Sumukhi Suresh Wants To Create Her Own Shondaland

The comedian talks about launching a writers’ collective and working on a Pushpavalli spinoff
Sumukhi Suresh Wants To Create Her Own Shondaland

It's a busy time for Sumukhi Suresh. She directed Pushpavalli co-writer Sumaira Shaikh's yet-to-be-released comedy special, is writing two shows and a film simultaneously and also launched writers' collective Motormouth, which aims to develop women-centric content. Two feature films will be out soon, and Suresh is currently the showrunner of a series that has been sold to an OTT platform. She talks about learning to delegate, what she's looking for in potential writers and wanting to build a media empire like Shondaland:

How would you describe Motormouth? What made you decide to launch it?

I'm trying to do as much as I can and pick up as many skills as I can. And it made sense to put everything under one umbrella. I know that the popular thought is to set up a production agency which also does writing but I've found that writing has really given me more than a lot of other skills have. So it made sense for Motormouth to be an end-to-end writers' company. We write shows, movies and stories, and then I write emails asking people to buy them. The idea is to create movies or shows which stand out, which have nice, juicy roles for women that don't adhere to an idea of morality. They can fall anywhere on that spectrum. They don't have to have the added baggage of being the 'good girl' or the 'bad girl'. 

So right now, it's a writers' collective. I think as my business model, and my own bandwidth increases, I will associate myself with a production company. I don't think I will own a production company because I still like the thought of just having a writers' collective. Maybe if we're really cool, we'll absorb a production company. 

On a business level, I was always heading in this direction. I wanted to create a legacy and I'll be very happy if this is what I leave behind. I always wanted to act and no one gave me roles so I just cast myself. Now, I not only want to act in different shows but also hopefully give chances to a few more actors. 

What roles will you take on within the company? You're the founder and writer, will you also star in the films and shows that Motormouth creates?

Not all of them, because it's not humanly possible, which I'm very disappointed by. But I'll be in as much as I can. I want to write things that other people can feature in. It doesn't look like Pushpavalli is getting a third season so we're writing a Vasu PG spinoff because Shraddha deserves to be in the spotlight. She's a star. Motormouth is involved in the casting of this show. If I'm in the picture, I'm the showrunner. I hopefully have the kind of pull to recommend casting options. Thankfully, Pushpavalli has given me that weightage. For all practical purposes, Motormouth is involved in everything, it's just that my team won't handle the execution of production. But you will see us working nights when someone is trying to find a location in Madh, for example. What I learnt from Pushpavalli is that you may be the creator, actor or writer, but for all practical purposes, the showrunner is the one who runs the set. I say this in the nicest way possible. I want to extend my learnings on that set to this company and be involved in the end-to-end processes of everything.

My role in the company is founder, CEO and also the person who writes emails using someone else's name. I really wanted to call myself a CE-ho, but no one allowed it. Or a CE-woah, to which people said, 'Don't be an idiot.' 

What's your long-term vision for the company? I read that you eventually want to turn it into a media empire like Shonda Rhimes'.

That is the goal. It's exactly why I'm not commiting to production right now, because it's a long game. Actors and comics are often told, 'Five years and you're done. That's your shelf life.' I refuse to believe that. I'm 34, I will die at 65 — I think that's the right age — and that leaves me with a shelf life of 30 years. In those 30 years, I want the company to be a Shondaland or a Hello Sunshine, which attracts investors. In terms of content, there is an honesty and an idealistic approach that we'll maintain. But as a business, I want people to be like, 'We need to invest in Motormouth.' You want to put your money on something profitable, right? So the long-term vision is a media giant that releases great shows and movies. 

What sort of voices are you looking to champion? What kind of stories do you want to tell?

Initially, I want women-centric content that is entertaining, exciting, funny, or dramatic. As my team gets bigger, as my understanding of this space expands, I want to diversify into other genders that can be written about or portrayed. The only reason why I'm treading cautiously is because it's very easy to claim this in your press release and make a mess of it later so I want to do this the right way, but even then, not take a long time to get it. Let's make blockbusters. Why can't we have a really funny female-centric blockbuster?

