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Sharul Channa is South East Asia’s top female stand-up comedian who is bound to make your rib tickle! Read this exclusive interview before she begins her India tour!
Sharul Channa is formally trained in theatre from Lasalle, College of the Arts and has been a full-time stand-up comedian for 13 years. She has performed sold-out shows all over Asia and Australia, and over the past few years, she used comedy to highlight the social issues thrown to the winds in Singapore.
In her 2023 India tour, she takes her ‘fempowerment’ a little up a notch and what it takes to teach men a thing or two about equality.
Before we take a deep dive into the questions, Sharul you are a student of LaSalle, who is trained in theatre, how did you decide on performance comedy as your chosen career?
I had no plans to do stand-up comedy as a profession. At that time there was a new wave in Singapore regarding stand-up comedy and not enough women were doing it.
A friend who was running a club organized an open-mic night every Tuesday, and he requested me to jump up and do two or three minutes; I got a few laughs and thought it to be interesting and found it to be so liberating! You are your Writer, Director and Producer and you get instant validation. So I decided I have to do this!
As you just said, being a stand-up comedian means; you write your script and perform your pieces, yet you must have an inspiration, are there any particular role models you take inspiration from?
I grew up watching a lot of Indian cinema and Pakistani serials as they have some great comedians.
People like Umer Sharif from Pakistan left a huge impact, I found Johnny Lever from India funny, and I watched Russell Peters as well. And there is our Singaporean entertainer Kumar who is a drag queen comedian and has been doing it for 30 years!
A lot of my inspiration came from watching their comedic timing and studying their writing style. Especially, in Indian comedy cinema where I always used to search for who is the writer!
Unfortunately, in terms of women, there were not enough women doing comedy at that time.
Your personal history and cosmopolitan identity have shaped many of your comedy sets, how do you embrace it and translate it for an international audience?
I moved to Singapore from India when I was three months old and always came back every year to meet my family as my parents did not want us to lose touch with our roots. I came from the Singaporean comedy scene; people who were at that time mentoring us or people who were running the clubs, especially Jonathan Atherton, who was a huge influencer at that time he would remind us ‘five seconds one laugh.’
Singapore is such a metropolitan city you can have 4 Chinese, 4 Indians, 4 Muslims, 4 Americans, how can you make everybody laugh?
One needs to have an international set, and you need to find your story or truth faster, write more and figure out who you are. It’s more like driving a car, but you shift your gear depending on how fast you want to go.
When I am in Australia, I am a Singaporean girl who happens to be Indian; in India, I am an Indian girl who is Singaporean; in Singapore, I am a Singaporean girl; and then I am also a woman.
In some places none of these contexts works, so sometimes I just display myself as a woman and these are the problems I have and because everybody has similar problems they can relate.
The last time you toured 11 cities in India, was just before the Pandemic. What are your expectations from the audience, do you think they are ready for sharper jokes and witter insights?
Many things happened during the pandemic, and many were doing shows on Zoom. We went through a tough time; I want to bring some jokes about my relationship and what happened at home because I was stuck in the house with my partner, who is also a stand-up comedian.
What happens when you are stuck together and have no kids? You just look at each other’s faces. And when the pandemic was kind of ‘over’, how it was going out again or what new things one can try!
I decided to learn pole dancing because it was the only class which was open! As comedians, we also have to throw ourselves into bizarre situations to understand ourselves.
In the last few years you have used your voice to shed light on social issues, balancing social issues with comedy is not an easy task, what will be the focus of your 2023 set?
Both the times when I did this show called ‘Crazy Poor Sita’ and ‘Am I old’, were based on two reports by a women’s organization called AWARE.
‘Crazy poor Sita’ was about the invisible poverty; the low-income groups in Singapore. I wanted to know more about women who were trying to support their families and single poor women.
And because it cannot be only about that, I want to stay true to the character, I play the character and infuse comedy into it, so tragedy and comedy have a very thin line. You should always start by making people laugh about an issue and then make them cry about it, and that is one tip I would like to give to young people trying to enter comedy.
Along with that, do your research, when you talk about something you need to know about it inside out.
My other show ‘Am I old’ was based on the report which said that most of the women who are caregivers of their parents or elderly happen to be single women, and she is left to do all the work.
By the time parents are 80, and they are gone, the daughter gets trapped in a difficult position because by then she has spent a lot of money on her parents; so how do you support caregivers?
It was about her story and I played an older woman, and I was cracking jokes, but by the end of it, people cried.
First, find the tragedy and then find the funny but put the funny first and then make them cry about it. Both these shows were nominated for best actress, and I was very happy about it, just because they got nominated, the issues were brought to the forefront even more!
You decided to grow a separate career from your partner, and former co-creator, Rishi Budhrani, and in 2017 debuted with Pottymouth; how has a solo career been and is it different from a partnership?
It was a decision that I had to make, and I stand by it; women need to be financially and artistically independent in whatever they do.
Initially, it was a shock to everyone because it was a decision I made. I made my partner promise, no matter how difficult it is, you find your voice and I will find mine, and then we can do something together.
I think an individual or an artist should always find their voice first, then merge it with someone they want to. You have to build your brand alone.
On your 2023 India tour, you are being joined by our favourite household names Aditit Mital and Neeti Palta, how excited are you to meet them?
We have worked together for many years and I have seen their journey. They are wonderful and hilarious.
When we meet up, we are not comedians meeting up, but girlfriends meeting up, and we talk about random stuff. We most probably are the pioneers of our comedy scene but from different countries. So it’s really like friends meeting up.
I am excited to meet both Aditi and Neeti!
In an interview with Tatler, you mentioned, half of your sketch is written and practised six months in advance, and the other half is spontaneous, so is your creative process work?
When I did ‘Crazy Poor Sita’ and ‘Am I old’ we were doing comedy-acting sketches, but with stand-up it is very different. With stand-up, I do 60% written and 40% I find on stage.
I am a performer-writer, but with COVID-19 came writer-performer, so it keeps interchanging. I always think we should keep things fluid in our artistic expressions. If we are word for word, we will never be able to get comfortable on stage.
You need to let loose a bit, and that’s what you have to do to find the funny.
I would say magic stuff happens on stage when you let yourself be a bit spontaneous.
You said you have a parent-child relationship with India, so how would you describe this relationship and will your fans get to see jokes about this?
I feel like whenever I come back to India, I am coming back to my mother’s womb; it’s that kind of relationship. I cannot explain my relationship with India.
You know a lot of times people want to be Western and there is a big want to be Western, have Western clothes or have Western brands, and they think it’s going to show how cool they are.
You will find yourself way better and be way more grounded the more you are rooted to the place you came from. And people need to understand that, only when you respect your country, your roots, its culture and traditions will you be able to grow far.
I feel like, when I come back to India, I will come back to myself. I have family back in the North and when I meet them I feel so happy, I feel like I have come back to myself.
When I am stuck in traffic and all my friends say“Oh Bombay traffic is really bad”, I do find the funny in it, but when I am sitting there, looking out of the window, I feel happy to see where people’s lives are going. It grabs you in many ways.
It’s a Karambhumi and a very grounding place.
Every creator has fears and apprehensions regarding their craft, do you have any?
Maybe now, after 13 years, that’s not a fear, but initially, I used to fear when I entered new audiences or a new country, will I be able to connect to them?
Now, when it comes to my craft I don’t have any fear, I just want to have an audience, that’s all. I never want to not have an audience to perform too; I don’t care if they are two, ten, fifty or a hundred.
That’s every performer’s nightmare, and we all have seen that nightmare during the pandemic. I would say that I always want to have an audience. I think performers are nothing without their audience, I always tell my fellow performers, don’t become cocky about your hundred or thousand people in the audience.
They make you who you are. They give you a chance to speak. You are on the stage because hundreds of people want to listen to you. My fear is, what if nobody shows up, but I always hope that never happens.
In the last decade, the next big career milestone for comedians is to have their piece on OTT platforms, do you have any future collaboration plans?
I would say yes, and I don’t know. Because there is so much happening right now on social media, small clips are going viral, there are OTT platforms, so many channels and so much content out there. I would say it’s not necessary in today’s world to be on an OTT platform with your show.
If you put out clips that can go viral and bring people to your show, that’s good. If you get a show from there, and you do the show, that’s good as well.
Recently, OTT platforms have lost money and suffered, and now they are coming back with the idea of putting out different things. I am not into that whole thing.
Some people got their OTT platform specials too fast in their careers. I feel acting is very subjective because anybody could be a good actor who might not even have the training, they might just come up and happen to have that skill.
With stand-up, you need a certain amount of support and experience behind you to even get on to that platform! Because tomorrow when you put it on, you become famous, it becomes a virtual lie, and you cannot perform up to the mark, then you are screwed.
I feel like it’s a good thing that it has happened to people, but not necessarily an important thing to happen. Your audiences will find you, you just keep putting smaller clips for the people and then what happens is, people, come to watch you based on that material and then, so quickly, you have to churn up your stuff, and then you become a machine.
I don’t know if I am aiming for that yet or if it will happen, if it happens I will also have to see how I want to do it. I don’t want to become a content machine, I want to remain a performer. If you want to become world-famous, you will be; even before social media days, people were famous. You know people just for their writing, words can travel far and wide.
“You are among the top ten female comedians in Asia, because there are only ten female comedians in Asia,” though there has been an increase in women performers, we are still far behind men. What would be your advice to aspiring women comedians?
I would say please start and don’t give up in the first three years.
Whatever happens, keep doing it for the first three years, it’s going to be difficult, it’s not going to be an easy ride, people will intimidate you, you have your fears and struggles, and you don’t know what material is okay to do and what is not, so please make sure you give this profession three years before you say ‘yes I want to carry on’ or ‘I don’t want to carry on’.
A lot of things happen, and you need to be strong to be in this profession, especially emotionally, because you cannot lose yourself and you cannot let this give you trauma; if your family already is giving you trauma, then your profession is giving you trauma, so you just need to push ahead and carry it on for three years; so don’t give up!
Sharul Channa’s India Tour begins in Mumbai (March 25th and April 1), Delhi (April 2), and Chandigarh (April 8). Tickets are on Sale at BookMyShow
This interview with Sharul Channa has been transcribed by Ishita Varma.
Image source: courtesy Sharul Channa, edited on CanvaPro
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