Suma Kanakala interview: All is Well celebrates the work of reel-and-real life heroes.
Srivathsan Nadadhur -
If you’re on a call with small-screen celebrity/host Suma and ask how she’s keeping up with the times, she’ll simply say ‘All is well’. She isn’t merely discussing her life while uttering those words but is hinting that she’s busy shooting for streaming platform Aha’s latest show by the same name. All of us can do well with optimism in our lives, more so with the dreary situation around us and who better than Suma to remind us about having a hearty laugh?
All is Well is a mini-talk show only featuring good news around the world and celebrates the contributions of the change-makers amid the pandemic, including brief interviews with leading celebrities in the tinsel town. This August 15, All is Well, upon its launch, was greeted with cheer and it’s a rare occasion when a streaming platform gave what we, as audiences, genuinely needed! Suma says she’s hopeful that the show would make a difference in the lives of its spectators, in a chat with LetsOTT.com.
Let me tell you, on behalf of many spectators out there, that it’s a relief to see your content on a streaming platform. We are assured that the content wouldn’t be dark or explicit…
OTT, as the term says, is everything over the top – people can decide what they want to watch, regardless of the time and the place they’re staying. It’s also a reason why it has been dominated by dark, explicit content. We, as audiences, are progressing along with our thoughts and technology. I am hopeful to usher in a turnaround.
No better occasion than the Independence Day to launch All is Well. I guess you’ll agree...
Yes, and I was very sure about the timing of the show launch. Aha’s CEO Ajit Thakur had asked me to choose a day between August 15 and Vinayaka Chaturthi for the launch of the show. Pat came my reply even without a second thought ‘August 15’ and we planned the show accordingly. People are not able to experience freedom during the lockdown when reduced to four corners of a house and not being able to venture out. It’s an irony that we didn’t realise the joy of having a long walk amidst nature before lockdown. We didn’t know what was the pleasure of a life without a mask and a gentle breeze blowing in our ears. We have so much freedom in life that we forget to acknowledge it. This is the best time to understand that we’re blessed!
Television content has too many people who have a say on what works for the medium and what doesn’t. Is there additional creative freedom with the digital medium?
I still feel the digital medium is similar to the satellite channels because ultimately the end goal of both formats is to create a good product that appeals to viewers. There are few brains and people working towards All is Well and I trusted them with it. For television shows, we’re often forced to time our shows anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour to generate ad revenue. Every episode in All in Well lasts only about 10-15 minutes; it’s like a starter or dessert they would want to have before a full meal.
What’s with the short duration of the episodes in the show?
The short duration is all because of the reduced attention span of modern-day viewers and we packaged whatever we could in that little window we had. All is Well only features good news; the interactions with celebrities are done with an intent to generate positive vibes. We didn’t want to prolong it and spoil the fun. There are two segments to the show including ‘Hero of the week’ and ‘Celebrity of the week’. The former segment casts light on real-life volunteers from organisations who’ve contributed to the public selflessly during COVID times. The celebrity segment has us interacting with reel life celebrities. So, it balances both real-and-reel life heroes!
The biggest USP of your stint as a TV host is your ability to make people comfortable, feel at ease within the set environment. In virtual interactions though, the scope for spontaneity is limited, there’s no physical proximity with the guests and you also need to deal with patchy internet connections too. Was All is Well a challenge to manage amid such limitations?
It would become a challenge for me if I take into consideration all that you said. If I begin to think that the people are away from us, creating that spontaneous vibe in the interactions through technology would be difficult. I am not making things easier for myself that way. When I do the show, all that goes in my mind is ‘I’m here to entertain people, talk and connect with the people whom I’m interacting with’. Be it Vijay Deverakonda, Rana or (politician) Seethakka, I feel so connected with them despite not sitting in front of each other. Sometimes, it’s not about physical proximity – it’s about connecting with the person and the work they do. Even if there’s any pre-release event to be organised amid the public, we still need to maintain distance. It’s a different world now and something we have to adapt to.
The world around us hasn't been offering hope and there’s more bad news that’s being fed to us than ever before. Does it take an additional effort to maintain your infectious enthusiasm now?
Whatever around you will start affecting you, only if you imagine yourself in it! I don’t let that happen. I understand the world around me isn’t exactly happy and I can’t go dancing around with cheer, but I’m filled with gratitude for the fact that I have a life and able to move around, work and I’m being responsible about it. When you watch any disturbing incident repeatedly, you get affected psychologically. Even when my mum was calling the other day and appeared visibly concerned while telling me, ‘Look at what’s happening to Kerala! Landslides, aeroplane crashes and what not’, I told her ‘Nuvvu news chala ekkuva chustunnav. Don’t watch news, especially before you go to sleep’. I’m trying my bit to live upto the Telugu adage ‘Manchi vinandi, manchi chudandi’.
