Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On the Rise of Female Comedians in India: In OPEN Magazine

Over the last few years, female comedians seem to be everywhere. Which is of course a very good thing. The fact that they have to be distinguished as female, paying attention to their gender is not a good thing. I write about that too, in this piece on female comedians in India, in OPEN magazine.

Read the piece here, with photos, or see below. 

Published on December 09, 2016.


How funny were the jokes? They were very funny. We all held our stomachs, threw back our heads and hooted with laughter. But I couldn’t tell you one of the jokes, the comedian refuses, because it is a secret, it’s for women, and that too invited women only. Though if you are a woman you can email the team and ask for an invite. None of the content is meant to be put online, that’s the whole point of the ‘cult’. What I can tell you is that Disgust Me, by Sumukhi Suresh, that was performed recently in Bengaluru was (to rephrase the promo) a cult where we let go, laughed at that crass joke and did not worry about looking fuckable or appropriate.

Upon entry, everyone is given what resembled a tiny penis on a short silky lanyard and encouraged to wear it around their necks. Within five minutes of making her entrance, Suresh will say ours is a small country, referring to the tiny penises. It sets the tone for the rest of the hour-something stand-up comedy show, where she talks to the audience and hands out goodie bags filled with honey and sex toys. The confident confidante manner Suresh adopts on stage makes it an enjoyable hour. As expected, there are countless jokes about penises and boyfriends/husbands and blowjobs and going down and the marriage market and such like. There are jokes about nose poop and a story of bed wetting thrown in.

Suresh started Disgust Me because at one of her other shows, she noticed that some women were uncomfortable laughing at sex jokes when there were men around. So she designed this as a place they didn’t have to be worried about being judged for enjoying dirty jokes. The jokes centre around ‘taboos’ that Suresh’s mother told her were too disgusting to retell, and she encourages her cheering audience to either enjoy them or be disgusted, like her mother would be.

From making her mark at Improv, a desi version of Who’s Line is it Anyway? the immensely popular impromptu comedy show where actors have to enact situations that the audience gives them, to having a couple of viral videos to her credit, Suresh is among the fast expanding tribe of women who are gaining fame and following for their comedy shows.

“It is like a sperm ya. Just one in a million. Then why is it getting so many views?” Suresh had complained, showing me a ten-second clip on her phone a few months ago. In the video, she is draped in a starched white saree with a golden border, the kind worn in Kerala – not her home state – and sings a classical Carnatic version of My Humps, the old Black Eyed Peas song. Hash tagged #TheClassicalSeries, she made the clip while having some three hours to kill, and uploaded it on her Facebook page. The number stands at a million plus views as I write this.

Even in the unpredictable world of viral videos, Suresh has hit the jackpot a couple of times over. It first happened with her short video of a character called Anu Aunty, a middle-aged woman, more a friend of the family than a relative, who nags a young boy about studying to be an engineer or a doctor, though he would rather be an entrepreneur and start something of his own. Her portrayal of Anu Aunty was instantly relatable to young people who are forced by the family into these professions because they are a ticket to wealth, a good spouse and elevated social status. In middle-class India that is still hugely aspirational, Anu Aunty is every neighbourhood nag whose curiosity, and interference, in other’s lives is relentless and irritating. Suresh’s latest sketch series called Behti Naak—where she is an annoying, arrogant young girl with a runny nose—is from where a ceramics artist who sat next to me at the Disgust Me show, started following her work.

The popularity of such videos and the spurt in the number of stand-up comedy shows in tier I and II cities in India speak of a country that has embraced comedy in English as a new, delectable form of entertainment. Nearly all the metros have comedy clubs that exclusively host sketches, improvs and stand-up acts. That an increasing number of these shows are headlined by women comedians speaks loudly of a society that has started to laugh with women, and not just at them.

Bollywood cinema is a mirror that reflects the trends of the day, even if they are misleading and inaccurate. In movies, the female character who was, most often, if not always, ‘fat’, darker skinned and not ‘conventionally’ pretty was the preferred comic relief. A puny male comedian, sometimes her love interest, nearly always laughed at her, and moviegoers laughed with him. The stereotypes of the comic, just like the roles of the virgin heroine and the sexually liberated vamp, remain watertight compartments in popular culture, in both Bollywood and mainstream regional language cinema. The immensely popular male comedians, both of yesteryears and today, owe much of their careers to sets that mock wives and mistresses and their attempts at housekeeping, child rearing and money management, the last of which they were deemed too stupid to be trusted with, anyway.