I know there's an email account you've asked writers to send pitches to. What kind of pitches are you looking for? What makes a good pitch?

It's not about the pitch. The only thing I look for a writer is not experience or skill, it's honesty. If you're not an honest writer or if your moral compass is too tight or you're too rigid in your thoughts, it won't work. Your own personal moral compass, personality or values are fixed and can't change, but as a writer, you have to see a different perspective. I only look for honesty. Almost all the writers I work with are brazenly honest in the writers' room. If you're fighting about something that is controversial or ethically wrong, have that fight. Otherwise how are we going to cover it in our scene? Like for example, Pushpavalli is a stalker — how do you deal with that? There are people in the room who say, 'This is wrong.' And there are people in the room who say, 'What is wrong?' It should be a good conversation to have because then we can make the character more well-rounded. But if you're going to be like, 'This is wrong, we can't discuss it,' that makes things tough. So if you're honest, you're good to go.

I remember when S1 of Pushpavalli came out and you'd said there were people who found it hard to accept the idea of a female stalker. Has the reception to flawed women changed over the years? Has it become easier to navigate or is Motormouth your way of pushing back?

Motormouth is my way of pushing back. When you're in your own little bubble, you feel like people are okay with seeing flawed women. They aren't. I want numbers. If you aren't getting numbers on your show or film, no one's going to invest in it. So if you love to hate me, that's fine. As long as you give me a chance. The company is a way of creating women you love, and women you hate. The reason I'm banking on women so much is because they're the ones who follow me. Even though Instagram is such a small metric in the larger scheme of things, 70% of my followers are women. So I was like, 'I should invest in them. If this is my audience, I should cater to them.' I'm not saying that I'm not creating content for boys. The best part is that there are so many boys who watch Pushpavalli. They secretly message me saying, 'Achha tha show par hum bol nahi sakte.' I'm like, 'Watch secretly, but give me those views. Just don't pirate it or Amazon won't get those numbers.' 

You're working on two feature films, you've sold a comedy show to an OTT network and you're writing an international show. Is there anything you can tell me about these projects?

One of my movies is an inspirational comedy directed by Tushar Hiranandani and produced by Nidhi Parmar. We just pitched the first draft to him and he had a lot of ideas so it's very exciting. I'm doing another movie with Rhea Kapoor. She's a firehouse and it's a lot of fun to just be around her. Sumaira Shaikh and I have co-created a comedy thriller, which we've sold to an OTT platform. I'm the showrunner and have also acted in it. It's a college show and we're working really hard to ensure it turns into multiple seasons. Hopefully, it will be our Grey's Anatomy. We don't want 18 seasons, just four or five. We're also developing another show which is a satirical comedy set in Uttar Pradesh. There's also a family comedy movie that I'm writing and hope to sell to an OTT platform or a producer who will get it made. I developed a tech comedy during the pandemic, that's the international show. I have agents in the US. It's been a two-year-long struggle, maybe it will take two more years but I really hope it gets sold.

So do you write shows and then look for buyers or are you working on material that has already been commissioned?

Until now, we were working on commissions but I want to create a library of content. It's like a manufacturing company having a product list. That gives the writers time to sit on the work. Once something is commissioned, you have to work fast. When I get an idea, there's an incubation period of a month or two. I just sit with it. I start gossiping about the characters as though they're my friends. If the idea still lasts after two months, then I know it's an idea and not a sketch. Then I start getting people together. I want each of my shows to get this much time so that's why I plan to start developing them, put my own money on them and then sell them later.

When you're juggling so many things, how do you find the time to write? What is your writing schedule?

I write the whole day. I'm writing three things simultaneously, all of which have been commissioned. But I'm also handing over the reins to other people. I've given the UP show to Sumaira. I've told her to be the head writer, see where that takes her, figure out what skills she lacks so she can gain them. I'm also teaching myself the skill of identifying potential executive producers or head writers or people who will run things. Right now, I'm the bottleneck. Companies sound great when one person is running everything but I want to clear this bottleneck and have more people with a unique voice onboard.

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