Sumukhi Suresh on How She Built ‘Pushpavalli’ a Better Second Act
The creator on the comedy-drama series’ latest season, all the ‘Fleabag’ comparisons and what she learned from running her own show
“I’m so glad everyone told me that it’s a shit script,” says Sumukhi Suresh about when she first presented the draft of Pushpavalli to the folks at her management agency Only Much Louder. Turns out the best thing that could’ve happened to the creator was feedback.
Having dabbled and cemented her craft with definitive moxie across the live comedy circuit (if you haven’t caught a live set, head to one when the lockdown ends), viral YouTube sketches and series (Anu Aunty – The Engineering Anthem, Behti Naak), film (Humble Politician Nograj) and even the OTT space (Better Life Foundation – BLF, Banake Dikha), Suresh still continues to approach every project as a blank canvas, learning on the go. And as showrunner, creator, co-writer and actor in the comedy-drama series Pushpavalli, she wanted to cover all bases. “Show running and creating a show is way more than just writing and acting in a show. You are supposed to be there from end to end and every segment of the process teaches you something. You’ve to be ready for some sleepless nights,” she says.
Taking on the mantle of showrunner for the very first time fated Suresh to be invested in Pushpavalli from the get-go and being surrounded by a cast and crew that’s fluent in comedy meant that “improvisation wasn’t a problem.” Co-writers and co-stars Sumaira Shaikh (who plays PG roommate Srishti in the series) and Naveen Richard (who plays Pushpavalli’s best friend Pankaj in the series) came on board after the first draft (Richard and Suresh also starred together in BLF, a series co-created and co-written by Richard) along with director Debbie Rao (who also directed BLF and India’s version of The Office) who helped further develop the characters through a visual standpoint for the first season which debuted in 2018. Following the resolve of a stalker to get a guy to fall in love with her, Pushpavalli delves into the hilarious antics employed by the titular character as her friends and family scramble to make sense of her motives.
“I was very tired of not being approached to play the lead. Then Pushpavalli came together,” says Suresh who plays the protagonist in the Amazon Prime Video series. As showrunner, she took some active calls with Rao when it came to casting, addressing representation especially in terms of size, skin and linguistics which led to a diverse range of characters to better fit the mold of reality.
In season one, Suresh felt the need to visualize and subtly point out her character’s “big girl-ness” and she manifested Pushpavalli’s insecurities through her mother. “Pushpavalli’s mom is just brutal. It’s not that she’s an asshole. She just doesn’t have time for your bullshit,” says Suresh about the character played by Latha Venkatraman, who takes to the role of a conservative, single mother that pokes at Pushpavalli’s marital status and body image with acerbic comedic flourish in the series. “For this character, it’s a struggle to even survive. She can’t empathize with you,” says Suresh who only actively voiced Pushpavalli’s struggles in an epic monologue during the season one finale, lending a raw space of moments to a character who would otherwise refuse to acknowledge her inner turmoil. When it came to characterization, Suresh and the writers particularly set out to write the roles outside of a black or white lens. “We just let the character be and I’m very particular about having women as gray characters. The moment you treat them as women, people with flaws, they immediately seem human. This also goes for any gender and I think that’ll stay for all my writing,” she says.
While writing season two (which recently released), Suresh wanted to further expand her initial focus on Pushpavalli as a whole, truly building on the character to write her an arc that would do justice in a narrative that immerses itself in the black, white as well as overwhelmingly gray areas of human dynamics and interaction. She puts it succinctly: “We have to include more characters without drawing attention.” For this, she leaned on her creative experience as Ayesha Nair and Kumar Shivam joined her, Richard and Shaikh in the writer’s room while Rao returned to helm the camera as director. What transpired was a process that would coalesce all the learnings from the team’s experience behind the camera as well as in front of it.
Rao was particular about how the characters spoke, that when the words jumped from the script to screen, the dialogue translated seamlessly to the role, lending a tonality that was authentic and not caricature. “Pankaj shouldn’t sound like Naveen is acting like Pankaj, Pushpavalli shouldn’t sound like Sumukhi is acting like Pushpavalli. You know what I mean?” says Suresh, revealing that the team at no point underestimated the audience. The lines also underwent a revision after a table read with the actors as the team noticed similarities between the actors and their personas, taking note of even evolving dynamics during rehearsals. “When Vidyuth Gargi (who plays Pushpavalli’s fiancé in season two) auditioned, I had to rewrite that character. We never accounted for chemistry when both of us were rehearsing and I knew if we didn’t address it and just wrote lallu (stupid) lines for him, it’s gonna be very unfair to the actor,” shares Suresh. The team became increasingly cognizant of the nitty-gritties as shooting progressed, with each detail and each learning only further cementing their resolve as storytellers. Rao also pushed the team to always look for better jokes, lines and endings and the set thrived in the culture of on-your-toes creativity. “More than scale, more than anything, I enjoy watching good performances and the audience is actually very good at catching bad acting. Just because they’re used to it doesn’t mean we put on a showcase that’s jarring,” says Suresh.