You’re certainly not new to the digital medium, be it your channel Sumakka, JujubiTV or the latest Youtube channel floated by your actor, husband Rajeev Kanakala. All these experiences must have come in handy. Isn’t it?
Definitely, and I did give my inputs. Sanjeev K Kumar, the director of this show, was associated with Cash, Jeans, Jabardasth and responsible for many such programmes to go on air. He’s an extremely creative, technical person – all the inputs with the episode edits and promo cuts have come from him. We have a great writer in the form of Lakshmi Bhupal and a committed creative team from Aha – there are a lot of girls in the team and am happy.
Though television has an adequate female presence on the screen, isn’t it surprising that most shows have an all-male crew?
The television/small-screen industry does its best to give opportunities to women. However, inevitably, women get married, have children and don’t receive enough support from their families to chase their dreams. It’s very difficult to continue with your career if people back home aren’t accepting. Earlier in the day too when we were shooting an episode and were discussing about families, I only felt humbled that my mother and my mother-in-law helped me take care of children. I wouldn’t have worked otherwise. It relieves you of the guilt that you’ve forgotten your family priorities. For a mother, nothing is more important than children.
Do you believe you would be reaching out to a newer set of audiences with All is Well?
With television, you, more often than not, cater to Telugu-speaking audience and OTT helps you surpass such regional boundaries. Even I happen to watch Malayalam and Tamil content across streaming platforms. So, this is not an advantage for my show alone but any show or web series that’s getting made – people from other regions and countries can watch you too.
You regularly interact with the common man (and women) in your television shows. However, All is Well gets you to converse with change-makers, who also happen to be regular citizens. Was this experience any different?
I may have taken sufficient care while going for shoots amid this pandemic but these are people who risk their lives so much and go about their work without seeking recognition or gaining attention from the media. They do it because they feel it’s a service to humanity and it’s hard to be unmoved by their contributions. We’ve shot two episodes. One of them also featured Mulugu-region MLA Seethakka because she travelled long distances to help the Adivasis within her constituency. Feed the Needy, was another group of youngsters (IT professionals) we talked to, who’ve been feeding people, supplying them with ration kits and also helped migrant labourers reach their destinations during the lockdown.
A show like this helps you and a lot of your counterparts, crew members find work when the entertainment industry is almost cash strapped…
Even if the world had stopped functioning for a few months, our hunger for entertainment never died down. We always want to see something that transports us to another world for some time at least. All thanks to Aha for us to return to action soon and provide joy to people.
Do you feel nostalgic about the times you had hosted film events that would be attended by thousands and sometimes, lakhs?
One can’t even dream of such a possibility in the near future. We can’t even predict when an event of that scale would happen! The last grand event I had done before the lockdown was for Mahesh Babu’s Sarileru Neekevvaru in LB Stadium, Hyderabad. There were lakhs of people in attendance – ‘Isukesthe ralanantha janam,’ (meaning the numbers were huge) and they were fighting for space. ‘Impossible’ is the only word that comes to my mind when I think of such a scenario. I miss that madness. The pandemic has reminded us how we need each other for energy and someone to listen to our outpours, hold onto our hand and say ‘All is Well’.
Now that both of your children are adults and can manage things on their own, is it an opportunity/relief for you, as a mother, to drown yourself in more work without any worry about not attending to them?
Yes. My children are grown-ups now, they’ll be able to manage their lives and I don’t need to spoon-feed them. However, for most mothers, we’ll make the effort to plan and manage their lives till our last breath, otherwise, we’re not human (laughs). On a serious note, yes, it’s relieving that they can do things on their own – I don’t need to ask my daughter of her whereabouts and my son can deal with his life now.
Did they always spend a lot of time with you or did the lockdown give an opportunity more time to bond with them?
Roshan was supposed to fly to the US to attend his classes, if not for the lockdown. If there was one phase beyond the birth of my children that I got to spend great quality time with them, it was during these few months. Though my children have always accompanied to my shooting locations and I’ve spent time with them in the evenings when my work is over, I never got time to attend to them, make the dishes they liked to eat. It has been the most beautiful time of my life, being behind them and asking them ‘em kavali, em tintaru’ and earning plaudits for my work in the kitchen. It’s a joy no Limca Record-win can match!
Has work been of good help in moving on from bitter/unfortunate events at home? Is it a welcome distraction?
Over a period, life opens to you to a gamut of experiences. There were times when working for long hours gave a financial fillip to our family and a few moments where it was purely a source of joy. But, I can assure you that it isn’t an escape mechanism. However, in situations when life isn’t kind, it gives an opportunity to move our mind or body to a new space. Especially for someone like me when I’m always on the stage where I’ve to remember at least four to five sponsors of a show/event, there’s no chance for all that ‘naatak’ (laughs).