Kaneez Surka finds her groove

On June 17, about an hour shy of the first show of her debut standup comedy tour at Sunnyvale Theatre, Kaneez Surka was told she couldn’t perform, due to a fire hazard. The show has been rescheduled for  August 13.  Not willing to disappoint those who had traveled to see her, she stuck around, mingling with her prospective audience, apologizing through tears, hugs, and selfies. She also squatted on the gravel outside the auditorium to interview with India Currents. Born to Gujarati parents in South Africa, Surka moved to Mumbai when she was 21, where she lived for the next 17 years. About a year ago she moved to New York City, where she’s currently exploring the vibrant, competitive world of standup comedy.

Her work is available on Netflix (Ladies Up, Comedy Premium League) and Amazon Prime Video (Something From Nothing, Improv All Stars – Games Night).

Excerpts from the interview

India Currents: When you prepare for a performance in a new city, where do you glean your insights from? Do you speak to locals to understand the quirks and nuances?

Kaneez Surka: I don’t prep for each region as such. I may have an opening line about the city or may tweak my jokes to fit a certain region – for instance, I’ll reference a different app for a New York audience versus a Bay Area audience – but I don’t change my content based on the city. That’s also because a lot of my content is about anecdotes from my life. I don’t do observational comedy as much. So, while I do contextualize stuff for my audience, it’s really about getting them to buy into who I am.

IC: When I interviewed Rahul daCunha, the ad-man who writes Amul’s hilarious billboards in India, he said political satire is fine but religion is something he never puns on. Similarly, do you have any boundaries while writing jokes for your audience in America? For example, gender and sexual identity, perhaps?

KS: I think I’m a pretty woke person. I’m pretty sensitive to the way people feel. Even if I make a joke about being Muslim, it’s my experience being Muslim. When I was 18, I joined a bhajan group in South Africa because I didn’t really fit in with the Muslim community there. I’m Indian and the Muslims in South Africa are not Indian!

If taken out of context, then who knows what people will take offense at, but my jokes come from a genuine place. I’m not trying to be edgy or poke fun. Even if I comment on something like religion, it’s not a generic comment, it’s about putting it through my filter.

Oh God, this is sounding like a TED Talk (laughs).

IC: On a stage like this, you’re representing more than just your profession. What’s your prefix? Are you a female comedian, an Indian comedian, a South African comedian, an NRI comedian, or an immigrant comedian?

Comedian Kaneez Surka outside the Sunnyvale Theatre in Sunnyvale, Calif. on Jun. 17, 2023. Surka’s show was unexpectedly cancelled due to a fire hazard. Photo: Sree Sripathy for India Currents/CatchLight Local.

KS: Wow, that’s such a difficult question. Someone asked me where I’m from the other day. I don’t know. That’s the whole thing – I’m looking for my people. I think with gender and sexuality, I definitely belong on a spectrum. Even with identity, I want to belong on a spectrum.

It feels like I’m just copping out on the question, but I’m a fluid person in many ways. It’s not like I’m identity-less. I like that I get to explore different parts of myself. And as of now, I would say that I’m definitely exploring the immigrant side of myself. Technically, I was an immigrant in India. Now I am exploring being an immigrant in America.  

I know I talk about my divorce a lot in my comedy, so maybe that’s probably the biggest part of my identity (laughs). But I won’t stop talking about it. It was a huge milestone for me and has helped me regain a lot of my power. 

IC: You do standup, improv (unscripted comedy), OTT, and comedic acting on YouTube. Which of these formats is most important for your career right now?

KS: Right now, I’m focusing mainly on standup. Improv comes more easily to me, but I’m really enjoying the craft of standup. 

It’s a strategic decision. In India, I did so many things. It’s not a good move to come to America and be such a mixed bag, because then people don’t know what you are. While it’s great to don many hats, I want people to know me as a standup comedian. In India, it was more of improv but here I’m taking the standup route. Once I’ve established that, I’ll do other things.

IC: How did your challenges change across South Africa, Mumbai, and New York?

KS: I faced a lot of identity issues in South Africa. I haven’t figured out how to do my standup there. I find it very confusing.

I love performing in India because that’s where my audience is. But in India, you can’t say a lot of things. Also, I have an accent. So, to get the audience to see me as one of them, I tried to play a very Indian “character”. I enjoyed it, but that’s not really my voice. I realized this after coming to New York.

I feel liberated in New York. I can integrate my South African self and my Indian self equally. I’m brown, but I’m not desi American, so I don’t do the typical Indian tropes. My stories are more nuanced. That’s refreshing for the audience.

Ashwini Gangal is a fiction writer based in San Francisco, who has published stories and poems in literary magazines in the UK and Croatia.