By her own telling, Sunanda Sachatrakul admits she has a peculiar last name. A third generation Punjabi Thai, her great, great grandfather moved to Thailand from India before Partition. “My father adopted a Thai first and last name because at the time, that was the Law for all “Thais” to have a Thai name. Originally, we were Sachdev, but the law was also that you could not have the same last name as another family, but since there were so many Sachdevs, everyone began to invent different spellings or similar sounding names leading us to Sachatrakul,” says Sunanda.
The Punjabi community in Bangkok is small and close-knit. ‘’Everybody knows everybody, mostly because everybody is related to everybody. My parents grew up pretty much on the same road, all the Indians and Punjabis lived in specific areas of town and they were just a handful of areas. We all went to the same Hindu temple or the Gurudwara, same weddings, and we all worked next to each other in China Town. We don’t have a family tree, just a family bush,’’ she laughs.
Given this background, Sunanda assumed she was being the good daughter, studying hard and not dating boys until she came to her own realisation that she was queer in her late 20s. But opening up to her family took a lot of courage. Once she did that, it opened other doors for her and she found her calling in comedy. She studied comedy at some of the prestigious institutes in New York and Los Angeles and recently moved to Melbourne for love. This September, Sunanda will be making her debut at the Melbourne Fringe Festival with a one-hour solo. Sunanda talks to The Indian Weekly about her coming out of the closet and career.
Tell us about your growing up in Thailand as a Punjabi?
I went to an international school in Bangkok where I met people from over 60 different countries. At school I got exposed to many different cultures, people and even though I came from a close-knit specific Hindu Punjabi community where any little thing was news, I had my life at school to contrast that with. The experience at school, where people left every two-three years, made me open and vulnerable in order to attract new friendships and build them quickly and strong. So, these things were always in conflict with my upbringing.
When did you realise you were gay?
I was in the closet for a very long time. To myself I said I was gay when I was 27. I never had a relationship before 27, I never had boyfriends and I always rationalised it to being a good girl ‘because mummy and daddy don’t want me to have a boyfriend’. But trust me, I did everything else under the sun. However, I realise I was closeted because I had a series of unrequited-type relationships, these best friends that I thought were my whole life didn’t feel the same way for me. Something sparked in me when I was living in New York being out of the small community I grew up in, being surrounded by very bright people and open perspectives and a lot of culture that it clicked I was queer. And once it clicked I really tried to date in New York but the good girl image was really stuck in my head. It took me about three years to actually have the guts to talk to other women. I also felt I had to be honest with my parents first before seriously dating.
How did you open up to your family and what were their reactions?
I have always had a pretty open relationship with my parents who are quite the conservative Punjabi couple raised in Bangkok but educated in India. I had to tell them because I didn’t want them to find out through social media as word travels very fast. So when I was home on a trip I remembered finding the courage to tell them.
Their official statement was ‘take it out of your mind’. I told them that’s what I was trying to do for the past 30 years leading me to this point where I couldn’t keep it a secret anymore. I realised that if it could take me 30 years to process this information about myself, I was going to have to give them more time than the 24 hours I gave them before they gave me their response.
A year later, I went back to Bangkok and put up a secret show about me being gay where I invited 40 of my relatives. They all came to support me as I am the baby of the family, but they didn’t know what to expect. Most of my cousins really loved it, some were not surprised at all, which is the same reaction my friends had when I told them I was gay. Let me tell you, this was really disappointing – when you think something is really big news after decades of your life being kept under wraps and then you share it with your close friends only to be told, ‘I am so glad you know now too’ (laughs).
But nobody has ever treated me differently, they might love me even more now I think because they saw I had the courage to say something like that in a small close-knit community where divorces are still very rare and dating kept under wraps still until you are engaged to somebody. Things like that are still taboo so being openly gay is like dropping a bomb.
As for my parents, I knew that I couldn’t expect them to accept it right away but things really, really get better is what I want to tell queer kids. The hardest part is saying it to yourself, then saying it to your family. After that things get better.
How did you foray into comedy?
After I told my parents, I went back to my life in New York. I started doing comedy because it was as if one door had opened to a part of who I really was so that other doors could open. I felt a lot freer and I felt I could pursue other things that were true to me as well. I have a background in production and worked on multiple comedic shorts, feature film, many marketing events and concerts. But what I didn’t realise was that I had things to say of my own and I always took a backseat to other people’s visions earlier.
But after I came out as gay, I realised comedy was something that really appealed to me, set me on fire and gave me life. I realised this when I was working with a friend who is a photographer and takes pretty photos. When I tried to give comedic input to her works, she told me ‘stop telling me what to do, go find your own creative expression’. That’s how I started taking comedy classes.
I started taking improv classes in New York at the Annoyance Theatre and I also took a solo character workshop there realising I loved doing characters.
Three years ago when I went home to Bangkok and did the show where I came out to my family members, a stand-up club promoter in Bangkok approached me and asked me if I wanted to participate in a stand-up competition. I had never done stand-up before but I gave it a shot and ended up winning. It was the Magners Big V competition, the Magners International Comedy Festival is one of the largest in Asia. After I won for Bangkok, I went to Singapore, got second place there and the next year I toured a few other Asian cities with Magnus International Comedy Festival as a stand-up.
After that I moved back to Los Angeles for work. I started taking lessons at The Groundlings Theater and Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre – very world-renowned comedy schools that focus on improv and sketch comedy and that was my introduction to improv and sketch comedy. I auditioned for some sketch teams in LA at different theatres and I got on a couple of sketch teams. I thought ‘OK this is what I am doing now’. Sometimes you don’t plan these things, you got to go for them and if it works out, just don’t question it and keep following through.
I was also accepted as a writer in the CBS Diversity Sketch Showcase which is an initiative by CBS, one of the biggest channels in the US that create diverse talent. There I met other brown, desi gay kids who had to fight their families at some level and it was great to have a community of other like-minded performers in Los Angeles. I think that’s when I really grew as a performer. I started a show in LA called Indian Wedding, it was a monthly variety show where I would host as a character with another performer. We would showcase south Asian talent that we found in LA – whether it was musical, comedic, poetry, video filmmakers, it was fantastic.
Then my US work visa ran out and at the same time I met my girlfriend in Bangkok so I moved back last year, took a little pause from accelerating comedy just because there weren’t many venues or opportunities to perform in Bangkok.
Now, I am excited to be in Melbourne where I am doing comedies several nights a week and am about to present my first hour-long solo show at the Melbourne Fringe Festival.
What would you tell people who demarcate love on the basis of gender?
People who are homophobic or are scared of gay people for any reason or even disgusted, I just want to say get to know somebody, maybe you don’t know have somebody close to you who is gay. If you are queer and south Asian, I understand it can be really hard but I also want you to think back and realise that the reason homosexuality was illegal in India is not because it is an Indian value, it was a Victorian English value. So, this is your way to fight colonialism.
Where to from now?
I am very excited about the Melbourne Fringe Festival because it is just the beginning of the rest of my career. I am hoping the festival will lead me to the Midsummer Festival in Melbourne, the Adelaide Fringe Festival and the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Next year I hope I can tour internationally because I think my show has international appeal, specially with the Indian diasporas. I hope I am going to be the person they are going to look to for a laugh.
(As told to Indira Laisram)