Setting the stage for Queeriosities

All set to perform for Chennai makkal on Sunday, Sunthar V tells us what makes his sets stand apart
Image used for representational purpose only. (File Photo)
Image used for representational purpose only. (File Photo)

CHENNAI: I came out to my mother in 2018, and months later I did my first set in Toronto. Things have taken off since then,” says the 34-year-old comic Sunthar V, evidently amused by how his name sounds similar to Sundar C, the Tamil film director. “Within six months of my first set, I did my first headliner of about 250 people. Five months before the pandemic, I moved to London, where I managed to get into producing my online content during the lockdown, then I eventually got to do my show there as well, for an audience of 300, in a historic queer venue. And then yeah, here I am,” he adds. Ahead of his show on Sunday, CE speaks to Sunthar about his journey of growing up as queer in the West, space for queer comedy in India, and caste in the diaspora.

Excerpts follow. Tell us about your comedic roots.
My parents, refugees from Sri Lanka, ended up in Canada, where I was born, in Scarborough, east Toronto. I grew up in kutti Jaffna, given that Scarborough has a high concentration of Tamils. Comedy, or ‘Nakkal’ in Tamil, comes from growing up around a lot of Tamil; at home, my mother keeps cracking jokes in Tamil. Andha culture-lendhu dhan (It is from that culture), I draw my comedic wit. People have always asked me to try out comedy, it is a good tool to talk about difficult things, and for me, it has been about coming out, and being open about Tamil queer life.

Sunthar will be performing alongside
Shakthi, Guru, Mownicaa and Praveshika
| R Satish Babu

In Tamil pop culture, there is an Indian Tamil hegemony in deciding what is acceptable. Being a queer diaspora Tamil comic, how do you create your content?
There are many misconceptions about the western diaspora; this is where the hegemony is truly visible. Kannaththil Muththamittaal is one of my favourites, but it also has many inaccuracies. Then there is Thenali — the powerful monologue is offset a bit by the exaggerated accent. The central issue here is, we don’t own our stories; all of my shows have women in the line-up and other queers. I am keen on this autonomy. Regarding queerness, no, it is not easier in the West. The infamous homophobic line from Vettaiyaadu Vilaiyaadu cuts so deep. But, there is also Madhesh from Jeans who is very queer-coded, and there is Ponniyin Selvan with veiled homoeroticism. Queerness is nothing alien here, it has just been odhukku-fied (neatly sorted) to the side.

Tell us about the Thenali impersonation.
The joke is part of the set. I wrote it for the Chennai show, where I turn it into a song, and it worked out well. The Indian Tamil idea of what Ilankai Tamil sounds like is very much prefigured by what cinema here makes it out to be. Neenga Thenali maariye pesureenga, or Neenga Malayali-ah, the latter I get a lot, I feel there is maybe a rhythmic similarity.

How has your stay in Chennai been so far?
I came to India last December. I quit my corporate job, and I have no funding, I am burning through my savings; zero-sugar daddies, but I am here, I want to throw my hat into the ring, saying there is Tamil comedy outside of the scene here. And, Chennai is, well,  nice. There are certain challenges here; Bangalore was nicer in comparison, and things are more laid back there. There is also a lot of red tape and gatekeeping here, it is generally hard for queer people to navigate conservative spaces.
Indian Tamils have diverse opinions on Eelam.
The diaspora is just as diverse in their opinions on the matter. I feel Eelam has been politicised to the point of straining global Tamil relations. I believe a new era is coming, an era of Tamil connection, this is what I want to shape, what I aim to be a part of, to embrace the difference here. Queerness is not talked about. Caste is not talked about. My comedy is all about approaching these serious ideas in a funny way; I can jokingly tell a straight guy in the audience how someone like him made me feel horrible, he may laugh with me, but he may reflect on it later.

There’s a lot of criticism of comedians in Chennai.
All I will say is, comedians here are paid well, I want a piece of that. I don’t blame them, it is a matter of safety. The idea of comedy being an all-inclusive safe space is not a thing here, this is why we keep seeing the same faces, time and again. The funniest US comics come from the margins. I am building for myself here, but I don’t want to be the only one, it is boring to be the only one. It would be amazing if bigger comics, who have the resources, would put these unheard voices out there.
Does the homogeneity (of caste, class) of diaspora Tamils in the West bleed into your work?
Diaspora casteism is a real thing, and I do get this quite a bit, but I feel I don’t have the depth. This has been called out as upper caste behaviour, but I avoid going into it, as I am not equipped with any experience. I cannot comment on being marginalised in India, but I can, on growing up in an intensely homogeneous space, where everyone’s parents came from money. People mad at me for this, come and do a set with me, talk about your story, and put it out there. A diverse stage is very powerful.
There is always the possibility of intimidation while performing live.
Oh yes, everybody has to bomb. That doesn’t make it the worst feeling in the world. You will question your whole life leading up to that point on stage. I performed in Bengaluru, and one of my fans brought her boyfriend and his family along. The father, sitting right in the front row, kept a straight face throughout my set, and seeing him, his wife also just refused to laugh, even though she wanted to. These things set the tone for the entire set. Ideally, I shouldn’t let it bother me, I am working on it.
Tell us about your upcoming show in Chennai.
En Tamizh Vilangudha? is the title of my show that will be happening at Medai, The Stage, on Sunday at 3 pm. The title comes from my encounters with people in Chennai. They get a bit confused with my Tamil, and I have to circle back with vilangudha. then a puriyudha? There is also the aspect of people here saying ivan vilangave maataan. It is going to be fun, unlike any other show the city has seen — kudumbathoda vaango nnu solla maaten (I don’t suggest you come with your family), leave your kids at home, please.

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