There’s just one thing comedian Sumukhi Suresh hopes people don’t say about the new season of her Amazon Prime show Pushpavalli and that’s: Critically acclaimed show! So sad it is underrated. “If you know it’s underrated then push it no? I don’t understand this narrative,” she says. If season 1 of the Amazon Prime Video series was about a Food Science graduate (Suresh) who falls in love with a charming man she meets at a convention (Manish Anand), only to be rebuffed, season 2 moves forward with thoughts of revenge. Familiar cast members like Naveen Richard return, but this time there’s also a hapless fiance, budding new romances and an ominous warning thrown into the mix.
Suresh, who’s also a writer on the show, and director Debbie Rao talk about their learnings from season 1, writing a stalker you also feel sorry for and why the show is like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai:
How did the writing and ideating process change between season 1 and season 2?
Debbie Rao: The season got darker this time. And that was a legit worry for us. Because it’s a Sumukhi and Naveen show, the expectation was that it would still be a comedy. But by the time you reach the last episode of season 1, it’s not a comedy any more. It’s a drama and something that portrayed a disturbed woman, particularly the last shot. A lot of debate went into this, but ultimately we decided that since this is where we had left off, that had to be the core of this season – how her brain works and how her actions manifest all that drama. We were worried that people would be like: Yeh funny nahi hai, yeh season mein sirf faaltu ka drama banaya.
It’s a testament to how Sumukhi has acted that you don’t feel like she’s a villain. You feel like you know what she’s going through even if you don’t agree with it. It’s being compared to Dexter or Peaky Blinders, where characters are not doing things that are morally right or heroic, but you relate to them because you’ve also gone through a breakup.
“We tried to figure out why Nikhil was being nice to her again and forgetting everything that happened in season 1. We spoke to a lot of men and they said that the minute the woman is engaged, they don’t care because she’s no longer a threat. That’s the big reason Sumukhi really fought for the engagement to be in the first episode,” says Debbie Rao
Sumukhi Suresh: When we wrote season 1, Pushpavalli was a very flat character on paper. A lot of what came together was on set and because of Debbie. We were so focussed on the jokes that we forgot that Pushpavalli could not have jokes because she’s the central character and has to take the story forward.
Debbie Rao: No one’s ever going to think she’s a good character or a nice person. But at the same time, to have to manage to be likeable? I remember Sumukhi reading the monologue of season 1 episode 8 at a table read. I had my doubts but she got everyone to cry. At the conference table, with no cameras or hair or makeup. She got everyone to feel.
Sumukhi Suresh: This time around, there wasn’t much of the, ‘Okay we’ll figure this out on set’ attitude. Which was the learning from season 1. This time we stuck as closely to the script as possible so that Debbie could say things like: We need an insight into her head. The whole track shot into the door that leads into the montage in episode 1 was her idea. She put together all the montage shots and that’s when we realized, ‘Oh fuck, this show is now something else.’ If I removed that track shot, I wouldn’t know what’s going on in her head.
Tell me about putting together that great opening scene of s2 – it’s not just this recap of s1 for viewers, it’s this perversely motivational video she’s playing in her head.
Debbie Rao: We were trying to bridge the gap between the look to camera at the end of season 1 and this season. So I wanted it to begin with a look to camera. I also wanted the season to end with a look to camera.
Sumukhi Suresh: While shooting the season 1 finale, I remember I was just supposed to watch the CCTV footage. I had to go for some dumb event and Debbie was pissed because I had to leave. She ran to me and said, ‘I’ll say 3…2..1…you just look into camera.’ One of the writers said I shouldn’t do it, but Debbie wanted to. And I’m so glad she did. It gave us a fucking great ending. It was not scripted. We didn’t have the writing skills. It gave the show a new narrative altogether.
Debbie Rao: So for season 2, we wanted to pick up from that look to camera. The reason I like that look to camera so much is because you get to make the audience a co-conspirator in what’s happening. Also, I’m a binge-watcher. So I thought of audiences watching all the episodes of season 1 and then starting season 2 – how thrown off would you be if all you got were jokes right off the bat? So I wanted to start dramatically. I was obsessed with this track shot of a door.
