For seven years, Anuradha Menon lived a character, on screen and off, with varying results. On television, when she played the Malayali-accented, Kanjeevaram- and mallipoo-wearing Lola Kutty, the laughs were intended. But when she slipped into the character off camera, Andy Kaufman-style, there was no design to the hilarity. It just happened.

“Once [ad man] Prahlad Kakkar told my Channel V bosses to ‘please take care of this poor girl from Kerala, show her around in Bombay, smarten her up’,” she recalled. “Another time, a bouncer didn’t let me get into our office party in a nightclub.”

Her Lola Kutty days behind her, Menon is still producing humour, though without the Kanjeevarams and mallipoo. Her hour-long standup special, titled Wonder Menon, which dropped on Amazon Prime Video on June 14, explores “personal stories”. “The idea behind the title is that a woman... [is under] pressure to be the perfect daughter, the perfect wife, the perfect daughter-in-law, the perfect mother, but I am not a wonder woman to juggle it all. I can only be me, Anu Menon.”

Wonder Menon by Anuradha Menon.

Glimpses of the comedy can even be seen in a YouTube recording from one of her shows, in which she sends up her fractious relationship with her mother-in-law in the early years of marriage. The mother-in-law’s incessant and untimely phone calls would interfere in Menon’s conjugal life, while she was reluctant to call her “mummy”.

“My mother-in-law has no problem with the jokes, but later, all these women commented online that I am a bad daughter-in-law, and one day, my son’s wife will show me how it is,” she recalled. Her six-year-old son, Ayaan, is also fodder for her jokes. “It’s weird, often the responses are like, how can you make fun of your child – maa hone ke naate?” Menon wondered. “Male comedians make fun of their children on stage, but somehow, that’s fine.”

The restraints imposed on female comedians keeps Menon occupied, but she noted she did not have it as bad as many of her peers. “I did not come up through open mics, and I just got shows because I guess people knew me as Lola,” Menon said. “I never had to do three shows a night to face enough sexism. I would do one show and rush home to wake up at 6:30 in the morning to send my son to school.”

Mum-in-Law and Mmmmm...Me by Anuradha Menon.

Rise to celebrity

Lola Kutty, who still influences Menon’s public life and career, emerged from a combination of her theatre background and the odd belief at 23 that being a “South Indian” is not “cool” in Mumbai.

The daughter of advertising professionals in Chennai, Menon was bitten by the acting bug in school. Encouraged by her mother, Menon took a year off after graduating from Stella Maris College to perform with The Madras Players, the oldest English-language theatre group in the city. The next two years were spent at a drama school in London, where, Menon said, “all the madhatters who...stood out in their colleges were...under one roof”.

After that, Menon shifted to the “Mecca of acting and stagecraft” – Mumbai. In 2004, she found herself in the offices of Star India, hanging out with the people at Channel V as a creative researcher. “For them, anyone from the South was a Madrasi,” Menon recalled. “In fact, someone said, ‘How can she be from Madras? We can see her in the dark.’ Being a Malayali from Madras who could speak Tamil created more confusion.”

For her, at the time, a “cool veejay” meant the “supremely hip” icons of the 1990s: Nonie, Trey and Danny McGill. To stand out in this coolest environment, she thought, why not introduce the most uncool character? Her idea was green-lit, and Lola Kutty became a runaway hit.

Lola Kutty interviews Shahid Kapoor.

The character began with reviewing music videos, before switching to interviewing Bollywood celebrities. In almost every episode, cultural alienness provided some of the laugh lines – a theme that recurred in the goofy promos featuring Lola Kutty, her assistant-cum-bodyguard Shiny Alex, and assorted companions.

“Later I realised I had an aunt called Lola,” Menon revealed. “But I actually picked the name from the movie called Run Lola Run. Also, Lola immediately brings to mind a sexy, exotic character and I wanted to flip that. Kutty, of course, means little girl.” One of her memorable promos featured her character running frantically on the streets of Mumbai, a reference to the 1998 German thriller.

Lola Kutty thrived through the last decade. For most part of it, on the advice of her boss, Menon stayed in character during interviews, but, “once it got creepy for everyone, I had to stop it”. In 2011, Menon quit Channel V, bringing an end to the character.

Lola Kutty promo by Channel V.

Was she sad when Channel V went off air in 2017? For the friends she made there, Menon said, although she saw it coming. “The channel was hip and targeting the metro cities. We recommended new music and showed music videos, but then came the internet. There was no use for us. So the bosses thought, let’s target Jabalpur. Youth-oriented soaps [were aired] but that didn’t work. The channel changed its focus back to music in three years. But now Jabalpur had rejected them, and so did the metros.”

Lola Kutty looks back fondly at her creation. “The nice thing is that I have forgotten so many things about Lola, but people remember them, and they come to me and tell me.” The popularity has its side effects, though: as she was delivering her lines as Sarojini Naidu in a performance of Lillete Dubey’s play Sammy!, she was heckled with cries of “Ae Lola Kutty!” At her standup shows, she gets comments like “But you are pretty only” from audience members seeing Menon being Menon.

Anuradha Menon's TEDx talk.

The Channel V stint gave Menon interesting insights, which she shared when discussing the gendered view of standup comedy. “I realised that when a guest I interviewed would flirt with Lola and ask her to check out his bedroom, it would look cute or harmless,” she said. “But it would be sleazy if he would do it with the typical cool veejay, like a Miss India-looking girl. Strange how looks change everything.”

Little things irk Menon, such as when a bunch of young women asked her the name of her hair product after a standup gig. “Ask about the jokes na,” Menon said. “Nobody asks Daniel Fernandes what hair gel he uses. Somehow, men are expected to behave or look a bit clumsy and that’s funny. But women have to be pretty. With women, it’s always about looks. The other day, someone asked me about this other comedian, is she funny because she is fat? A few days back, when introduced to this guy as a comedian, he says, but you don’t look like one.”

What she gets to observe as a mother is also relevant here. “There was this school play my son was a part of. And all the girls had to do the heavylifting – go for the 10-line dialogues about Dandi march and Gandhiji. The boy gets one line, ‘Who the hell is Gandhi ya?’ And everyone claps, goes ha ha so funny. It’s like boys are encouraged to be funny from an early age. Girls are believed to be conscientious, nice creatures, so later, when they are comedians, someone goes ‘They’re trying too hard or this is unlady-like.’”

Lola Kutty's Boney Menon promo.

While Menon tries to find her place in India’s growing standup comedy scene, she finds its paraphernalia unbearable, such as the influencer culture. “I can’t do the hustle of being active on social media to sell my stuff and brand all the time.”

The conversation segued into politics and the Lok Sabha election results being dubbed by some pundits as a rejection of the out-of-touch Anglophile liberal elite. “When I see Sachin Pilot or Jyotiraditya Scindia, I think, how nice, they are educated. But others may think, they are foreign-educated chaps. What the hell do they know about our problems?”

So, how does Menon see herself thrive with her English standup comedy and theatre?

“See, I always knew I was catering to a niche – that audience will stay,” Menon said. “Hindi comedians will always bring superior numbers, like six million views on one YouTube sketch in a week. Now, I can’t apologise for my upbringing.”

Also read: How sketch comics like Jaspal Bhatti laid the foundation for India’s comedy scene

Channel V bids goodbye once and for all, leaving behind its madcap mascots