Over the last few years, younger women like Sumukhi Suresh, Punya Arora, Neeti Palta and older ones like Anu Menon, Radhika Vaz, Aditi Mittal and others have broken the glass ceiling, turning misogynistic comedy on its head and laughing all the way to fame. Not that the road is smooth, not at all, point out all the comedians I talk to. But they are ready for the fight, and are unwilling to be bullied by male comics or be defined by their gender. This is a battle that even the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey and Amy Schumer are waging in the West.

Punya Arora is an underwater photographer who got curious about stand-up comedy, tried it at an open mic night and fell in love with the format. Raised by a single mother who got divorced because her husband wanted a son and wasn’t thrilled about having a daughter instead, Arora was encouraged never to let gender define her, or her choice of profession. “I have a very supportive mom,” she said, when I ask her if her family is okay with her performing on stage. I ask because a lot of jokes these women comedians make use the words fuck, vagina, sex, etc. – words still taboo and rarely spoken aloud in public in India. An aunt did ask her what her “marriage plan” was, and she answered that she had a life plan instead.The common belief is that stand-up comedy is something some women dabble in before settling down into marriage and kids. “My mother thinks I am going through a phase,” says Suresh, admitting that her family doesn’t know the full extent of her stand-up career. She has women coming up to her after her shows asking her to tone it down, out of respect for her future in-laws. “I am more afraid of the women in the audience. Female comedians badly need women to back us,” she said. “Who will marry you?” is an unasked but implied question, for young women who are on stage, sometimes in bars, late into the night, telling jokes about their lady parts and the things they do with men.

Radhika Vaz, one of the first women comedians in the country to gain widespread attention, was already older, in her late 30s, married and hence, “didn’t give a fuck” when she started doing stand-up. “I had the advantage of being older, and also had female role models (in New York where she started her career) who said anything they wanted. They were not held back by being women,” she says, admitting that she got lucky that way. India and the unspoken rules that define a woman’s behaviour in public, and at home, were not even on her mind.

Vaz’s sets are deeply personal and she goes after three things—marriage, children and aging— often in her jokes. The underlying feminism is unmissable and some jokes are deep and dark. Given the baggage associated with the word ‘feminism’, is she one? I ask. “It is a simple word, the simplest word in the whole fucking world, pardon my French,” she says, explaining why being a feminist is so important in a patriarchal world. “Patriarchy is a worldwide issue and that is why feminism is important. I am a feminist, I am just a feminist,” she reiterates.

In her show Unladylike, like the title, she talks about issues that are deemed to be too ‘improper’ for women to talk about. Her show and sketches crackle with smart lines on virginity, nipple hair, the Brazilian wax, and how a full shave looks like “two chicken breasts squashed together”. ‘Brazen’ and ‘bold’ are hasty descriptions, for her or the others, for Vaz only talks of topics that should be normal, not embarrassing or shameful to address.

What is life like on stage? And Vaz says that she came to the party with husband, in-laws and parents. “I have an independent streak, and my husband is a lot like that as well. He manages all my shows and everyone knows what is happening (with the jokes). As for my in-laws, they live in denial.” I could almost hear her grinning into the phone.

Vaz was a pioneer in the field and paved the road for those after her, I point out. “I don’t think the road has been paved yet,” she says, estimating that India as a society and as an audience will take a little more time to be more accepting of performers like her.

The content that these women write invariably becomes personal and feministic. Arora talks a lot about single parenthood. Suresh addresses her plus-size body and moves on to tackle mundane issues, ending with something dark and feministic to “shock-and-surprise”.

They all love that there are more women on the scene over the last couple of years. “We need more female comedians because we need more work. We need to understand that,” Suresh says, adding that the real challenge will be when the numbers are higher, which is when the quality of the content will be the only thing that will be important. Their audience is still restricted to a niche, English-speaking crowds in metros and larger towns, a fact that Vaz acknowledged as well. “English is the only language I speak fluently and it is a bit of a handicap. But I have performed in places that are not Delhi or Mumbai where the audience may not be limited to an English speaking crowd,” she says.

Social media has played a crucial role in the success of these comedians. Vaz, who jokes about her anger management issues, told me that it was “great to write something” on Twitter and let it out. One-liners on current affairs apart, a lot of the sketches that they write and produce and upload on YouTube add to their popularity, in turn giving them more shows, in turn helping them grow their fan base.

What with women cutting their teeth into yet another male bastion, what do the men think? I had asked Suresh. “They are very, very supportive. Blanket rule,” she told me, a sentiment the others echo as well.

It might be a tiny section of modernized, liberated urban India that is laughing with these women, be it on their shows, through columns and books like those of Twinkle Khanna or on social media. In a Utopian culture your job and gender should be independent. But for now, it does matters. And that is why every laugh is a loud war cry asking for the fall of patriarchy.

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