You know her as Lola Kutty from the early 2000s, the bespectacled saree lover Keralite lady! She is Anuradha Menon, the comedian, and entertainer who became the first female to release a stand-up special on Amazon Prime after years of sabbatical.
Born in Chennai, Anu Menon started as a VJ in Channel V and came out with the character of Lola Kutty, a character not often preferred or looked out for in popular music channels. But Anu Menon’s dedication to the character and her comic timing made it so famous and loved that, till today, people reach out to her alter ego Lola Kutty!
The former VJ Anu Menon interacts with the Voice of Woman and talks about her indomitable love for theatre, Lola Kutty, and her touring plans that COVID-19 foiled big time!!
From starting as a VJ to theatre and then stand-up comedy stints, how far has been the journey like?
Stage has always been my first love. Even when I was working as a VJ, I continued doing plays on the side. I remember a funny incident; when I was doing a serious play on Sarojini Naidu and Mahatma Gandhi, in the middle of this very poignant emotional speech about freedom, someone from the audience was screaming ‘Lola Kutty, Lola Kutty.’ I think the image of Lola will be with me for a long time, especially with a particular generation.
When I wanted to get into stand up, I was pregnant, so I had to wait because I don’t think India was quite ready for the pregnant stand-up comedian telling jokes on stage.
My journey has been fantastic. I think everything has been an extension, whether it’s the stage life or a character like Lola. When I initially started to do stand up, it took time for me to figure out who I was on stage without being affected.
Because in the theatre I was playing a character, on TV it was another character. So to find out who Anu Menon was without the external trappings, it was a bit of a challenge. But the journey overall is fabulous.
What inspires Anuradha Menon?
Technically my comedy comes from things that occurred in real life- be my relationship with in-laws, parents, or things that are going on with my child. The situations are all profoundly personal stories portrayed, of course, in an exaggerated way.
But everything stems from the truth of a situation. And in terms of my comedic style, it always is more theatrical given my background in theatre. It portrays more of a performance element.
I love watching all kinds of comedy, and that’s the beauty of this art form. Everyone looks at the same thing and sees something different in it, and that’s what sets comedians apart, and I find it very engaging.
Lola Kutty was a huge hit and was one of the famous characters people looked forward to. How simple or hard it was to play and relate to that role?
When I joined channel V, I just came from London and my boss, and we came up with this character. This character is something people wouldn’t expect to see in a music channel, the role wasn’t anything uber-cool or hip, which would be great fun to play.
And I had no sexy bone in my body, so I just thought it would be interesting to play someone who was the antithesis of cool, someone you wouldn’t expect to see on this platform. So the channel went forward with the character and took a huge risk and gave her an exceptional sort of physical space, which was great. Lola Kutty was shot beautifully, and we gave a Doordarshan feel to it.
Initially, people didn’t believe that I was from the south; they said I don’t bear the preconceived notions of south Indian people. People would say, ‘You can’t be south Indian, you are not black, don’t have buck teeth, you know all those regular stereotypes, you speak Hindi, you’re too fair!’ I was a Malayali from Madras, and this combination was too much for the people during that time, as there were only four south Indian states.
My boss suggested adding glasses because they need to give the impression of it being funny. Regarding the accent, I like playing accents a lot, and I love doing the whole range of accents. My mother always joked that I went to London, studied drama, and when I’m back home, I am speaking with her in a Malayali accent. So it became more comfortable for me.
So when we came up with the character, many were thinking about what to name the character. I had an aunt in London named Lola, who thought I was inspired by her, which I wasn’t at all. I was just looking at the name Lola because it sounds more exotic, and there was a movie at that time called Run Lola, so I was like Lola is an unusual sounding name, and I wanted to work with the dichotomy of Lola.
But yes, I immersed myself entirely into the character to the point that it would become difficult for me to come out of it. I gave the role of Lola Kutty a backstory, shade, and colour and immersed myself in it!
Humour is something where you don’t see many female participants, but you started that trend and stood out in your way. What would you say about that?
Nowadays, the trend is changing. I would always be asked this question, but it’s a tough one to answer because I’ve never been anything but a woman and in comedy. So I wouldn’t know what the flip is like! I, myself, have been very blessed and lucky.
Lola did well for the channel, and for me, it was unprecedented that we didn’t expect it to do with the risk we were taking. And it worked! I would get letters from a church saying they used my example in a sermon in church, which I found quite cute.
And, letters from retired army officers who used to come together every Sunday and watch Lola TV together and a guy who would have a tough day at work and would go back home to watch Lola and unwind. So these are all sweet things that stay with you as a performer.
But everything is a boon and a bane. It is a boon in the sense that it’s been much easier for me to get shows as a comedian to do stand up. I didn’t have to struggle to get like slots at open mics and bane because this image of Lola came terribly in the way of my fledgeling career like people had the perception that I couldn’t play any other character. It was that huge.
