Creator: Sumukhi Suresh
Director: Debbie Rao
Cast: Sumukhi Suresh, Naveen Richard, Manish Anand, Preetika Chawla
Streaming On: Amazon Prime Video
Season 2 of Pushpavalli opens with the camera slowly, eerily, slinking towards a half-open door. It tracks with the kind of voyeuristic dread that suggests the presence of either a murderer or a dead body inside the room. This shot is intercut with a rapid recap montage of the first season. The past plays out like bits and pieces of a shattered mixtape: Pushpavalli’s chance meeting with the charming Nikhil (Manish Anand; humanizes the NRI stereotype) at a food conference; the start of her obsession; their growing bond; her pyramid of lies; and the final showdown in which Pushpavalli’s scheming ways are exposed, with everyone – specifically Nikhil – chastising her as if she were an errant dog.
By the time the recap ends with the humiliated face of the young Tamilian woman, the camera settles upon a present-day Pushpavalli on the other side of the door. She’s all decked up in a sari on the day of her engagement. But a lone tear crawls down her flushed cheek. By now, it becomes clear that the montage wasn’t quite a recap. It’s not a “flashback” either. In some ways, it’s a perverse motivational video. You can tell that she’s reliving the unpleasant memories on purpose. Not because she’s haunted by them, but – as this season systematically reveals – because her plan is revenge, and a mental recap is the only thing that keeps her from chickening out. Its rage is the only thing that inspires Pushpavalli to be both the murderer and the dead body.
This self-psyche montage is a recurring motif in Pushpavalli’s return to Bangalore. She’s back, older and no wiser, but the image she’s chosen – a noble fiance, a marriage date, the prospect of a stable future – runs the risk of turning her ruse into her reality. She’s no more the girl who only changed careers and cities to “bump into” Nikhil; the route is more authentic (who doubts an engaged girl?) this time. As a result, the moment she is in danger of succumbing to the humanity of people around her, she summons the sort of distinct facial expressions and bitter words from her past that help sustain her victim-mentality narrative. The second her heart feels swayed by Nikhil’s niceness, the fiance’s fondness, cranky boss Pankaj’s odd sense of protectiveness, or even the show’s deceptively comical exterior, her head slickly recollects the shame of Season 1. Immediately, she snaps out of it; the montage works as a drug for an addict who is determined to relapse hard. To understand these little flashes of weaponized memory is to understand the protagonist of what is, in my opinion, one of the great shows of the Indian web space. Season 2 elevates but also better masks the psychological warfare. Look closely, and you can hear it: Somebody gonna get hurt real bad…
Peerlessly played by standup comic and creator Sumukhi Suresh, Pushpavalli is not your garden-variety sociopath. She is the self-loathing product of a culture notorious for trading womanhood in the currency of physical appearance. Her weight has made her the kind of vulnerably calculative character who believes that everything – attraction, trust, friendship, love, even serendipity – has to be tirelessly earned. And, if needed, seized. (“Who does that?” she bemusedly replies, when Nikhil casually enquires why she didn’t just ask him out last time). Which is why it’s clever of the writers to use a tennis metaphor. In a playful debate with her fiance, Pushpavalli reveals that she is a Nadal fan – he has heart, his game is far from sensual, he has no easy way to win a point, and he endures more punishment than most. She identifies. Only, “Personality over Perfection” for her translates to “Crook over Hook”. The show, too, mirrors her mantra in how it uses humour – whether cultural (her landlady Vasu, her roommates), situational (Pushpavalli’s plans are nervous and convoluted) or observational (she works at a children’s library) – to camouflage a perfectly dark tale. Or how Nikhil, the Federer of good looks and cosmetic talent, is the only unfunny person of the show. Or even how Pankaj (the inimitable Naveen Richard) uses verbal abuse to conceal his father-figure-style affection for the wayward Pushpavalli.
This also sits in line with the age-old Indian way of trivializing heavy emotions rather than confronting them. In an ideal universe, Pushpavalli’s actions in the first season might have been understood as a cry for help: A restraining order, followed by therapy and treatment, would be par for the course. But it doesn’t take more than an episode for Pushpavalli to win back the trust of her victims. Her reintegration into the same tragicomical setup rightly hints at the fact that “craziness” – especially in the case of women – is viewed as more of a character trait than a mental illness. Nikhil even gets comfortable enough with Pushpavalli 2.0 to joke about the old days; he freely uses “you stole my dog” to win favours. That she fools not only the other characters and the audience but also herself every other scene is a testament to Sumukhi Suresh’s remarkably unsettling portrait of timid toxicity. Much like the show’s earwormy title theme, there’s a creepy sharpness beneath her performative clumsiness – it’s almost like watching a child use her library card to read up on serial killers.
In her hands, Pushpavalli isn’t a villain out to avenge her dignity; she is the heroine who comprehends a love story as a romantic heist movie. As a viewer, I found myself in the awkward position of rooting for the delusions of Pushpavalli while simultaneously hoping for someone to recognize – and maybe rescue her from – her mental vortex. Sumukhi is especially effective in the way she uses her expressive face to react rather than act. When she’s being yelled at, her shame manifests in more of a stare than a glare, almost as if she were storing these moments in her head for future montage usage. At such points, her silence alone doubles up as the sad-violin background score: it’s enough to antagonize our perception of the people opposite her, irrespective of how genuine they are. In doing so, she becomes both the hunter and the hunted. (A worthy meme: “What people think I do: Better Life Foundation. What I really do: Pushpavalli”.)
That she fools not only the other characters and the audience but also herself every other scene is a testament to Sumukhi Suresh’s remarkably unsettling portrait of timid toxicity. Much like the show’s earwormy title theme, there’s a creepy sharpness beneath her performative clumsiness – it’s almost like watching a child use her library card to read up on serial killers.
Over time, her behaviour makes it appear like everyone is complicit in enabling it; even the tall and handsome Nikhil starts to sound irresponsible and exploitative. This gaze works as a smart riff on the blame-short-skirts-for-male-predators syndrome. Most importantly, her performance doesn’t fetishize stalking. On the contrary, it frames the act as an everyman disease that bolsters the emotional immune system. Somehow, she even makes the show’s false notes – like Pushpavalli living as a secret tenant Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke-style, or her arrangement with an annoying tea-boy (“T-boi”) accomplice – acquire allegorical meanings. For instance, she sleeps under the bed of her resentful roommates, reflecting her status as both an invisible entity and a sneaky rat. And she treats T-boi the way others treat her, rudely, like a nosy problem-child: reflecting her own second-class status through his lowly social standing. The primary cast aside, Preetika Chawla as the posh single mom Swati (“betu boy” can be a rap song), and Vidyuth Gargi, Pushpavalli’s fiance and Ravichandran Ashwin doppelganger, transcend their supporting roles to colour the background of Pushpavalli’s arc.
I like that the season ends on a cliffhanger – the cinematic equivalent of a Grand Slam Final being suspended in the darkness with Nadal down double matchpoint. What this does is replicate the sense of unresolved anxiety that Pushpavalli often thrives on. After all, everything about her screams unfinished business: her social conditioning, her single-parent upbringing, her career, her diet plan, her moral compass, her love. The final minutes come full circle from the first shot; it’s almost like the narrative conspires to literalize the dread of the camera. And then it strikes us: Pushpavalli, in Season 2, is the human manifestation of a montage. She’s bits and pieces of a past that others in her vicinity choose to relive reluctantly, like an unpleasant memory, so that they can absolve themselves and retain a sense of humanity. Their plan, too, is redemption. Only, it doesn’t involve half-shut doors, murderers and dead bodies.