Meet the visually challenged man using stand-up comedy to spread hope and cheer
When the spotlight shone on his face, Sundeep Rao gave a broad smile to the audience at Bangalore International Centre and opened with the lines: “It’s great to be India’s blind comic, because I can’t see my competition.”
Despite being diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration, an eye disorder that causes a loss of central vision, Sundeep’s fervour and passion did not die down. In fact, he uses comedy as an outlet to talk about his disability and his experiences of living with partial blindness.
Sundeep’s journey is one of highs and lows. After working as a copywriter at an IT firm for three years, Sundeep switched to stand-up comedy. And there was no looking back. His wit and cheeky humour have won him numerous fans.
“Many people in my social circle are hesitant to acknowledge disability or talk about it openly. This is probably owing to the stigma attached to it or the sheer lack of awareness. I wanted to do my bit to root these out. What better way to spread the message than in the form of antics and jokes? But, most importantly, talking about it on stage allows me to be who I am,” Sundeep Rao tells SocialStory.
Sundeep who had grown up watching comedians like Robin Willams, Bill Burr and Dave Chappelle, got an opportunity to perform his first gig on Vir Das’ Ham-ateur Nights. And, that changed everything for him. Not only did it make him realise his love for comedy; it enabled him to explore his strengths.
So far, Sundeep has put together more than 600 shows across India and beyond, including New York, Edinburgh, and Singapore, and was recently voted India’s funniest partially blind stand-up comedian.
How it all started
Sundeep was born in the City of Nawabs, but brought up in Bengaluru. When he was nine years old, he was detected with an optical complication that rendered him partially blind.
“I still remember that day vividly. I was studying in Class 3 and, one morning, I woke up to find out that my sight was hazy. As a child, I could not process what was happening. Of course, much later, I had to deal with a slew of challenges. Even things like crossing the road or climbing stairs were a herculean task. These experiences have only made me stronger though. Not having eyesight gave me more sight,” Sundeep says.
After completing his schooling from Vidyaniketan, he went on to pursue a degree in liberal arts at Linfield College in Oregon, US.
Once he returned to India, Sundeep was confused about what to take up as his career. Many friends and relatives suggested that he get into radio jockeying or writing. However, with a view to make a quick buck, Sundeep began to intern at an advertising agency and later started working with a software company.
Vir Das’s talent hunt gave Sundeep his first break in 2009. After a couple of stints, he got to perform at the Comedy Store in Mumbai. Soon after, he resigned from his job and took the leap of faith.
“Becoming a stand-up comedian was not part of my plan. But it just happened. Well, many a times, I still fidget while holding the mic and moving around on stage,” Sundeep quips.
A man who believes in presenting authentic, heartfelt content, Sundeep was initially not comfortable about expressing his views on disability. After doing a few gigs, he realised that sharing his experiences of being visually challenged and translating it into comedy, only made him more comfortable.
About four years ago, Sundeep went through a lot of adversity. He was on the brink of plunging into depression. He recalls,
“There were days when I would wake up and not see a point in getting past the day. My anxiety levels used to be very high. My emotions ranged from guilt, anger, embarrassment, and frustration to sadness. Subsequently I went for therapy and things started getting better.”
‘Out of Sight’ in Pune was Sundeep’s first show devoted to vocalising disability and spotlighting rib-tickling jokes about his own inabilities. When author and columnist Sudha Menon noticed this, she contacted Sundeep to feature his story in her book Gifted. The book, focused on celebrating the lives of the differently abled, won much appreciation.
With the intention of spreading more light about disabilities in India, Sundeep lent his voice to the India Inclusion Summit for two consecutive years in 2013 and 2014.
His new-fangled endeavour is a weekly podcast on Spotify where he hosts conversations with individuals who have lived with disabilities, survived life-threatening illnesses, or coped with other such personal difficulties.
“The show highlights real-life stories of resilience, strength, courage, hope, and love. The motive of presenting a podcast like this is to motivate people to get past their stumbling blocks and enable them to laugh at their problems and inadequacies,” Sundeep says.
Edited by Javed Gaihlot