Nowadays, I think there are many players in stand up, the game has changed, and now you don’t need the TV medium. You can altogether bypass it. You have something to share, and you can directly go to the internet and upload it.
I think that the middle man has been cut and a lot more opportunities are available now. Also, the competition has increased and to get a voice heard is quite tricky. Nowadays, there are many more players in the game.
Is it challenging to hold your ground in the entertainment industry?
You need to have a vision for yourself in terms of how you see your career planning out, given your situation and your circumstances, especially in this profession, where you’re a freelancer, where the rules of the game are constantly changing and fluid.
You know there are no rules, and that’s what you’re working with, you create your own space and content. It depends on how much self-start capability you have. In my case, I know I cannot be on social media 24×7, can’t create content all the time I have a family to be with.
I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, so I set realistic targets and try and have realistic dreams, as opposed to setting the impossible and suffering. For me, balance is essential to feel like I’m doing justice to all my roles.
We all know timing is everything for humour and comedy. What else would you share for newbies venturing into stand-up comedy?
For newbies, the good thing is there are many opportunities. I think that you should just take out the fear of failure from your mind, because failure is part of it.
Always remember that no matter what we say, we don’t live in a perfect world, it’s still going to be different for men and women. So just work with that reality. It’s as simple as a man can walk a little more freely alone in the night, but the woman shouldn’t. So it is the basic things that you cannot change.
Just do whatever you want to do. You have to be with you at the end of the day. The stand up is the closest version of yourself on stage. I have been told a lot many times like ‘Anu for a stand-up comedian you are pretty, but you aren’t pretty enough to be an actress.’
So people give advice freely like that, so whatever you do, don’t try to emulate anyone else. Don’t try to look for validation from another stand-up comedian. Always remember your audience, and they are the ones you should care about. And there is an audience for every kind of joke.
Punch anyway you want in a comedy. Don’t degrade or bring other comedians down, because that is not something you should waste time on. Everyone’s comedic journey is different, and the comedic voice is different. And that is what makes it all interesting.
Your stand-up special Wonder Menon was great and loved by all. How did you feel doing it and receiving the superb response?
I hate watching myself on screen, and I find it very cringe-worthy, it’s always been like that, and it was a huge issue when we were editing it because you are listening to the same jokes over and over on edit. You have this full meltdown and existential crisis. I was always like, ‘oh my God, it is terrible, nothing is funny no one’s gonna like it people are gonna hate it, I have let everyone down.’ But of course, it was a huge moment and was exciting because it was the first Indian female standup comedy on Amazon Prime. So, I thought it was shot well, and the result was excellent.
Also very heart-warming was the fact that a lot of men watched the special and liked it. I didn’t receive that much negative feedback because what usually happens is people always have this preconceived notion that ‘oh god female comedians just talk about women things.’ So what is the big deal there, if a man talks about man things, sport and court, why should women be shamed continuously for talking about their experiences? I’ve never understood it. You don’t have to have every damn experience in the world, and I also feel female comedy is far more personal than male comedy.
Who is your favourite comedian?
Joan Rivers is my favourite comedian of all time; she is just fantastic. She dresses well, she was doing stand up like at 85, wore dresses, high heels, did plastic surgery, great makeup, was sarcastic, quick and ahead of her time. She was also at the tonight show when Johnny Carson was on leave. I think it was a considerable achievement. I also like Dave Chapelle and immensely like Bill Burr. Those would be my favourites.
We have heard that theatre is always your priority and love. How did you start on that medium?
I was always reticent as a child but always used to come back home and tell my mother what happened throughout the day at school. My mother always encouraged me to get on stage and go audition for school plays, but I would refrain. Finally, she threatened me, and I had to go- I got the part in the play.
The first time I went on stage was at age 14, and there has been no looking back since then. I felt very at home on stage. I feel like any theatre I go to in the world there’s a certain welcoming like musty smell that I think it’s highly intoxicating and very warm. I feel there is no more a beautiful place than a stage. Yeah, it’s familiar no matter where you are.
You need that one light and you are good to go, it’s incredible. I didn’t even think about it as a veritable profession, but my mom was like it’s something if you want to do that, you should think about it.
So then I applied to drama school, got a partial scholarship in London, and I went and did my masters. It was like the best sort of time in my life, surrounded by like-minded people, and I learned a lot.
Tell us about your upcoming projects.
In terms of my upcoming projects, they are on hold because of the pandemic, so shoot dates have to be re-assigned, tour dates have to be re-assigned. We are still in the process of figuring it out, but yeah, I’m supposed to be touring soon for my second stand up special. The present situation is like now everyone is on zoom medium- it is the way forward for the next few months so let’s see.
How do you manage your time between work and family?
I have a lot of lists, and I follow the old fashion way to declutter my mind. The good thing is that a massive chunk of my work is on weekends, and during weekdays I have to be with my son, take care of him and all. So for half the year, I’m pretty much a single parent, my in-laws are around, and I can leave Ayaan with them if I have to and luckily my travel is one-day travel- go one morning and could come back the next.
