The star of the one-woman show Unladylike: The Pitfalls of Propriety and Older. Angrier. Hairier, Radhika Vaz is that rare Indian comedian shooting holes into deeply patriarchal mindsets and rigid conservatism.
She focuses her ire on a wide range of topics such as—patriarchy of course—but also intolerance, gender inequality and even the abuse of animals. Vaz strongly believes that writing is essential to comedy, something which is in short supply in the current comedy scene in India. Speaking to Mint after her show in Delhi last week, the 43-year-old spoke about Bollywood comedy, Kapil Sharma’s show, and how she plans to make movies in the future.
What was your first ever comedy show?
It was back in the winter of 2003 in New York, when I was part of an improv show with the troupe I had been practicing with for over a year. I wasn’t nervous because I had been taking classes with the same group of people, but I was very excited! I did wonder if I’ll be able to pull my weight. Improv never make me nervous; bigger venues, big names and corporate shows do. The last one because it’s full of men who raise [their] eyebrows at every other feminist joke.
What made you to take the classes in the first place?
I didn’t have too many friends in New York. All I was doing was going to my job in the morning, stopping by at the gym and then coming home. My husband (she calls him “Thaks”) finally suggested doing something better with my time. That’s when I chanced upon these free improv classes. I joined and liked it so much that I ended up signing up for the full course.
Do you prefer American or Indian audiences?
In today’s times, it is fair to compare an audience in NY to an audience in Bangalore because the Indian urban population—the kind of people who can relate to my jokes—are pretty exposed to the topics I talk about. But my script is very universal and I have received a very positive response from everywhere. But if we are talking about my favourites, NY will top the list. It has an emotional value as I had started from there, and then there would be Mumbai because I love its energy.
Who among Indians are the funniest people?
To me, a person is funny when he or she can take a joke like a joke. That reflects on their sense of humour rather than when they are cracking a joke themselves. So the Sardars are definitely the funniest people, because they have been accepting the Santa Banta jokes in good spirit for a very long time. That does not obviously mean I’m saying Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh is funny. Then there are the Bengalis, who have also been pretty tolerant and cool about humour targeted at them.
What do you have to say about censorship in comedy?
It’s old fashioned, muzzling and bad for everybody. That too at a time when we are talking about “India shining, Incredible India”! If you say you support freedom of speech, you cannot cherry-pick. For example, in the AIB Roast, when they were making fun of some people’s skin colour, some people’s weight, I don’t understand what offensive thing they said that has not already been material for jokes. They were mostly cracking jokes on themselves. I think the reaction towards them was ridiculous. Also, when the Haryana police came to Mumbai to arrest a comedian (Kiku Sharda)…that is when I concluded that the way we are looking at comedy is just not right.
Where do you think India is when it comes to TV comedy shows and movies?
I don’t really follow the Indian shows because my Hindi isn’t very fluent. I have watched Kapil’s [Sharma] show a couple of times and I know it is immensely successful and has a huge daily audience, but I personally am not in that audience. Though I must add that Kapil reminded me of Ellen Degeneres in the way that he is neutral, fun and quick; my only complaint is couldn’t he find fat, funny women to play fat, funny women instead of making men play those parts?
About movies… though India has a rich heritage of comedy in general, Bollywood hasn’t really contributed to that. The comedy movies that we see now (like Kya Kool Hai Hum 3 and Maastizade) are mostly inspired by the old style of the 1970s and 1980s Western world—the kind we used to see in the British Carry On movies of England which were sex comedies with innuendos. I understand they do it keeping the audience in mind. At the same time, India has seen movies like Khosla ka Ghosla and Bheja Fry which have shown originality. We just need better scripts.
Women in comedy—where does India stand?
Not enough! I think it is because some people criticize women comedians for going on and on about women’s issues and not talking about general stuff. When I’m talking about women’s issues, I am talking about general stuff because women are 50% of the population. But this criticism is perhaps the reason women shy away from comedy. I hope more and more women, even those in their 50s and 60s who have a lot of funny stories to share, come out and start telling them. Like I always say, “For comedy, you don’t need to be young, good looking or rich. It’s the exact opposite of what you need to get laid.”
You talk about armpit hair and pussy farts like it’s nobody’s business. Have there been instances when someone made it their business?
Yeah! Some people came up to me and they didn’t even know what they were saying. I remember, there was this man (obviously!) who came up to me after my show where I had spoken about how having children is a big issue for women and he said that he didn’t agree with me and had not taken it down well. I mean, I was just stating facts!
Would you choose live shows or taped episodes?
I like both. Live shows give you the adrenaline rush. It’s like a drug, like heroin. Whereas, sketches that are recorded are like that nice glass of wine. It’s a lot mellower.
Do you have plans to write for the screen or appearing in a movie or TV show?
Yes. This is, in fact, one of the major reasons why I felt like moving back to India. My web-series Shugs and Fats just won the IFP Gotham Award in November 2015 and it gave me and my sketch-partner Nadia Parvez Manzoor a big boost and we are already writing a pilot for a TV show and approaching production houses in NY. For the Indian market, the writing has to be a little different. I wish to do a lot of action movies with women which will be funny. Be it a TV show or a movie, something is definitely on the cards.
If you had to play a character from an existing Bollywood movie, what would it be?
I want to play Ranveer Singh in Bajirao Mastani with both Deepika [Padukone] and Priyanka [Chopra] swooning over me. I think I’d be a better Ranveer than Ranveer himself!