Pushpavalli while still being a comedy caper, shifts away from the protagonist’s naivety and quirkiness, shedding her cuteness to take on some serious conflict and emotional fallout in season two. For Suresh, comedy came better to her than sentiment and prodded by Rao, she sought to construct emotional continuity for her character. She also set about ironing the chinks in Pushpavalli’s flat on-paper persona and worked to stray away from verbalizing every reaction. She likens the entire process to creating a piece of artwork with brush and paint. “It’s like you’re doing watercolors and then suddenly you start a new color. But you’ve got to merge it, right? You have to look at the yellow leading to the orange,” says Suresh who was hell-bent on finding harmony in every take. “You may not get irritated if I put yellow and then orange immediately but if I merge it, you’ll be like, ‘Oh, there’s a flow to this. Nice, thank you!” she says.
“Nothing can replace good writing,” says Suresh whose biggest learning after making two seasons of Pushpavalli was that penning a script for a full-fledged show is a separate ball game altogether. “If you think that ‘If you can write sketches, you can write a full-fledged show,’ that’s an absolute lie,” she says, noting that the kind of writing it takes to build a series is nowhere close to the kind of writing she’s employed across other formats. What also made the transition from season one to season two easier was working off a script that was 80 percent done, allowing Rao to experiment with and build a montage (particularly the inner workings of Pushpavalli’s mind) and exhibit her inference to the writing team, making for an immersive viewing experience in the new season.
Suresh is aware that amongst what works in favor of the show is an intense feeling of relatability and the creator admits that while Pushpavalli is a stalker, definitely problematic and an unmistakable antihero, there is one characteristic about her that is universally inalienable. “She is insecure. And that’s why you connect with her experiences. Because at some point in time, you have also been insecure, regardless of gender,” says Suresh.
For a person who had grown up sans a habit of watching shows, Suresh reveals that she is pretty damn poetic about Fleabag (the award-winning tragicomedy Amazon series created by actor-writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge) and the creator understands why the audience draws parallels between Pushpavalli and Fleabag (the titular character) even though the characters are poles apart. “You don’t like or dislike Fleabag. You are Fleabag. Likewise, you don’t like or dislike Pushpavalli. You are Pushpavalli,” she says, opining that’s why so many viewers have written in, telling her that they find facets of themselves in her character. “You may not masturbate while looking at Obama (there’s a scene in Fleabag where Waller-Bridge’s character masturbates to a video of the former U.S. President), but you know the feeling. You know what she’s going through even if you’ve never been in that situation. You’re like, ‘Oh fuck, I get it’,” says Suresh.
Having been heavily involved in production and post-production too, Suresh finally felt closer to her creation. “As a showrunner, I think I covered more bases in season two. I was like, ‘Oh shit, this is my show,” she says and while Suresh has no confirmation on a third act, she has already started planning it with co-writers Richard and Shaikh. The jokes have been passed around and the moments have been charted, all that’s left is the studio’s green light. “As much as everyone is like ‘When will we get a season three?,’ the three of us are like, ‘What if we write a season three that they don’t like?’” says Suresh who reveals that ultimately, the team talks themselves down from that ledge and decides to write for the characters as opposed to the audience. Suresh also reveals that Pushpavalli will continue to operate sans an active partner in crime if season three receives the go-ahead. “Pushpavalli is a lone wolf. She’s too insecure to trust anybody,” she says.
While the national lockdown (to contain the spread of coronavirus) may or may not have a lasting impact on streaming, it’s definitely affecting live entertainment and Suresh has had to face a slew of cancellations. “I was so excited because I had so many shows lined up but they all got canned because of corona(virus). I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ she says, underlining revenue concerns for the industry while empathizing with the global situation. “The live space has taken a hit but hopefully, all of us will continue to create new shows and online properties,” says Suresh as she sets to work on a bunch of concepts for social media and video platforms to keep up spirit and engagement in the days ahead.
The creator had already launched herself into writing three new shows — one is what she calls a ‘butt-clench’ comedy (because that’s the kind of laughter it’ll incite), a thriller-comedy and an Eighties comedy-drama that builds on a small incident from her mum’s life. “I’m writing my new one-hour, so I hope to be touring a lot in the near future. I also want to sell at least one more show this year so that it’s all fun and sorted for everyone. Hopefully, someone likes the idea and buys it,” she signs off.