Kalaa Utsavam 2018: Disco Sheela and Other Indian Superwomen by Sharul Channa (Review)
Not all superheroes wear capes – sometimes they wear a sari.
While we’re very much used to hearing Sharul Channa let loose her signature pottymouth, in a changeup from her usual style of comedy, Sharul attempts to break new ground with Disco Sheela and Other Indian Superwomen. Distinct from her previous performances, Disco Sheela sees the leading female comedian take on brand new characters across four monologues, highlighting the spectrum of women who make up the Indian community.
Directed by Singapore’s very own Queen of Comedy Kumar, Disco Sheela features a simple set up, as opposed to the lavish ‘wedding’ set featured in last year’s Kalaa Utsavam, almost completely empty save for a single chair. The performance opens with a stellar solo number from flautist Raghavendran Rajasekaran, before Sharul makes her appearance as the titular Disco Sheela – an events manager and a divorcee who by day, prays at the temple and by night takes whiskey shots and dances at the club.
With a garland of white flowers in her hair and swathed in a black sari with various Singlish terms printed on them, Disco Sheela is a force to be reckoned with – a seemingly fearless woman who waves away rumours spread by vicious aunties and uncles by giving them a taste of their own medicine. Armed with a cup of alcohol from Harry’s (who set up a mini-bar in the Recital Studio itself) and a fiery temper, Sheela proves time and again she isn’t afraid to speak plainly and call out the hard truths of society (including a laugh out loud reference to how Chinese people can’t tell their pratas from their naans, but have countless kinds of noodles). Ending with a rousing recount about how she storms into an office to exact justice (and backed by Ragha’s flute music), Sheela feels exactly like a mythical hero from the Mahabharata, a modern Kali who will right the wrongs of the world and act as an inspiration to all.
While Sheela is by far the strongest of Sharul’s characters, the remaining Indian ‘superwomen’ we’re introduced to are no slouches either – changing her costumes, physicality and voice in each scene to differentiate each character, Sharul manages to encapsulate a spectrum of women who have been discriminated against by the community for far too long. We meet the aged but cheeky widow Aunty Sunita who gets by on her own, guilt tripping her children over WhatsApp to visit her, becoming a mini Internet sensation when she helps her neighbour out with his school project, and teaching us the ancient secret of ‘chair yoga’. There’s Malini, the middle-aged mother who attempts to reintegrate herself into the workforce after 20 years, only to give us a hilarious account of her indignation at the invasive questions of the interview process, using grossout anecdotes from motherhood as proof of her work experience and asking the important questions: “why do we need a cover letter when we already have a resume?!”
Disco Sheela ends on a particularly poignant note with its final character – the spritely polytechnic student Mumtaz struggling with depression her father refuses to acknowledge, secretly taking on a course she knows her family will never approve, and fully embracing her unabashed preference for Chinese men (while also lamenting her Chinese girlfriends’ skinny legs, herself only being able to fit into Dorothy Perkins pants for ‘fat people’). Constantly on her phone and talking about her potential for Internet celebrity, Mumtaz is a complicated character that cleverly brings out both the most familiar aspects of millennial life and the deep darkness most of them harbour inside, smoothed over and hidden by the social media obsession.
Appropriately enough then, Ragha both starts and ends Mumtaz’s segment with a flute cover of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’, encapsulating exactly what Sharul hopes to achieve with this show – that as much as people may poke and pry and attempt to make life unbearable, as much as waking up each and every day knowing you will be judged and face a barrage of nonsense from the community, sometimes, you just have to take it in your stride and be proud of who you are, living life confidently the way you want to without fear. With her admirable spectrum of Indian women, and by its end, the audience is clearly enraptured by her sharp witted performance and observational humour, a wickedly effective tool that we can only hope inspires change in the community to better appreciate these everyday superwomen who walk amongst us.
Photos courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay
Performance attended 16/11/18 (7.30pm)
Disco Sheela and Other Indian Superwomen played as part of Kalaa Utsavam 2018 on 17th November 2018 at the Esplanade Recital Studio. For the full list of programmes and tickets, visit the Esplanade website here