Among all of the women characters in Indian streaming content, in my opinion, three stand out. And Sumukhi Suresh plays two of them. Sobhita Dhulipala in Zoya Akhtar’s glossy Made in Heaven, Sumukhi in Better Life Foundation as the woman who’s earnest and holding the place together, and, perhaps the best written role among the three, Sumukhi as Pushpavalli. I’ve been watching and writing about women on screen for a while now and, Pushpavalli, is a source of great enjoyment as both a viewer and a critic because I feel like I can relax around her. I feel my fists unclench.
Created and played by Sumukhi, Pashupalli, Lee or Valli as she’s variously known, is a diabolical Neelambari (Padayappa) of today, whose schemes and evil machinations, Tamil serial vamps will do well to learn from. What’s amazing is Sumukhi is utterly believable as both, the earnest Sumukhi in Better Life… and as this slimy, everything-that-comes-out-of-her-mouth-is-a-lie, things could go well if only she would let them, lead. (Better Life Foundation has been pulled out of Hotstar following several #Metoo allegations against cast member Utsav Chakraborty.)
Debbie Rao who directed Better Life… is also the director of Pushpavalli. Sumukhi is the creator of the show. That a two-woman creator-director duo is behind this, explains why the character can go so far. Beyond redemption. And yet feel all-too-human. The dark turns that Pushpavalli’s character takes are utterly unpredictable. I found myself asking, ‘What the hell is she going to do next?’ A lot of times when characters do something humiliating, it can send the audience into a spiral of cringe. But Pushpavalli never does that. Because it is audacious. And keeps raising the stakes.
In Season 1, Sumukhi is a stalker. In this new season she’s a bit more, advanced. She’s also a schemer. The Baazigar and Parasite references in the show, were on the mark. Like Baazigar she’s out for badla but not for her baap. Unlike in Darr, the other SRK classic, she’s the stalker. The woman. And Nikhil (Manish Anand), feels like the delicate, clueless, under-written woman in shows that centre around men and their feelings. Pushpavalli challenges you to reconsider who you are rooting for, and to ask yourself why you think of her as deserving of your sympathy. The show is subversive and dark, and has raised the bar very high for writing women. To do this you need nuance, wit, confidence and well, you’ve got to be a bit ballsy.
The writing of the supporting women’s roles were much sharper and novel in Season 1, especially the motley crew in the PG. They don’t really take off all that well in this Season, though, even so, they do serve the purpose of the universe Pushpavalli is in, and her motivations, well. Pankaj’s (Naveen Richard who’s also credited as one of the Head Writers) profanities are something of a wonder but by way of ‘acting’ he has little to do here, except be outrageously angry. Sumukhi’s on-screen mother too is a well written role and she says some of the darkest things mothers say to daughters. And everyone is a bit off. Except perhaps the fiance, Vidyuth (Vidyuth Gargi, who looks like a lot like Ravichandran Ashwin?), she is leading on, in Season 2.
*Spoiler alert* That the character doesn’t allow herself to be consumed by remorse or pity, and turn her life around for a promising and perfectly fine man, and is still carrying through with her plan to destroy Nikhil is admirable. To resist the temptation of a happily ever after (or atleast temporarily before the next season), to resist lecturing or shaming the audience, to resist pity or guilt, to resist speaking on behalf of women, and to remain committed to the arc that the character must go through, all this is admirable.
For this, the women of Pushpavalli, Sumukhi and Debbie, deserve our undivided attention.