So, I set sensible expectations of myself as I cannot climb every mountain, or scale every peak. So I think everything is about balance. Also, everyone should forgive themselves; no one will get everything right because you’re not continually going to be perfect, and we are our worst critics!
Let us ease up on ourselves because women have a substantial superwoman complex like we have to be the best chef, the best wife, the best caregiver.
A majority of this is voluntary, so I think if sometimes women chill out a bit, it’s a much calmer place to be. I indulge in small things like if I go to Chennai or Hyderabad, I take days off to spend time with my parents in Chennai or my relatives in Hyderabad, I try and do that so I can catch up with the people in my life, with my friends and family. I think that’s important.
Tell us about your interests other than acting.
The problem comes when your hobby becomes your profession; you don’t have many other interests. Like I never learned the guitar, but like a good south Indian girl, I learned Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music, neither of which I was very good at.
I love sport, and I love tennis, it is my first love. My biggest regret is I never continued to play tennis, I played only till district level, and then studies took over. I should have kept playing it. This is a hobby, and there would always be regret! Also, I studied French, and I’ve been enjoying watching like a lot of French shows on Netflix.
I feel that now I’m somehow in touch with the language, which is nice. And I love art, and my biggest calming is to look at the interior of houses and sarees. I love sarees. My aim and this is a weird hobby to collect every saree from every state in this country.
How are you spending time at the present state of countrywide lockdown?
People seem to be cribbing that they have a lot of time, and I seem to be running out of it because frankly, my child is with me 24×7 like a Siamese twin. So I’m just catering to him, and right now he’s homeschooled, he has classes in the morning, and the teacher mails me his homework, assessments and stuff. So I feel like half the day is just gone with teaching Ayaan, then homework, projects and presentations with Ayaan.
And I’m surviving lockdown without any wine, living with my in-laws, and have been vegetarian for two and a half months now, so I feel positively saintly. It has been excellent; I have no complaints and touchwood, is very lucky and very privileged.
We keep our meals kind of simple; we are not overdoing it. Sometimes I look at people’s Instagram feeds, and I get surprised by their lavish meals. My son and I have also started baking, and we have made four quarantine cakes and a peanut butter cookie batch. Some were a little flawed, but three out of the four cakes were excellent.
Now we have run out of vanilla essence, so now we can’t bake anymore! And I have run out of butter also and inclination now! It’s been excellent, even though I haven’t had the time to write more stand up, to binge more shows. Between the house chores and Ayaan, the day passes by.
Despite being a progressive society, many women still today are stopped from pursuing their dreams and choosing their dream career choices. What are your thoughts on that?
I think a lot of times women also put pressure on themselves. Women are other women’s worst enemies! We should let women have the freedom to choose what they want to do—all I’m saying is don’t snatch the choice away from women.
A lot of times, I feel like a woman more often than not is far better at multitasking and kid rearing. Like when my husband comes back from the ship, he insists on doing the duties of the son, but he would end up asking ten questions about the work; in comparison, I would be quick.
Also, women have to learn to let go, like my husband says if you give someone responsibility for taking care of something, you have to let go of that. Even though you can do it better, other people’s systems would be different, and you have to trust that they will do it their way.
Otherwise, you will drive yourself mentally by trying to wear every hat under the sun because it’s too much. I have also been at the receiving end of judging comments by people as I work and have to leave my son sometimes with in-laws.
But I feel like whatever your choice, you should be allowed to pursue it, whether it is working, or not; whether it’s about having children, or not having children! And everything is a thought, and you cannot change a kind of thinking or system overnight.
We’re living in a patriarchal country, so there are certain things you can’t explain. Even if you flip the situation, if a guy is a house husband and the girl is working, the guy wouldn’t be respected. So it occurs both ways, there are stereotypes on both sides, but I feel the journey for a woman is that much harder, and that’s just the way it is. It will change, but it will take time, and it will be slow.
Which is your favourite hideout in the globe?
I don’t know about my favourite hideout, but I would love to travel around the world and see more places. I would like to travel around Europe more. This year my college friend and I were planning to take a tour, we decided this year we would make the trip together. We’ve been trying for so many years and booked our tickets to Spain. Now the journey isn’t going to happen, and both of us don’t have the heart out to cancel our tickets! Both of us were looking forward to just us travelling together, but the COVID-19 situation came, and the trip isn’t happening.
What is your favourite getaway place in India?
In India, I love going back home to my parents’ house in Chennai, and it’s a lovely house. I love beachside towns and hill stations, and going to Ooty and Kannur. I used to go there a lot as a child, so I think it’s very nostalgic whenever I go there.
Any message that you want to convey to the women and your fans reading this.
I think you are giving me a lot of credit by saying that I have many fans, but thank you for lying! I have no wise words to impart, but I would just like to end with the Kenyan proverb that goes ‘when two elephants fight only the ground gets hurt.’ It is a very deep saying!