Saturday, July 22, 2017

Stand-up Comedian Aditi Mittal: A Profile in OPEN Magazine

Ahead of her show on Netflix (premiered July 18, 2017), I interviewed Aditi Mittal and wrote a profile of her for OPEN magazine. 

Read here or see below for a slightly unedited version. Published July 07, 2017.


“Comedy is one of the strongest forms of dissent,” she had said, elsewhere. Appropriately, it was in some ways dissent itself, from a it’s-21st-century-but-still-intensely-patriarchal entertainment industry, when Aditi Mittal bagged a special show ‘Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say’ on Netflix. It feels necessary to acknowledge that edging in the gender angle in happy stories such as this is tedious at times. I am certain Mittal would rather be a comedian instead of a ‘female comedian’, as if the feminine is a comedy genre she is affected with. But we are not there yet, when it no longer matters what gender one identifies with, if at all. And that is why the Netflix show gains credence, especially when the online streaming channel’s main rival Amazon Prime had signed up more than a dozen comedians a while earlier – none of whom women.

In a culture where stereotypes reduce women to being made fun of, rather than internalizing that they can be side-splittingly funny too, but of course, Mittal is among the talented crop of women who are active, popular and thriving in the Indian, mostly English, comedy circuit. We chatted about all this over Skype, her in Mumbai, me in Bengaluru. Her, just back from her very first capoeira class that morning. Her, in her room in the family home. Her with her almost-rainbow coloured hair that looks divine in photographs.

The Netflix show is obviously big, and guaranteed to chalk a new roadway in her career. Predictably, she was over the moon, though she said she has imagined every scenario that could lead to the show getting cancelled. She refuses to believe it is actually happening, “till I put it on on my own laptop I don’t believe it,” she said. But before that: it was post-2008 recession when the production company she was working with in the US shut shop and she was back home in Mumbai. “I happened to wander into an open-mic night, saw a couple of people doing these things (stand -up comedy) and I was like, this looks fairly simple,” she said. Her first attempt was met with mostly silence, except for two laughs for some Punjabi joke she had in stock, thanks to being half-Punjabi herself. “I loved the sound of those two laughs. I got so addicted to that feeling,” she remembered. It helped immensely that she was a self-confessed “bit of a nautanki” from childhood. Her initial interest was in getting into television, and she did the rounds – facing six auditions a day for random bit roles, each of which she had to wait hours for, for her turn. She made her living writing about food for a food magazine. Open-mic nights continued for two+ more years before she got her first paying gig.

“I do believe I was at the right place at the right time to a large extent,” Mittal admits. The comedy scene in India was growing fast and she was there to catch the first wave. Opportunities to perform abroad, including a show with BBC, a documentary on stand-up comedy came, “very quickly, very easily, too easily sometimes.” Several corporate shows where her gender and the way she looked/dressed was deemed more important than her talent happened, in the interim. “Now there are things I can put my foot down about,” she said, quick to add that having a management was of immense help, “for a long time, it was up and down, trying to figure out what to do, who to trust, who to confide in.”

The sexism that is rampant in the entertainment industry, and the active resistance to women doing comedy was something she encountered later on, she said, after people began noticing her and writing about her work. “Stand-up is a very lonely profession. You have a thought, you write the thought, you express the thought, you perform the thought. It is you and your thoughts in these four processes. In that way it is one of the purest art forms. And that can seem a little lonely, especially in an environment where you are presented with active resistance to what you want to say. But with distance (from these things), you become free,” she said.

Predictably, there was an older man who told her off over her jokes, asking who would marry her if she stuck to saying the things she did. Berating comedians – always the women – about who would marry them or what the future in-laws might think springs from a sense of ownership over a woman’s body and life choices that society in this country has always felt it possessed. I asked Mittal if she had had these experiences, and she said she hadn’t, not from women in her audience. “I get very excited when people are like, my mom loves you. I am the biggest suck up when it comes to parents (of friends),” she said. An aunt, who she calls her mother, raised her. “I have realized that a part of me will always die for her approval and that is where my desperate desire to want to connect with older women comes from,” she added.

Speaking about working in a still male-dominated section of the entertainment industry, she said, “I realized any woman working in a male environment…we are going to be inconvenient. I am okay with that. I am not here to stir shit up, but I am (also) not here to be quiet. I am now in a position, more than ever, to keep my mouth shut…but it is time to speak up as well. So apparently, I am navigating that.” Mittal has talked elsewhere about desexualizing herself on stage, something she said she did because she “didn’t want her sexuality to be there” and that she “just wanted to be funny.” She told me she learned recently on a Steve Martin masterclass online to ‘always dress better than the audience’ and now dresses however she feels like, recognizing that people will anyway say muck no matter what she wears.

These various navigations she has found herself doing also birthed two characters that are immensely popular – Dr Mrs Lutchuke, modelled after her 6th standard Marathi teacher and a college best friend’s grandmother, and Dolly Khurana – modelled after an aunt who moved from a small town in Punjab to Mumbai and Mittal saw the way her aunt’s mind was processing life in the big city. Both allow her to say outrageous things, the former comments on sex – “sex is one of the funniest things on this planet,” Mittal said – and the latter on social issues like foeticide, as nonchalantly as can be. “Characters are basically foils. (You) nicely wrap up in a foil through which you can speak,” she pointed out.

Given the current post-truth political environment in the country, I asked Mittal what she thought the future of comedy in India was, whether we would ever see political commentary modelled after those like John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert and others. She pointed out that in India channels catered to the lowest common denominator very quickly because it was the easiest way to get large numbers. She hoped for the level of industry and the amount of phenomenal money, logistics and talent that exists abroad for comedy shows to come to India. “In terms of political commentary, if an Indian reflects on India the way a John Oliver reflects (on the US), …a lot of our self -respect, confidence and ego as a collective nation will come into play. It will be interesting to see how we take someone talking to us, even talking down to us,” she said. Reflecting on the diverse variations of who we are as a nation, she added, “The future of comedy is empathy. When it includes everybody, thought processes from everyone, (that’s when) it will be truly potent, truly effective. Comedians of the future have to be very, very empathetic, very, very ears to the ground.”

Mittal is, like the rest in the comedy circuit, hilarious at times on social media as well. It is exhausting sometimes to be consistently funny across all platforms, she had said earlier. She understands though that she “probably wouldn’t have had a career if it wasn’t for social media. I don’t have a conventional TV face, neither do I say TV friendly things.” Calling social media an odd thing, she said, “We are in that odd place in our lives where we are dying to see a curated version of intimacy. We want to think of the person as extremely human.” She has taken the pressure off of herself regarding what she puts on social media, she told me, thankful though she is for the fantastic tool that it is.

I asked her what she is reading at the moment. A little embarrassed, wondering how it will reflect on her, she holds up several titles from Pratham Books she picked up the other day. Also a MAD book, and one on the economics of poverty that she is “pretending to read,” she giggles. Capoeira will be her new thing now, she told me, when she is asked what she does apart from comedy.

Is her family excited about Netflix, I asked her. Her brother knows it is a big deal, she said. Her father isn’t clear what Netflix is, when she told him that it was like the Star Plus of the internet, he asked her if she would be on Star Plus. Her mother does not care. “I love how she doesn’t care. (She will probably be impressed) if I do something substantial like…clean my room or if I remember to switch off the fan every time I leave the room,” Mittal said.

So what can we expect on the show? “You can expect laughs. You can expect to improve your Vitamin D levels. I am not gonna lie, it might help you lose weight. It’ll smoothen your hair cuticles,” she told me. We both cracked up and agreed that she should probably put that in her description of the show.

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