At its core, stand-up comedy is about courage. The courage to ask uncomfortable questions, to wade into messy territory, to raise issues and ideas that others will not. But this courage can fall flat if there are no laughs. The balance between entertaining and educating the audience tends to be precarious, especially in the sensitive cultural milieus of India where taking a joke, let alone cracking one, is often frowned upon.
Few know these axioms of comedy better than Sumukhi Suresh, a stand-up comedian, writer, actor and director who has carved a niche for herself in India’s comedy scene with her no-holds-barred approach, the kind that speaks the unsaid.
“We have a lot of hoops to jump… sometimes things can get a little disheartening, but we truly love what we do,” says Suresh when asked about the paradoxical position most Indian comedians find themselves in today.
On the one hand, it has never been easier to reach audiences thanks to the bevy of online avenues like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube. On the other hand, it has never been easier to offend audiences thanks to a multitude of grievances bubbling forth in an environment of toxic polarisation where anything that cannot be homogenised must be called out.
Raised in Nagpur, Suresh completed her graduation from Chennai, before moving to Bengaluru in 2009, where she worked at a children’s library, then as a chef, and finally for a brief stint at a food laboratory.
In 2013, Suresh became a part of The Improv, performing improvisational comedy in Bengaluru, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Dubai, and Sweden. “Improv led me to develop all the wonderful skills that I have now,” admits Suresh, who has always looked up to the cast at Saturday Night Live for inspiration. She is also a big fan of Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Robbie Williams and India’s own, the late great Manorama, who is believed to have performed in over 1,000 films and 5,000 stage shows.
After switching to comedy full-time in 2015, Suresh worked in a series of sketches, which taught her “about the rules of partnership and how it needs to be done by equals”. The portrayal of NGO employee Sumukhi Chawla in Better Life Foundation, India’s first ever mockumentary series on YouTube, earned Suresh plenty of plaudits. Her straight-talking, explosive anger manager avatar gave her a reputation for coarse, blunt humour, which Suresh finessed with her deadpan character of Behti Naak later. A 10-year-old eponymous protagonist, Suresh described Behti Naak as a “not-so cute but honest kid”. In social media lingo, Behti Naak would be best described as “savage” with a penchant for “truth bombs”.
Around this time, Suresh had also started invite-only shows exclusively for women as part of Disgust Me. “The idea was to have a safe space for women to laugh at whatever they want to without judgement. Initially, I didn’t have a lot of women coming to my shows, and even if they did, they wouldn’t laugh at a provocative joke because they didn’t want the men who came with them to assume something about them. So I thought why not make it exclusive for women,” explains Suresh. “By the way, I’m planning on bringing it back!”
The next big step in Suresh’s career came in late 2017, when her drama Pushpavalli dropped on Amazon Prime. Created by and starring Suresh as the lead, Pushpavalli is a story of a female stalker who shifts cities to pursue her love interest Nikhil (played by Manish Anand) and precipitates a comedy of errors in the process.
“Pushpavalli, the titular lead, has her insecurities and erratic behaviour. She is an anti-hero who also has a humane side to her. We never wanted to glorify stalking through Pushpavalli, but we also wanted to write her as close to reality as possible,” narrates Suresh, who managed to find the sweet spot between funny and creepy with Pushpavalli.
After decades of content centred around the male gaze and the indefatigable male pursuit (read stalking) of the ideal woman on Indian screens, Suresh turned the tables with Pushpavalli, giving viewers a flawed yet authentic character who is, in Suresh’s book, the prototype of a “non-perfect girl, be it in her traits, her appearance, or her character arc”.
After a stellar first season, Pushpavalli was renewed and returned to largely positive reviews on Amazon Prime in March 2020. Talking about the success of the series, Suresh says, “Writing, creating, and showrunning has been the most challenging and rewarding experience for me… Acting, in particular, has been meditative, I want to learn about it all the time.”
Suresh has continued her collaboration with Amazon Prime in the form of Don’t Tell Amma – an hour-long laughathon that beautifully captures the relationship between millennials and their mothers; Go Straight Take Left – a series of sketches and one of many partnerships with fellow comedian Naveen Richard; and Comicstaan, where she has featured both as host and judge.
In the second instalment of One Mic Stand on Amazon Prime which released in October 2021, Suresh can be found mentoring Karan Johar prior to the latter’s stand-up debut. Her opening act for Johar as part of the same show is classic Suresh – as seamless with self-deprecatory jokes as she is with jibes at her sex, community and society.
“Every day, I learn something new with stand-up. Writing jokes on a regular basis ensures that you don’t run on personality all the time. As a comedian and artist, I want to get better every day, and learn all the time. If that leads to positive censorship (discarding some content due to a better sense of taste), I’m for it,” says Suresh.
The need for omnipresence for today’s artists and content creators means that live performances and digital shows are not enough for people like Suresh to occupy the audience’s mindspace. They must also be active online, especially on Instagram, which has spawned its own genre of comedy in recent years, chiefly through reels.
“I love social media. I have a great time putting up content. In fact, I miss being more regular because of all the writing projects I have lined up,” reflects Suresh, whose Instagram feed is full of meme-worthy hilarious captions.
Social media has allowed female comedians in India to define their own narratives, to go beyond the horseplay that is regurgitated on never-ending comedy shows on television, which frequently thrive off provoking laughter through internalised misogyny.
As part of a generation of female comedians like Aditi Mittal, Mallika Dua, Radhika Vaz, among others, Suresh has been able to put the female identity at the centre of a skit, to talk about female desires, dreams, and disappointments without refracting any of it through a male director’s understanding of what should or should not be said on stage.
“I like to be in charge and hold my power. I decide what is good for me and what isn’t, and that is the most liberating feeling ever,” acknowledges Suresh, who now wants to write a film with herself as the lead.
But what about the long term? Where does Suresh see herself in five or ten years’ time?
Does she, like Vir Das, aspire for international fame and recognition, and with it a far broader rope on which to walk in terms of potentially offensive comedy? Or does she want her comedy to evolve into a higher plane of social commentary, mixing personal confessions with critical observations in the way Hannah Gadsby did in her pathbreaking act in Nanette?
“I just want to entertain for as long as I live. I want to create shows till I am taken to the morgue. I want to do stand-up as an old grandmother who is inappropriate,” replies Suresh.
In a column for Verve magazine in 2017, Suresh had revealed that “I gave myself the goal of becoming the best comic rather than the best ovary-producing laughter generator. The only way for me to break gender bias and related discrimination is by being so good at my work that I am unavoidable.”
In 2021, for those seeking honest humour in India, the unapologetic and unfiltered Suresh has indeed become unavoidable.
The conversation with Sumukhi Suresh was organised by Levi’s as part of its “I Shape My World” campaign that celebrates the journey of fearless women.
Featured image credit: Instagram/@sumukhisuresh