Sometimes, just one event can change a life. For example, few people had heard of Sugandha Mishra till a few weeks ago. She is a singer, she is a stand-up comedian, but she wasn’t a household name till she enacted a light-hearted tribute to melody queen Lata Mangeshkar by mimicking her – and found herself bang in the centre of a controversy.
"Travesty!" yelled Mangeshkar fans when Mishra’s video went viral. "This is an insult to Lataji," they ranted.
"Oh, brilliant," laughed other Mangeshkar fans. "You have to listen to this."
And now here’s Sugandha Mishra, famous.
Born and brought up in Jalandhar, Mishra is a fourth generation musician. Starting at the age of four, she learned music from her grandfather, the legendary Pt Shankar Lal Mishra, disciple of Ustaad Amir Khan Sahib, founder of the Indore gharana.
"My very first performance happened in front of Kaifi Azmiji when I was just two-and-a-half years old," she says. "I recited a poem and danced. I was chubby and wearing a lehenga, and I fell down on the stage but got up and started dancing again. Kaifi Azmiji came to meet me backstage and wanted me to give him a kiss. But I refused, because I didn’t want my lipstick to get smeared."
Mishra was born to perform. She’s always loved dressing up and she’d always wanted to move to Mumbai, capital of the entertainment industry. As it happened, she graduated from the same university as other well-known comedians such as Kapil Sharma, Sudesh Lehri and Bharti – Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar – but that isn’t where she picked up the art of mimicry.
"My mother and her brother are very good mimics and I picked it up from them," says Mishra. "I haven’t trained in it, but I have won a lot of awards, including one on a national level."
But her grandfather had no time for such levity, and even less time for western music. "He wanted me to focus only on classical music," she says. This made the ambitious young woman’s life a little difficult.
"After completing my masters, I started getting offers as a lecturer because I was a gold medallist," she recalls. "But as almost everyone in my family is a teacher or a lecturer (my mother is also a principal). I was not at all keen to join this profession.
Despite all the restrictions, I thought I would try and do some jingles for the newly opened radio stations. But I was offered the post of an RJ. I was excited about it but since my grandfather wouldn’t have allowed me to be an RJ, we had to keep this a secret from him."
So for the next year, Mishra’s life became truly filmi. "I got a morning slot of 7-10 for my show. My riyaaz time was 6-11. I’d sneak out and do my show, but because my grandfather didn’t know I wasn’t at home, sometimes he’d call out for me for this and that. At times, he would call me just to dye his hair.
Then my mother would phone me at the radio station and I’d dash back home and fling a nightie over my clothes to hide them, attend to my grandfather’s hair, and then dash back to my job."
Because none of her grandfather’s friends listened to the radio, Mishra got away with it. But then she was selected to participate in TV show Laughter Challenge. For that, she had to move to Mumbai.
"I had never dreamt of doing comedy shows in my life," says Mishra. "But Kapil bhaiya (Sharma), my senior in college, had just won season three of the Laughter Challenge and recommended me. After auditions in Punjab, I was selected. But my grandfather was dead against it." Life's for laughs
Once again, the family swung into action, lied to Mishra’s grandfather, and got the girl to Mumbai. And there, after all these shenanigans, Mishra found herself competing with comedians from India and Pakistan.
"So I thought that since music is my strong point, I’d do musical parodies," she says. "I had come for one episode but I kept moving ahead and reached the finals. By now my grandfather knew about it and he was really angry.
All in good spirit: Her mimicry of Lata Mangeshkar during an awards show had everybody in splits.
He stopped talking to everyone in the family, including me. Then one day he happened to see a part of Laughter Challenge on a news channel. And he cooled down a bit. Then, when I participated in Sa Re Ga Ma, he was very happy and said that I had made him proud."
With two such strong talents, it would have been easy for Mishra to be conflicted about what to focus on. But she’s very clear about her goals.
"I get maximum satisfaction from singing. I never start my day without doing my riyaaz," says Mishra who has already sung playback for two films and is contracted for more. "I have always wanted to be a playback singer. But comedy is second nature to me. My acting and comic timing don’t require any extra effort from me. And my musical training helps in comedy too. Music has nine rasas of which hasya ras has rarely been used. So I use that in my comedy."
And she’s doing a lot of comedy. You can see her on Comedy Nights with Kapil, and also on a weekend show called Hansi He Hansi…Mil Toh Lein on Sab TV that has some of the best Indian stand-up comedians doing spoofs and sketch comedy.
All this is thanks to reality shows, says Mishra. "In small towns, these shows are the perfect platform and offer great exposure for hidden talent. I owe my entire success to these shows."
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From HT Brunch, April 19
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