which she stopped dancing, because people laughed at a ‘big person’ dancing. Even now, there are times when things get overwhelming. “When we are roasting comics, I get roasted only about my weight and appearance — that I am fat and ugly. Whereas, others would be roasted for their skills. But I have been through so much that now it doesn’t hurt as much, I just move on from it,” Sumukhi Suresh signs off.
We can’t wait to see the content from Motormouth and how it adds to the new era of kickass storytelling we are witnessing.
Photo credit: Instagram @sumukhisuresh