Indian female comics tackle social issues with humor

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Comedian Pooja Vijay. Photo: Asia Times

A little past 7pm on a Saturday night, people trickle into the living room of an apartment in an upmarket neighborhood in Ahmedabad. Chairs have been set in the foyer, the furniture has been pushed to the walls.

Most guests will find a spot to sit cross-legged on the mismatched dhurries, or rugs, that have been laid on the floor. Tea is brewing in the kitchen and some biscuits have been kept out for the motley crowd of café owners, writers and education innovators. The guests, ranging from children to people in their 60s, stand around the room talking to each other, waiting for the show to begin.

The “show” is a stand-up comedy act, put on by Mahila Manch, a group of four women — Renu Pokharna, Preeti Das, Shefali Pandey and a woman from the LGBT community who goes by the name of Vidya and refers to herself as a ‘queer.’ Mahila Manch is a platform for women to talk, entertain and inform people about social issues that resonate with women, mainly through stand-up comedy.

Renu, 33, has a background in public policy, Preeti, 36, is a journalist and has been a stand-up comic for about five years, Shefali, 33, is an independent technology professional, and Vidya, 34, is completing her PhD.

Only three performances old, Mahila Manch stages The Period Show every month which is a commentary on the complicated times we live in – they focus on topics like the difficulties single women face while renting an apartment in India or creative solutions to being harassed online.

The subject are mostly tough to talk about, which is where humor comes to the rescue. Humor is a great medium for complex conversations because joking about issues makes people laugh. It can also shock them and make them uncomfortable enough to start thinking about the issues seriously.

“While breaking taboos, you don’t want to offend people too much on multiple fronts because this distracts from the issue at hand and reinforces negative stereotypes,” says Vidya. Making someone listen to you talk about difficult topics and laugh at them while realizing the gravity of the issue involves several moving parts – great timing, pat delivery, stage presence – as well as a shared understanding of what’s funny, she added.

“Indian humor is very physical. I don’t think Indians get sarcasm. They think mimicry is stand-up. Mimicry is hard, but it’s not stand-up,” says Saadiya Ali, 25, a stand-up comic in Chennai.

The glass ceiling

In India, where people still veer towards conventional careers in business, medicine and engineering, being a stand-up comic is a novelty. More so for women. “Women in stand-up comedy is still perceived as something that ‘decent’ girls don’t do,” says Sneha Suhas, 24, a Bengaluru-based comedian.

Contrary to popular belief, women comics don’t just talk about breasts, bras and periods. Nor are their sets only about maligning men. “When male comics bash women, it’s ‘natural,’ but when a woman comic does the same to men, she’s labelled ‘crazy’ or a ‘feminazi,’” says Sneha. Some of Preeti’s sets focus on issues like politics and rape. “Humor is a great space to get away with saying things that draw blood, but no one gets hurt,” she says. Saadiya has also talked about the casting couch in the Tamil film industry.

Pooja Vijay, 28, another Bengaluru-based comic, uses humor to talk about her stutter. Although it’s not easily noticeable, and Pooja refuses to call it a disability because, she says, it’s never felt like one, she tries to start a set by making a joke about it as an icebreaker. This way, people who aren’t sure how to respond to the stuttering start to relax and people who think she’s joking about it realize she isn’t.

Despite a growing market, the comedy industry in India is still predominantly male. Male comics are often preferred, which means there are few women comics. “There are fewer women, even in the audience,” says Preeti, echoing most women comedians’ feeling that this is still largely a “boys’ club” with a palpable culture that excludes women. “Women comics are also often paid less than their male counterparts. So there are fewer opportunities for them, which is another kind of disparity. It will still take time for people to accept that women can do comedy,” she says.

Online audiences growing

This was the main motivation behind creating Mahila Manch, which also serves as a space to discover emerging female comic talent such as Aarti Nair, who performed in public for the first time at the February edition of The Period Show. They also invite women speakers from the community to share their stories.

Audiences exist online and in real life, and both are equally important. “Facebook and YouTube are the only space available to upcoming comics,” says Vasanth Subramanian, the head of digital content at Evam Standup Tamasha, an arts organization that manages about 15 stand-up comics. “Facebook is a promotional platform where comics try to convert [performances] to ticket sales. YouTube is a discovery platform. The big players [Netflix, Amazon Prime] are for comics who already have a significant digital reach.”

As far as physical spaces go, open mics, where old and new comics try out new material, 10-15 minute slots in pub shows on a weekly basis, 30-minute slots to headline a show, festivals and corporate shows are largely the formats that now exist. “The frequency is increasing, the culture in on the rise,” says Rabhinder Kannan, the Stand-Up Comedy Division Lead at Evam.

“As women, we’re not encouraged to be outspoken. We need more female voices and perspectives,” says Pooja, who adds that being a comedian with a speech impediment encourages other stutterers to get onstage. “We need to get used to seeing more diversity on stage. Would you tell a fat person not to go on stage?” asks Saadiya. “Do it, do it, do it,” says Pooja. “There’s an audience for everyone.”

Ayesha Aleem is a Bangalore​-​​based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.

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