When DeadAnt asked me to write about the last decade of comedy, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. I’m not the sort of person to look back at my career, because I don’t think I’ve achieved enough things to indulge in “nostalgia”. So instead of listing out achievements or awards, I wanted to write about what I count as a milestone—an opportunity to learn a new skill or gain new insight into my craft. That’s how I assess my progress—not by how much I annoyed Debbie Rao or how many meltdowns I’ve had in writing rooms, but by the skills I’ve picked up along the way. (This is why khichdi girls are the best.)
With those skills growing a little rusty after this enforced long absence from the stage, I thought now would be a good time to look back at those lessons—a refresher course for me more than anything, but maybe you’ll find something in here for you too?
1. “Sumukhi Is Going To Be A Comic One Day”
When I was in college, I wanted to be a part of any and every group. I wasn’t very popular as a kid, so when I went to Chennai [from Nagpur], that was my single-point agenda: be popular. Except because I’m also a nerd, I thought this meant being part of all the clubs, organising stuff, being self-appointed monitor for everything nobody else wanted to do. In 2008, I joined Theatre Nisha, run by the amazing director V. Balakrishnan. My first play was actually a very bittersweet tale. It wasn’t meant to be funny. But it became funny because I was acting in it. I played an 80-year-old grandmother, and everyone just said ‘so cute.’ (Since then I’ve only been getting geriatric roles, FYI.)
I remember being at Bala’s engagement, where he casually said to a group of guests, “look at Sumukhi, she’s going to be a standup comic one day!” I was very offended at the time. I didn’t know what standup comedy was, so I didn’t know what he was trying to say. Did he mean that I can’t be an actor? Hello, excuse me? I just acted in a play!
But he saw something then that I didn’t; it took me a while to find comedy. When my first special released, I called him. “Why are you surprised?” he chuckled. “I told you then only.”
2. THE IMPROV
In 2011, I was working at a food lab, and I had a bakery, but somehow I still had some free time. So, obviously, I decided to get back into theatre. I saw a Facebook post by Pooja Sampath looking for ‘female actors’ for The Improv. I thought it was a play. Of course I was going to audition. When I got there, though, they asked me to act out a couple of scenes on my own, without giving me a script. I was very irritated because I thought these theatre people have gotten so lazy they don’t even write dialogue anymore! But then they explained what improv comedy is. Thankfully I was funny enough in the auditions so I got in—so actually, I found improv before I found comedy.
Today, when I hear standup comics say “I do only standup, I don’t do improv”. Means? That’s not something to be proud of. What do you think crowd-work is, doofus?
3. “Sumukhi, You’re Not Funny”
In 2014, five of us were putting on a show of The Improv at Alliance Française. For some reason or the other, all the big stars were missing. The rehearsals were very tense, and there was some concern about whether we’d be able to pull off the show. The day before the show, someone—I won’t name them—told me “time to let the cat out of the bag, you’re not funny.”
When he said that, I wasn’t as angry at being called unfunny as I was that he was the one saying it. This was a guy who was undeniably sexist, in the “women can’t be funny” vein. What ran through my head was, “I can call myself unfunny, but who are you to?” I got very irritated that a person thought he could exert this much power over us. I remember thinking that except for the audience, nobody has the power to tell me that.
The next day, I went on stage and killed (so) hard! I don’t usually say this after a show, but even I noticed. I killed it in every scene I was in. And that really changed a lot of things for me. Later, this person would try to claim that he was just trying to get a good performance out of us. Yeah, right. Go straight, take left, buddy.
4. Go Straight, Take Left
In August 2014, a friend told Naveen Richard and me that Jagriti Theatre (Bangalore) had a free date. Naveen had already come on for a couple of episodes of my sketch show with Richa Kapoor (Sketch In The City) by then. I found him very funny and we got along, so we would keep jamming together. I’d just started standup then, so the original idea was that I’d do a 10-minute opening set for Naveen. But instead we decided to collaborate. We realised we didn’t want to do sketches, what we really wanted to do was a variety show. Cut to an hour later, and we had come up with sketch ideas. So I said “I guess we’re doing a sketch show.”