Sumukhi Suresh: When we were doing budgets, we were like: Trackshot, trackshot, trackshot. Earlier, we were supposed to do the shaadi at a mandap location which had a passageway for the track shot. But then the budget got cut and we had to move the scene to Vidyut’s house. When we went for the recce, we realized the corridor leading to the room in which Pushpavalli was getting ready was too small. The trolley was 36 inches wide and the corridor was 35 inches. Debbie went home, obsessed over it overnight. Next day, she took an office chair with wheels, put the camera on that and pushed the camera forward for that shot. So much of the show is just this.
How do you see Pushpavalli as a character? I really liked that in season 1 you didn’t make her this crazy woman obsessed with a stranger, but someone who fell for a friend and took it too far. But it’s really hard to be sympathetic to her in season 2.
Debbie Rao: This was a very conscious thing in season 1 and 2 – we never have sympathy for Pushpavalli.
Sumukhi Suresh: The writer’s room and the direction team – neither do. We have one constant rule, which is that whenever she gets something, she has to pay a price. The seventh episode is an episode of losses. Everyone thinks that Nikhil was wrong, but why?
Debbie Rao: Manish, Sumukhi and I sat down to discuss this because Manish was like, ‘Why is Nikhil becoming villainous? Why is he being a dick?’ And I was like: How is he being a dick? He’s someone who found out a friend went through something horrible and is trying to make her feel better. Nothing he’s doing is wrong. Pankaj is a great mirror to how the audience feels about Pushpavalli. You care, but you’re so irritated by her.
“Pushpavalli is someone who’s so insecure, she doesn’t even think that she can hurt someone romantically. But this is what we do – we obsess over people and tend to overlook the people who care about us,” says Sumukhi Suresh
Sumukhi Suresh: Let’s not forget Pushpavalli lied. She’s feeling bad because of her own lies.
Debbie Rao: Sumukhi has been really particular about this since season 1, that she has to pay a price for what she does. So long as we’re not glorifying a stalker, that’s okay. It’s a story about a human being who is going through something psychologically. This season, the feeling is that she’s gone over to the dark side. And you still see a bumbling naïveté as to how she goes about it. She’s not a criminal mastermind from Ocean’s 11. There are things constantly going wrong and she fucks over people without even realizing. She genuinely doesn’t realize that she’s fucking over Vidyut. Her thought process is: Arranged marriage hai, tod dungi, usko koi aur mil jayega.
Sumukhi Suresh: Pushpavalli is someone who’s so insecure, she doesn’t even think that she can hurt someone romantically. She’s that dumb. The fact that Vidyut and I have chemistry just drove that home. But she doesn’t understand that jo tere saath ho raha hai, woh hi tu kisi aur ke saath kar rahi hai. But this is what we do – we obsess over people and tend to overlook the people who care about us.
Debbie Rao: Pushpavalli is basically Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). Nikhil is Shah Rukh Khan and she’s Kajol.
I think Nikhil comes across badly because he goes from a friend to someone who knows this woman has feelings for him and uses that to get his work done.
Sumukhi Suresh: He has this side to him that’s like, ‘Oh, she’s helping me? Cool, I’ll accept that help.’ But he’s always been this flirty guy.
Debbie Rao: He was like that through the food conference in season 1. Why did he come and say, ‘Maybe we’re a thing’? Why would he give her company? Because there are some people who have that white-knight complex. We discussed this a lot in the beginning, trying to figure out why he was being nice to her again and forgetting everything that happened in season 1. We spoke to a lot of men and they said that the minute she’s engaged, they don’t care because she’s no longer a threat. That’s the big reason Sumukhi really fought for the engagement to be in the first episode.
