2016 was the year of Sumukhi Suresh, and the feisty standup comic was everywhere – both online and off – constantly having us in splits with her brilliantly incisive and intelligent humour. We’ve seen her do Indian classical renditions of ‘Boom Boom’ and ‘My Humps’, we’ve heard her sing about autos refusing passengers, and we’ve seen her play everything from devious maids to judgemental “aunties” – and Suresh has done all of it with ease. Touted ‘India’s Tina Fey’, she’s already well on her way to becoming the next big thing in Indian comedy, and is breaking into a domain that’s largely considered male. We caught up with her for a freewheeling chat over email, and she opened up about what inspires and motivates her to laugh in the face of sexist stereotypes.
Rohini Banerjee (RB): Though female comics like you are slowly emerging, the Indian stand-up comedy scene is still pretty male-dominated. What has your journey been like in trying to establish yourself in such a space? How difficult was it?
Sumukhi Suresh (SS): I started with improvisational comedy, moved on to sketch comedy and then stand up comedy and it has been very very exciting. I am glad I have met the comics who are helpful regardless of gender. On top of the challenges all comics face anyway, I think there are times when a joke doesn’t land well from me. You don’t want to blame it on anything but yourself, but there have been instances where I can’t help but notice that it’s a gender thing. Recently, after a mediocre show from me, I had an elderly gentleman come up and console me that I shouldn’t worry, since this isn’t a “profession for me”, unlike men, who have to take this as a profession to put food on the table. I wanted to punch him but I chose to “accidentally” stamp his foot and put my weight on it.
RB: How do you deal with the stereotype that ‘women can’t be funny’?
SS: By continuing with my work. The best way to shut this stereotype down is to have so much work out there that one looks stupid when they say “women can’t be funny”.
RB: And what do you think of comedy acts which still fall back on making fun of women and stereotype their behaviour, appearance, and so on?
SS: I genuinely loathe them. Not only for the obvious reasons but for the sheer lack of creativity. It’s almost like we have decided the audience can laugh only at one joke. Haven’t these premises become kind of old?
RB: From the sassy ‘Anu Aunty’ to the straightfaced ‘Sumukhi’ in Better Life Foundation – the roles you take on in your comic sketches are always versatile. Do you consciously pick roles that are different from each other?
SS: I definitely try to. I can be easily put in the “aunty” role because I am chubby. So I consciously try to do an array of characters – it’s also one of the main reasons why I wrote my Youtube series “Behti Naak”, where I play an obnoxious 10-year-old girl.
RB: Which character among the ones you have played is your personal favourite, and why?
SS: I like “Behti…” a lot and this pizza call centre girl named Sukanya, which I played in a sketch called “Taken in India“. “Behti…”, because she is exactly how kids are, and not all “blue” or “pink”, and Sukanya, because I loved how I hardly blinked when I played her! Since I come from an improv background, a character and its quirks are very important. That’s also something you notice in “Saturday Night Live”.
SS: I do my usual standup set, and then I do a separate set for “Disgust Me”. Actually, “Disgust Me” isn’t only sexual humour. It is humour about body, about disgusting habits about women that make them super unattractive! We women are so hung up on looking perfect and desirable, we have forgotten all of our undesirable quirks. Thus, “Disgust Me” is a women’s only, by invite only, show so that they are comfortable to go hysterical!
RB: It’s also interesting that your humour is never at the expense of your weight or your body (which we have seen plus-sized comedians like Bharti Singh often do). Is that, again, a conscious choice?
SS: I definitely address my weight in the beginning of my standup set, but I do that quickly and move on. The more you harp about one thing the more the audience only wishes to see that. I don’t think it was a “conscious” decision. My set and premises have never been driven by my weight.
RB: What’s the next thing we’ll see Sumukhi Suresh do?
SS: Oh, 2017 has so much in store! I have 2 new series and a lot more videos coming up on my Youtube channel and on my Facebook page. “Disgust Me” tours India (so shout out to all the women who want an invite!) and my usual stand up will hopefully be online too!