I really loved that first show. It made me realise the benefits of sharing the stage with someone who loves the craft as much as you do and who matches your commitment step to step. Naveen is that person, and he helped me understand the importance of camaraderie and compatibility, and why you need that onstage. Naveen and I still don’t get what people see in us, but we are aware that there is a certain chemistry there. I learned a lot from him, and it all started with this show.
5. Better Life Foundation
One random day, Naveen told me that he was writing something and he was writing it around me. I automatically found myself wishing that it wasn’t another old person role again (that happens way too often). But he told me that this character is my age and described the role to me. I loved the fact that she was the straight character in the show, because usually I get the overly dramatic or over-acting type of roles. In fact, I was very sure that I wouldn’t be the funny one on the show. Turns out, straight characters can bring a lot of humour as well.
The whole experience of acting in a web series was amazing. I wasn’t the showrunner, so I didn’t have to worry about the final product. I just had a lot of fun! It was also a great opportunity to showcase my value as an actor, a comedian, and it got me noticed by OML, so it was a pretty big moment.
6. Signing to OML
Getting signed to OML was definitely a milestone, because I knew that they had work, and that they would give it to me and value me. And it truly changed a lot in my career, because suddenly I was part of a circle of people working together to create something good. I’ve also realised that I thrive on working hard, and OML appreciated that. In my previous career, you had to network and know the right people. But here, I just had to work hard and they responded to that.
By the time Ajay Nair spoke to me about signing with OML, I’d already done a few shows and performed at AIB Diwas as well. So I felt like they’d seen enough of me, and it was beyond time for them to sign me. I don’t think it was that big a deal for them, they were like “Sumukhi, why are you making such a performance out of this?” But it was, and continues to be, a very big deal for me.
I had moved to Bangalore to pursue a boy myself once, so I was very familiar with how obsession works. More than anything, I wanted to write a show where I play the lead. But I was still hesitant. When I took the concept to Ajay Nair, there wasn’t so much of me in the script. He told me it had to be 70% Sumukhi, which was actually very gratifying—to see someone speaking up for me and acknowledging my hard work. We then built this amazing team of great writers and directors like Naveen, Debbie (Rao), Sumaira (Shaikh), all of whom were equally passionate about the show. More than the idea, it’s that team that made Pushpavalli possible.
Pushpavalli was a lesson not just in acting and writing, but also in the way those industries work. It made me a more well-rounded performer and actor, there’s more direction in my career. But also it taught me that bad writing, if produced, is the worst thing to happen. I had a whole season written before the one we went with, and that was just horrible. If that would have been shot, I would have been devastated. I’m so glad that I had people around me who told me it was crap. I still remember the reading. I had broken my leg at the time (no, I did not smash it myself with a pressure cooker, how dare you?), and I just sat there during the reading, feeling like my soul was ripped out. But it was worth it. I learned that you can’t just be happy with a first draft—a lesson a lot of shows out there still haven’t imbibed.
8. Don’t Tell Amma
I always say this to girls in the comedy scene (because the boys are very smart like that) to just get done with your special. It’s like losing your virginity, it’s no big deal. And once you’re done with it, you know what to do going forward. Your first special doesn’t have to be perfect, it’s not going to make you the next Dave Chappelle. No, Dave is who he is for a reason. So just get done with it.
‘Don’t Tell Amma’ was me deciding to do what I love to do, which is performing. My writing is only okay, in the standup context. But the minute I was done with ‘Don’t Tell Amma’, I could identify what was missing, what mistakes I made, and what to do better. Which is great!
I remember people telling me stuff like “as a rule you should tour your first special for five years.” But I’m 33 okay, I’m not going to wait five years to do my special. I don’t even know what I’ll be doing day after tomorrow. So ‘Don’t Tell Amma’ was me ripping off that Band-Aid. So now I know how to do a comedy special. Whether it’s good or not, that’s subjective. But now I know how to do it and have something to build on. As with any milestone in life, things only become clearer once you reach it.