She deliberately puts herself in this position where she’s like, ‘Let me help you, let me get your shipment approved, let me look for your land documents.’ She makes herself indispensable to his work. He’s not really taking advantage of it, it’s more like you’re hungry and someone keeps coming and giving you food. If you take it, someone else can’t be like, ‘Why did you?’ From his perspective, it’s a fucking lonely job, sitting and exporting bhindi. For him, it’s also now: Now someone’s with me on this, I have someone to discuss this with. He says thanks to her a couple of times. We deliberately put those lines in because if you’re stuck in a dead-end job and you meet someone like that, it’s a kick. For both women and men, there’s a kick to hanging out with someone who likes you. It gives you an ego boost.
Sumukhi Suresh: It’s a cool job.
Debbie Rao: Not a single person finds it cool except you. We went to three packhouses in Vashi to study the process of exporting bhindi. I have never seen Sumukhi look as happy as she did. All of us were getting bored out of our skulls. I started recording the conversations because I’d zoned out. Sumukhi was like, ‘Oh yeah? Then what happens? What do you do next? And then the inspector comes? Where are the approved bhindis kept?’
Tell me about Vidyut. I feel like a lesser show would’ve given her a more flawed partner, someone not “conventionally attractive” because that’s who society has been telling her to accept her whole life. But here’s a guy who’s kind and genuinely into her.
Debbie Rao: There was a lot of debate. Do you remember the character Sangameshwaram from season 1? The guy who shows up at the library. Naveen thought that Vidyut should be a Sangameshwaram-type character. In the beginning, we were in agreement. We didn’t want to make him someone who was so obviously cute that you’d be like: Why didn’t she go for him then? Then we found Vidyut Gargi, who’d played the hot boy in Die Trying (2018). He performed so sweetly – that whole monologue he gives about seeing their life together – that was the audition. We wanted there to be a reason Pushpavalli confesses to this guy she’s not into him and for her, that happens when he confesses his love for her and she’s taken aback. When we did the tests, the only actor who landed that was Vidyut Gargi. Even though Pushpavalli’s scheming and revengeful, there’s a decency to her and it was important to cast a Vidyut who’d bring that out. You want the audience to go: Don’t do this, don’t fuck him over.
Love seems to make everyone a worse version of themselves in the show though. There’s Pushpavalli for sure, but Vidyut also shows up and starts tearing library books, Pankaj becomes insecure.
Sumukhi Suresh: It gives Pankaj another reason to hate Nikhil. Like a guy with that face – what else does he want? Pankaj has been insecure since season 1. He has a thing for single moms, he has a thing for Swati. It’s also a slight reversal of this whole trope where girls are like, ‘Commitment chahiye, casual nahi chahiye.’ And in this case, Swati’s the one who wants to keep it casual and he’s like, ‘Be my girlfriend!’.
Debbie Rao: All of what Pankaj does is a reversal of what girls do – that, ‘baat nahi kiya, jhagda hua toh main baat nahi karungi’ in a relationship. I think the Pankaj-Swati relationship is the most benign and normal though.
Let’s talk about the episode 7 scene in which she’s picking up her clothes and trying to pack her suitcase. There’s no dialogue, it’s a long stretch with just the camera on her reaction.
Debbie Rao: We shot it on the road at 4 am. We played this track from 28 Days Later just to set the mood. We wanted it to be demeaning and for her to feel like she’s hit rock bottom. So we were very particular that her bra would be thrown on the floor, her chaddi and toothbrush would be on the floor and she’d have to pick them up. It needed to feel like she’d been disgraced again. You need enough of an impetus for her to do something as outrageous as she did in the season finale. What’s beautiful about the scene is that she really tries to hold it together – she picks up her clothes, puts them in the suitcase, sits on the road. Only when she sees the kurta that reminds her of good times with Nikhil is when she starts crying.
Sumukhi Suresh: We tried glycerine and it really didn’t work for me. Debbie was just like: Where are the tears? The inspiration for this scene was Emma Thompson in Love Actually (2003), where she finds the necklace and cries alone. That just gets me every time.