Comedian Sumukhi Suresh is a woman with many talents. She’s an improviser, a comedy sketch artist and an actor. You may remember her from YouTube videos, like the Maid Interview, or from her starring role in Better Life Foundation, last year’s The Office-inspired web series about a struggling NGO.
Now she’s back, in and as Pushpavalli, an Amazon Prime web series about a girl who moves to Bangalore after being smitten by a boy she meets at a food expo. The show is a comedy that features her as a stalker, a role she wrote partly based on her own misadventures. In this interview, she talks to Film Companion about working in a new medium, playing unconventional characters and her partnership with comedian Naveen Richard:
You’ve worked extensively in various genres of comedy – improv, sketch, stand-up and more. How was it different working on a web series?
I’m going to be very honest with you, for the first whole day I was in a bubble that I could do it and the next day the bubble burst. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. Taking a sketch idea which is so small and packing so many jokes into it, it was more detailed. And as a comic, more challenging.
You have to write jokes around the storyline and the character. Even though it seemed strenuous at first, it got way more exciting. I would say every comic should definitely learn and do a web series because it’s very fulfilling.
You’ve always done unconventional roles like Sumukhi Chawla in Better Life Foundation or as 10-year-old Behti in your sketch show Behti Naak. In Pushpavalli, you play a stalker. Is that a conscious decision?
Partially. Better Life Foundation was something that Naveen had thought and written for me. But any other character that I’ve written, I’ve tried to stick to a grey-ish zone because I don’t think women characters should be written only as positive or only as negative. To be fair that applies to any character for that matter, but I see that a lot of people get into circle of writing for women. There are no grey zones.
Pushpavalli’s just a flawed person which we all are, especially women. That’s the thought process I come from when I play characters and especially when I got to write this one, I definitely stuck to a flawed zone because it’s not relatable in terms of experience but she’s relatable as a person.
In Indian content so far, we’ve mostly only seen men stalking women. Also lots has been said about how what we see influences our actions. Do you think that some people could see this as problematic?
No because if you see the entire show, she falls on her face. If a person is going to resort to something where the lines are blurred, it is going to lead to failure. Till episode 5-6, you’re still think she’s stupid and it’s harmless. Post that, the spiral becomes worse and you think, “What is wrong with you?” There is a role reversal but I’m sure the show is clear in saying that it’s wrong and it’s not going to take you anywhere. You’d rather just take rejection.
The CW show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend also features a woman who stalks a man she’s infatuated with. Even though that show is a musical, your show has a similar premise. Do you fear people will draw parallels?
To be fair, this is my story. This is what I did. When I wrote it, I drew from personal experience. And I have seen Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, it is an extremely funny show. It uses the musical sequences so well. But it’s committed to its universe of funny. And it’s still a laughter ride.
Pushpavalli is a laughter ride only to a certain extent. You are part of that character’s highs and definitely her failures. I didn’t want to make it very funny because regardless, stalking is wrong. It’s not going to take you anywhere.
You’ve collaborated frequently with Naveen Richard. Tell me more about how you partnered on Pushpavalli.
When we started writing, he was in the US. When he came back, literally that day we had our first reading and I said, “Thanks, you are here now. Please leave your work aside and sit and write with us.” It’s just that we’ve written a sketch show together and we gel very well as improvisers. And as different as our style of comedy is, he likes honesty and so do I. That is our biggest connect.
I know he’s not a big fan of grey characters but he let me go for it. His character is screaming and abusing throughout the show which he was so irritated with. But friend to friend, comic to comic, I want him to play characters he’s never had. How else will we play other things if not for writing for each other? He gave me Sumukhi and got me out of the ‘Aunty’ and ‘Maid’ zone and I wish to hopefully give him a different angle altogether. I don’t think I would have written the show without him, as simple as that.
Do you have any particular comics that you look to for inspiration?
Tina Fey. She wrote 30 Rock. She’s a universal for all comics. I’m very very fond of Sarah Silverman’s comedy. I find it very awkward. She starts of slow and you think she’s going to bomb, but her story structure is phenomenal. I’m going through her older YouTube clips and interviews.
Watch the trailer of Pushpavalli here: