Everytime comedian Sunthar V lands in Chennai or elsewhere in Tamil Nadu, his first question to those he encounters after a quick flurry of conversation is “En Thamizh vilangudha?” (Can you understand my Tamil?). This queer comedian who reached wide audiences during the pandemic translating popular Tamil film songs from the 1990s and the early 2000s, says that he is mock-miffed at people not understanding the things he says.
Having lived most of his life in Toronto and more recently in London, he speaks a perfect version of Eelam Tamil— one that is fairly alien to those living in India.
Over the last eight weeks, Sunthar has toured different parts of India including venues at Bengaluru and Mumbai, telling funny jokes with Tamil punchlines about our shared culture, our familial backgrounds and our fundamental differences. Excepts from the interview:
What has your comedy stint in India been like?
It has been amazing to connect with the Tamil communities here especially because I have grown up in a completely different setting. However, we share many similarities. It has been great to connect to this idea of Tamil queerness despite coming from a completely different place like Canada.
How did you decide where to perform and what have reactions been like?
I have been living and performing in London over the last four year. There, I created the Tamil Comedy Club to ensure there was a space for this kind of comedy and for marginalised communities to exist in this space as it is usually dominated by cis-het Tamil men. That kind of breakthrough in the Tamil comedy space is important for me whether I create it or someone else steps in. To own and tell our stories is important. That is why I wanted to come.
More recently since a bunch of my reels translating Tamil songs have become popular, my fanbase has grown significantly in places like Chennai and Bangalore. Tamil comedy is being produced here. This is the centre. I want to put my hat in the ring and also say ‘Hey, I am here and I can be funny’.
You speak about identity- queerness, being a diaspora Tamil person with an Eelam heritage and about brownness in your sets. Tell us about this theme.
From an identity perspective, I am particularly adamant that I am recognised as Tamil if not Tamil Canadian as opposed to identifying with the Sri Lankan State. I am hence able to connect with others across the globe including the diaspora from places like Singapore and Malaysia. My sets also allow for me to openly talk about sexuality. I do not need to talk about flowers blooming as seen on film. There is a shock and an adjustment period but that discomfort needs to exist in order to understand what it means to be queer. Tamil and Hindu culture are not as conservative as they are portrayed to be. We just need to showcase the beautiful parts.
Do you see people coming to your stand up shows expecting your popular song translations? How do you handle it?
Cinema is huge in Tamil culture. It is evident in how people love these songs and films and it is also why they connect. People comment about how I have ruined their childhood. I am actively trying to incorporate Tamil cinema lyrics and references in my set. However, I am keen about not wanting to lose my artform just because of what people expect. It is a bigger challenge in my head than in person.
Why should people come and watch you on February 12 at Medai-The Stage in Chennai?
You have probably never seen someone like me perform in Chennai so you should come. It also features a bunch of local Tamil female comics so support your local talent. Third, whether it is all the Sri Lankan stories in the form of films like Thenali or Kannathil Muthamittal, you may not know the inaccuracies. This may be a good space to connect to our community. Comedy is also a great space to talk about serious topics like queerness. You should come to experience that too.