Interview with comedian Sharul Channa: "I didn't want to do the Indian accent and shake my head"
Here's to nasty girls
As far as boldness goes, Sharul Channa's pretty much clinching the top prize.
The 30-year-old moved to Mumbai to pursue an acting career in her early 20s after graduating with a degree in communications and a diploma in theatre. When she returned, she refused to take a desk-bound job that she didn't love ("Because I will be killing my soul") and instead earned money through hosting and voice-over gigs. She's also had to brave the pussy pictures that were sent to her back in the days of Internet chat group IRC ("Because my name's Sharul, a Muslim boy's name").
The one that deserves the most applause? Writing and performing Pottymouth, her first solo stand-up comedy show. Staged during the week surrounding International Women's Day, the show marks the first time a Singaporean female is doing a one-hour stand-up solo. With a father from New Delhi and a mother from Chandigarh in India, Channa will touch on issues ranging from having an identity crisis ("When I'm in Singapore, I'm not Singaporean enough. When I'm in India, I'm not Indian enough"), to being born as a girl when everyone was expecting a boy and not being able to find clothes for herself.
Her pottymouth's a weapon, and she's not afraid to use it. She's been part of Comedy Central Asia's stand-up showcase, toured with the Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow and has performed in Kuala Lumpur, Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai. After taking her razor-sharp, self-deprecating funnies to the region, we had an intimate front-row view from our chat with her at a café in Singapore.
You didn't know that you wanted to do comedy when you finished school. But did you know what you didn't want to do?
I didn't want to do the usual saree-wearing, peanut-selling person on TV, and I also didn't want to be that Indian person in a theatre performance. I didn't want to be the one to do the Indian accent and shake my head. I just didn't want to be typecast.
I understand that your husband — fellow comedian Rishi Budhrani — was the one who suggested you join Comedy Masala, the weekly stand-up show back at Home Club some years ago.
He had started doing Comedy Masala six months before and he said, "Why don't you jump up [on stage] and try?" I told myself I had nothing to lose, and I'm not scared of people laughing at me.
You know, I only dated one guy in my life. I've been a loser. I weighed 85 kilograms with bad skin — a very bad phase in my life. I jumped on stage and had three minutes and in those minutes, people started laughing. Especially at the front row, there were these white guys and they were laughing at me.
Do you remember what your first material on stage at Comedy Masala was?
Yes. I said, "This is the first time a white guy is sitting so close to my vagina." They were looking up at me and I was just so nervous, that's the first thing I said.
When you started out, what was it like being a female comedian in a pool of male-dominated comics?
I had a few battles with how there were too many men in the scene. I didn't think they understood what I wanted to say. But after two years, I realised that I'm not going to let this sex battle get to me. I want to be so good at what I do that after awhile, you are not going to say she is a female comedian. She is just a comedian.
In the first two years [when you start out], you'll feel singled out at times where you feel that you should not do it anymore, that the men are better. But you get over those insecurities and understand that you're not bigger than the craft, and that you are now over your own gender.
Which brings me to my next question. Some people get pissed off when journalists ask them what it's like to be a female this, female that. Do those type of questions bother you — questions that single out your gender?
No. If someone is not educated on that particular topic, you can't expect them to understand it either. When journalists ask you that, they come from a place of curiosity. If I were to get upset, then I'm proving it is difficult to interview a female comedian and that's the last thing I want to do.
I also want to add that the brotherhood or sisterhood in comedy in Singapore and Malaysia is way better than the rest of the world. We've created the scene in a friendly way for women to breathe.
One of your favourite comedians is also a woman, Ellen DeGeneres.
I love Ellen DeGeneres a lot. It was beautiful when she came out and she had such a struggle in the US. I always go back to watching her one-hour show after she came out. As an actor, you constantly hide behind your character, but in stand-up you bare your soul. So if you're going to get better as a person, your comedy will improve. Because you're not only making people laugh. You're also making people realise that you can educate, entertain and stimulate them in ways education can't. In order for you to do that for other people, you have to do it for yourself. You have to fall, get up, cry and understand why you are doing this.
So why are you doing this, at the moment? What are your motivations?
We're all very selfish so it is for myself. But I also started doing it because I have to do it for women in Asia. I think they need a voice and for the longest time, women did not have a representative in Asia in terms of a comedic voice. I want to fill up this gap; where people can talk to me like a support group and where women can come and laugh. That's my aim now. It's not for one country. It's not only for Singapore.
"As an actor, you constantly hide behind your character, but in stand-up you bare your soul."
With "Be Bold For Change" as the theme of International Women's Day, how bold do you think you've been in life?
I think there's nothing bolder than being a female Asian comedian, or a writer. When you want this to pass through the censor and it does, you're like, "F*ck yes!"
As a couple sharing the same profession, how do you and Rishi make it work?
We give each other a lot of space since we have been together for so long. If you don't give each other space and you're in the same profession, you go nuts. The good thing about being with someone in the same career as you is that they know the struggles you're going through. We are each other's biggest supporter and worst critic.
What's your experience like with hecklers?
A guy in Malaysia heckled me once. He was like, "Go get yourself a broom!" I replied, "What is it uncle, is the aunty disturbing you at home? Do you have any problems in your relationships that you come to a comedy show to screw up my work?"
Americans and Brits have their own distinct brand of comedy. Do you think comedy in Singapore can be defined or is it as diverse as out cultural makeup?
I think Singaporean comedy is international comedy. It's a melting pot — we are forced to do international. You can address where you are from and who you are but eventually, if I am placed in Melbourne — like when I was selected for the Melbourne Comedy Festival — I have to be international.
So have you gotten in trouble for being a pottymouth?
I did a joke on The Straits Times at Happy Ever Laughter. When the reviews came up, The Straits Times called me a pottymouth. So I read that and said "Thank you, I will use that name."
Catch Sharul Channa at Gateway Theatre from now till 11 March. For tickets, click here.