The partially-blind comedian Sundeep Rao talks about his life and career
Photos by Ratheesh Sundaram
By Shevlin Sebastian
“When I say I am partially blind, people will say, ‘Partially blind? Why?’ We Indians are so competitive that they think I have failed in being blind,” says Sundeep Rao, a partially-blind stand-up comedian. “They will say, ‘Idiot, you are partially blind? Why can’t you be fully blind?’”
As the audience at the JT Pac, Kochi, breaks into laughter, Sundeep slides easily into the next joke: “Women always blame men for not understanding them,” says Sundeep. “But women have multiple people living inside them. A woman can be a student, she has a maternal side, she is a best friend, she is a sister, she is a daughter. But a man has only two sides. He is man and horny. That’s the bandwidth.”
Sundeep is a natural on stage. What helps are his poise, confidence and a deep bass voice. He was only eight years old when he was diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration. What this meant was that he lost the central vision in both eyes. “I was too young to realise what had happened, so I took it in my stride,” says Sundeep. “Although, unlike other children, I could not play cricket or other sports. As I grew up, I began to use comedy as a defence mechanism to deal with the issue.”
At age 18, he went to study economics and international relations at the University of Wales in Swansea. Thereafter, he did a degree in sociology and political science from Linfield College in Oregon, USA.
He returned to his hometown of Bangalore and was working in the IT industry. But the job left his dissatisfied. In October, 2009, he took part in an Open Mic competition held by stand-up comedian Vir Das.
“I did not get a good reaction from the first joke, but, over time, I began to feel more comfortable on stage,” says Sundeep. “But it was only in 2012 that I began to address the issue of my not being able to see. The first couple of times, the audience did not believe me. I did not have the blind man's glasses, cane or dog. They wondered whether I was serious or making fun of blind people. But once I started exploring my disability, I became very natural on and off stage. It gave me the strength to live my life.”
He says that there is a difference between him and the full-sighted comedians. “What I can see, they can't, and what they can see, I can't,” he says. “For example, when they look at a traffic junction, they can look at the finer details, like the number plate of the cars, who is wearing what, what does he or she look like? However, I am seeing it on a much larger scale. I am looking at a collection of cars. I might not see as much detail, but I am able to see a lot more.”
And this ‘seeing more’ has made him a popular stand-up comedian. Thus far, Sundeep has done 2000 shows in places like Hyderabad, Coimbatore, Chennai, Bangalore, and Mumbai. He has also performed in Dubai, Singapore, Manila, and New York.
And in New York, in April, 2014, he received a compliment, following his seven-minute skit. “A lady came up and said, ‘You are a great comedian. I can see the makings of somebody who will become very big,’” says Sundeep. That turned out to be the actress Denise Grayson who had acted in ‘The Social Network’.
Asked the themes of his show, Sundeep says, “I talk about family, relationships, growing up, travelling, sex, commuting, and animals. I write my own jokes. And I do it all the time. I am in a constant process of thinking and observation. I don't really look at something and say, ‘I have to make a joke out of this’. Instead, it happens subconsciously.”
However, Sundeep is frank enough to admit that Indian comedians tend to borrow jokes from their Western stalwarts. “Well, we copy everything from the west, so why not jokes?” he says. “It is easy to take a western joke and Indianise it. The Westerners will say, ‘Oh my God black people are like this’. You can change it to, ‘Oh God, Malayalis are like this’. But I believe you should talk about things that you are experiencing. Why would you want to take someone else's jokes? There is only one Eddie Murphy and one Chris Rock.”
At Kochi, Sundeep appeared relaxed moments before the show, as he puffed on a cigarette, on the steps just outside the green room. “I have good nerves before a performance,” he says. “It is my first time in Kochi but I am sure it will be a good audience. And there is a reason for this. Wherever I have performed in India, there is a good percentage of Malayalis in the audience. And they are always a fun group. They know how to laugh at themselves.”
And of course, in the show, Sundeep could not help but take a dig at the bans that are taking place. “In Kerala, day by day, everything seems to be banned,” he says. “How are you guys managing for liquor? I am scared that one day they will ban laughter.”
As the audience guffaws, Sundeep signs off with one of his original jokes: “I love Bangalore because it is my home. But Bangalore is changing, including its name. Now Bengaluru is a scary name. It is like something that you get diagnosed with when you go to a STD clinic.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)