I wrote this for an event called “Women at Work” organised by Senior Editor of Firstpost.com, Deepanjana Pal. It is a description of my experiences as a woman working in the English stand-up comedy market in India. It was probably the most warm, lovely environment to speak in and for someone who is supposed to talk to people for a living, I was terrified of saying a lot of things I said below. (This is an edited version)
I am a woman. I am also a stand-up comedian. I go on stage, I tell what I think are jokes. On a good day people laugh, on a bad one they leave tut-tutting about the “gandi ladki who was saying all those dirty dirty things.” I was asked to choose if I identified with more, being a woman, or being a stand-up comedian. Being asked to choose implies that if I am one I cannot be the other. I’d like to borrow a quote from a report released by the detachable-genital dept of John Hopkin University, when I say “You can’t.” I end up carrying my womanliness when I am on stage every single time. Also, I’d love to hear the answer when a man is asked if he identifies more with being a MAN than whatever profession he’s in.
To me, comedy is truth. It’s terrifying to be all alone on stage with just a mic, no background dancers, no music, no flashy lights. It’s a vulnerable place to be in. And when vulnerable, just like always, honesty is the best policy. Being fake results in contrived jokes about Punjabis being loud, Gujratis being cheap and Parsi’s being…few. They’re hilarious sure, but they’re not very hard to come up with. When people ask me if I write my stand-up comedy from a female perspective I feel confounded. Who else’s perspective am I going to write from? My truth is that I am a woman, and my truth is comedy. I cannot deny one for the other. To be honest, when I started out, I did not know it was a big deal for a woman to do comedy. I just went along doing shows like any of the boys would. It was only when a journalist earnestly asked me after a show, “Women are not funny. Why?” did it hit home. I was being asked to justify what I was doing, WHILE I was doing it. It is after that, that I suddenly felt the need to justify my jokes on stage. I’d start my jokes on Vaginal tightening cream by saying “I’m not a pervert or anything,” when in reality I am a huge pervert. Today, I am done justifying myself. Now when I am asked why women are not funny, my answer is “Next question please.” Incidentally, the same journalist also posed the question “so you’re a funny woman, they’re either considered crazy or sluts. Which one are you?” I said “Both.” For some reason that question never made it to print.
I remember listening to an ad for a show I did in Delhi. In it, they described me as a fiery feminist. Coz apparently feminists who keep their cool don’t exist. But I remember wondering why. The men had their humor described as “political” “observational” “satirical” while everything that came out of my mouth was lumped into my gender. When a fellow comic announced me on stage as “India’s #1 female comedian” I had to gently remind him that I did not have an entire genre of comedy in my pants. And to clarify, in no way, am I ashamed of being called a feminist. In fact it breaks my heart when I hear well educated women go “Oh God ya, all this nari Shakti and all please I don’t do.”
Is stand-up comedy a boys club? Numerically, yes. It is. It’s easier to make people cry then make them laugh– comedy can be pretty daunting and risky. Personally, when I started doing stand-up comedy, I had nothing to lose. I had just been laid off from a job in New York and returned to Mumbai, the prodigal black sheep of the family was back to bleating on familiar pastures. If I didn’t spend my evenings at open mics (where comics try out new material and jokes), I would have spent them drinking massive glasses of Horlicks and crying myself to sleep. The nature of laughter is such, you can never 100% of the time tell when people are laughing with you or at you. That can be discomforting. As a woman, we are taught to take ourselves 100% seriously. A well meaning gentleman came up to me after a show once and said “Beta lovely comedy, but….do you parents know that you are saying all these things on stage? Accha ladka kaise milega?” His concern for my love life was heart -warming. As to why there are few women in stand-up comedy today, I say, give it time. Even nurses and secretaries and teachers were “boys clubs” at one time. We are on our way there.
I am lucky that my ultimate boss is the audience. If they like you, you will get work. But getting booked for gigs can be tricky. I have been included in stand-up comedy shows because sometimes, they just need a woman to “sexy up” things a bit. And then I have had shows denied to me because “yaar tum ladies ho, ye boys college hai, tujhe maar dalenge.” Often it’s not economically viable to book me for travelling gigs in groups because I cannot share a room with the guys, and so one room has to be specifically reserved for me which raises costs.
But stand-up comedy, as we know, is still a very nascent industry. With the English language barrier we only cater to the upper middle class, a market that has the disposable income to enjoy the indulgences of a comedy club. As mentioned, I was not aware, when I started out that a woman doing comedy was supposed to be as rare as a monkey being able to quote Shakespeare.
500 shows later, I can confidently say that to most audiences, if you’re funny, you’re funny. It barely matters what is in your pants. Even the few times that I am reminded of it by a heckler, I know the audience is on my side. At a New Year’s Eve Show of 2013, a drunk heckler kept yelling about the BIG BLACK MIKE in hand and how I should suck on it and lick the tip, the audience roared with approval when I said “Since you know such great penis sucking techniques, why don’t you do it yourself? My mouth is busy with telling jokes right now.” After all, the audience didn’t pay 500 bucks for a comedy show to watch the performer tank simply because she has a vagina. After shows, in the guise of taking photographs, many a penis has been rubbed against my groin and my boob has been grabbed so many times, I fear I’m losing sensation in the area.
I’ve answered questions about my relationship with event organizers who book me too often “You’re sleeping with him na? That’s why he keeps booking you,” someone postulates. It is unimaginable to some that I might be booking gigs because I am actually funny. “You’re only getting this much work because you’re a woman,” others have stated. Again, not because I’m funny, but because I am a woman. In the past I’ve spent so much time crying in the St. Andrews auditorium’s ladies bathroom, that now, even when I go there to pee, tears spring to my eyes.
What scares me right now, is the knee jerk feminism that our country has adopted in the past year and what it really says about our attitudes towards women. Everyone’s talking about it, panels are being organized and media outlets cannot wait to get their pixelated paws into the “WOMAN” market with non saas bahu programming. While on a panel with 4 other, feisty, intelligent women, where I was obviously tacked on as the “funny” element of the event, the subject of the Mallika Sherawat video from Vanity Fair came up. Where she said that India was regressive and hypocritical when it came to women. I was shocked to hear one of the panelists respond with “What a bitch, she can’t even talk properly because her lips are so fake and she’s talking nonsense about my country,” I jumped in to defend her. “Well, she didn’t lie. We have rapes, dowry deaths, female infanticide…” and before I could finish my sentence the producer jumped in. “Arre comedy-waali, why are you getting so serious? You can’t say “rape” and all on this platform.” Apparently the word bitch was ok, but rape—that’s a No No.
I’ve said no to several interviews when they begin their story with “Well, you know, with all the horrible stories about women coming out of India today, yours will be a positive one.” It horrifies me that the fact that I’ve not been left dead in a ditch with my head copped off in spite of speaking my mind, is a reason to celebrate.
In the last season of Kaun Banega Crorepati, Amitabh Bacchan waxed eloquent about EVERY woman that broke through the fastest finger first round. “Dekhiye” he declared, “Naari Shakti. Ek naari humare saath iss kursi par baithgi aur questions answer karegi.” We are being exulted for being alive. And that’s scary too. The higher the pedestal on which we place women, the more vehemently we will react when women divert from it. We don’t want to be your Madonna and we don’t want to be your whore, we don’t want to be your ghar ki izzat and we don’t want to be your office ki shaan. We want to be us.