“A flowering creeper who creeps in slowly. You think she is unassuming but you never know if she can create a mess.” This is how stand-up comedian Sumukhi Suresh describes her character Pushpavalli, the Tamil Brahmin woman from Bhopal from the web series of the same name.
Pushpavalli is all set to graduate in Food Science and marry the man chosen by her mother before she meets the charming Nikhil Rao (Manish Anand). She decides to move out of Bhopal to Bangalore to stay close to him, gets a job at a children’s library and goes to great lengths to follow Nikhil’s every move while all along convincing herself that she is not a stalker.
Suresh seems to have painted herself into an unsympathetic corner through her show, and yet, the comedian feels that Pushpavalli is is ultimately honest and truly reflective of the person she wanted to write. The web series was released on Amazon Prime Video on December 15.
“I initially tried to tone her down because I wondered whether to make her funny or a relatable character to every girl,” Suresh said. “But then I was just honest and stuck to the universe of the story. We must remember that Pushpavalli is a resourceful girl. Her comedy is a comedy of errors with things happening around her and her reacting to it by making mistakes and falling flat after a spiral of bad decisions.”
Like her heroine, Suresh is a Tamilian, but raised in Nagpur. Both creator and character are fluent in Hindi and later moved to Bangalore. Pushpavalli is on her way to becoming a food inspector while Suresh was one – she quit her job at a food laboratory in 2015 to pursue comedy.
Suresh does not elaborate on the parts in the series inspired by her life, but adds that she is way funnier than her character and that she would snap out of an infatuation much earlier.
Suresh has never written a series before. She is only the second stand-up comedian after Biswa Kalyan Rath to make her debut as a show creator on Amazon Prime Video. To her creative credit are the routines she has performed on stage and a bunch of oddball characters that she has played in short web videos made under a minute or two, such as Parvati Bai, a sassy maid, Kiara aka Bubs, a socio-politically aware teenager, and Behti Naak, a serious 10-year old girl who is too honest and deadpan for the world around her.
“For Behti, I exaggerated my idea of a not-so-cute but honest kid, shot in black and white for no reason but my entertainment,” Suresh explained about her most popular character. “Not all kids are cute, right? Some have hairy faces. The unibrow was an idea I wanted to run with.”
In one video, Behti’s friend, Shikhar, brags about his proficiency in mathematics. Behti asks him not to overdo it and keeps asking him to solve short sums. Shikhar does well, and smugly smiles, and then Behti drops the bomb: “If you are so smart, why didn’t your father return for three years?” Then she looks at the camera, rubs her constantly running nose, and says, “I asked you not to overdo it.”
How difficult was it to create an eight-episode series that lasts for 180 minutes and is packed with character arcs, emotional graphs and plot developments? Very difficult but doable, Suresh said.
“We started writing in May and finished by October,” she recalled. Her co-writers were Rahul Hota and Naveen Richard. “We kept ensuring that we were not running out of the universe constantly by telling a joke.”
Hota and Richard were also the writers on a five-episode YouTube series featuring Suresh in 2016, called Better Life Foundation. (Its director, Debbie Rao, has also directed Pushpavalli). Richard has been Suresh’s longtime collaborator. They have created material together for the stage, and it was Richard who pushed her to try open mics, which opened up doors for her stand-up career.
Richard and Suresh acted alongside each other in Better Life Foundation and displayed great comic chemistry. They bring the same energy to Pushpavalli, in which Richard plays Naveen, her foul-mouthed boss at the children’s library.
Suresh initially tried to cram in numerous experiences and characters into the plotline, but she eventually stuck to Pushpavalli’s track. “I realised that I needed to commit to one particular concept or plot,” she said. “That’s why in every scene, you are following Pushpavalli. Writing-wise, the challenge was definitely to delete some very lovable characters.”
It was an easy ride for Pushpavalli from final draft to the monitor: the writing was completed by October, the series was shot and edited over October and November, and released in December. But was it easy to play a character who is not merely funny but has other character traits too? “I enjoy acting and story-driven content,” Suresh said. “In stand-up, you have a one-sided audience but in a web series, I have to react to another actor then and there, so I cannot be my cockier personal self. There, I have to show my vulnerability.”
Suresh is among the few female stand-up comics in a male-dominated scene. In January, Amazon Prime Video signed up 14 male stand-up comedians to produce specials. The lack of female names in the list was jarring. Aditi Mittal soon made her stand-up debut on rival streaming website Netflix.
When asked about whether her gender plays a factor in her choices or her brand of humour, Suresh said that while there is nothing she would not joke about, a woman’s approach to humour is definitely different than a man’s: “We don’t box things. Men put people in boxes, relationships in boxes. Females, meanwhile, are overthinkers and can think six different things at a time. And women can bring a different twist to a subject a man jokes about. Boys tend to make a lot of material about their mothers. A female comic would have a different spin on it because her relationship with a mother is different than a man’s is.”
Speaking of mothers, it has taken Suresh’s parents time to come around to the idea of seeing their daughter being a stand-up comedian.
“But my mom is way funnier,” Suresh said. “She is way better. Her special would be hilarious.” Wouldn’t that be a sight?