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What makes India’s women comedians tick

What fuels the humour of our women comedians and what this tells us about ourselves
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First Published: Sat, Jul 06 2013. 12 48 AM IST
Neeti Palta performing at Cooper’s Grill & Bar, Gurgaon. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Neeti Palta performing at Cooper’s Grill & Bar, Gurgaon. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Updated: Sun, Jul 07 2013. 05 52 PM IST
When the floodlights dim and Aditi Mittal’s bespectacled, ebullient face takes the stage, applause and faint yoo-hoos erupt inside the Canvas Laugh Factory.
One of Mumbai’s favoured hubs for comedy, its spectators are usually button-down and English-speaking. The cheers have the sound of fond familiarity. Unlike in an American city, where sometimes less than $5 (around Rs.300) can buy you a ticket for a stand-up act, a venue like this charges Rs.500 as entry fee.
Mittal, 26, is a regular on the city’s stand-up comedy scene—vibrant, but not yet richly inventive in the humour. She tells us that the toughest part of her job is to be conscious of this “thinking, educated audience”, which can pay Rs.500 for a couple of hours of jokes, but not lose the naughty edge in her humour.
Mumbai-based stand-up comic Aditi Mittal performs regularly across the country. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint
Safe and apolitical is not Mittal’s style. In age, her audience is diverse—professionals in loosened ties and suits, young women with shopping bags, middle-aged couples. Well into a set on the sanitary napkin’s vexing relationship with its Indian user, and later on the vaginal tightening cream’s possible battle with the penis enlargement gel, Mittal gets some full-throated chuckles and a stock middle-class Indian response to humour involving sex: body shaking with laughter and a slight head shake from left to right, accompanied by a tch-tch sound, expressing both outrage and amusement.
The Canvas Laugh Factory is like Mittal’s second home. “Over the last three years that I have been in the scene, I have learnt that the thinking audience does not want a too animated, too screechy, too physically expressive woman comedian. But they will take all kinds of jokes from me. From a man, aggression is fine, but not so much risqué humour,” she says.
Does she get the deep-throated mirth, you know the one that goes with peals of delight? “Yes, I do,” Mittal says. “But usually in jokes that do not involve things about women. That day I performed at a Rotary Club’s women’s gathering. Silence after I mentioned the words ‘women’ and ‘masturbation’ in the same sentence. It was scary. I paused and all I could say was, ‘OK ladies, masturbation exists.’ And thank the lord, it worked, and a few of the ladies in pearls laughed.”
On Friday, Mittal, along with other stand-up comedians, hosted the Sadma Awards, a spoof of the “most sordid and disgusting achievements of the year in politics and Bollywood”, conceptualized and presented by Mrinal and Abhigyan Jha of Undercover Productions at Bandra’s St Andrews Auditorium.
Mittal says a set she is developing now is a verbal duel between Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. “I mean, seriously, between the two, what choice do we have?” she says.
Stand-up comedy is an aggressive, pre-emptive art. The stand-up artiste is looking for the candid, big laugh and among all the ingredients of comedy, what’s unavoidable for him is derision. He attacks everything that surrounds his audience’s life. Men are made for it. Besides, how can a man afford not to be funny? Humour is an index of desirability in men. But how many men have you encountered who consider “funny” a desirable quality in women?
"Over the three years that I’ve been in the scene, I have learnt that thethinking audience does not want a too animated, too screechy, too physicallyexpressive woman comedian."
In 2005, the Stanford University School of Medicine, US, studied the differences in the way men and women consume and react to humour. The results disproved the perception that women are not funny. Women may be more attuned to, or tolerant of, humour that is not just about the big-bang punchline, the researchers concluded. Men and women share much of the same humour-response system; both use, to a similar degree, the part of the brain responsible for semantic knowledge and juxtaposition and the part involved in language processing. But they also found that some brain regions were activated more in women. These included the left prefrontal cortex, suggesting a greater emphasis on language. The men expected the material given to them to be funny right from the start.
Pakistani author Shazaf Fatima Haider, whose Austenesque humour is directed at deriding her country’s elite in her recent book How It Happened, offers a far more plausible explanation: “Humour comes with just the right amount of pressure or suffering—not so much that it lacerates but not so little that it hardly makes a dent. I think many women suffer a lot in their marriages, in their socio-economic situations. Some can laugh it off, certainly, they have that strength of spirit; but if the suffering is constant and unending, or monotonous, the music in them dies. Humour is not just the ability to laugh, it’s the ability to transcend a situation and see it for what it is.”
Whatever the reason, there seem to be more than double the number of professional male comedians in the world than female comedians. In India, where the scene is small, aspirational and nascent, you can count the women on your fingertips. In Mumbai, Mittal is the only name that consistently crops up at all venues—which now include many bars across the north-south axis. The biweekly stand-up comedy weekends at Out of the Blue in Powai, the suburb with a calm, mossy lake and neo-Palladian mall architecture, attract big audiences. “In bars and cafés, it’s more spontaneous and chilled out,” Mittal says.
In Bangalore, there is only 53-year-old Rubi Chakravarti, who performs mostly at corporate events. Chakravarti was in Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues, directed by Arundhati Raja for Jagriti Theatre this year. “I have always been a good mimic,” she says. “It also helps that I am an exhibitionist and a bit of a megalomaniac.”
Vasu Primlani performing at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
While Mittal says most stand-up comedians in India get paid around Rs.13,000 per show, most comics are reluctant to say how much money they make per show because it can vary wildly. One estimate puts it at anywhere between Rs.10,000 and Rs.5 lakh, for the better-known comics, per corporate gig—the bread and butter for most comedians.
Their number may be small, but this slender group of women comedians is retelling, emphatically, something about us and how we negotiate being women in India. Rape, infanticide, menstruation, Punjabi fathers, body weight, electoral politics, the veil and sourpuss feminists—they are scripting generalizations we are not even used to hearing about often, let alone laughing about. “It’s important to get men’s buy-in on subjects like women’s safety,” says the Delhi-based, 40-year-old stand-up comic Vasu Primlani. It is a good time to be an English stand-up comic in the Indian metros; the venues are proliferating, and the jokes are moving beyond the recycled Gujarati-versus-Punjabi classics.
But the national appetite for humour remains the same—in the words of author Anuja Chauhan, “the cheap, double-meaningwalla jokes”.
The Comedy Circus on Sony TV, the biggest laughter and comedy show on television now, amassed big TRPs, or ratings, over the past six years (an average of 2+ TAM ratings). One of the show’s biggest stars is Amritsar’s Bharti Singh, a contemporary, animated comedian in the mould of Tun Tun and Manorama—Hindi cinema’s most prolific comedic vamps. In every film, directors wanted them as the sort of freaks they had turned their screen personas into, depending heavily on bellowing histrionics and goofy body language. Exactly in that mould, Singh, a professional pistol-shooting competitor at the national level of the sport from Punjab, made her prime-time debut with The Great Indian Laughter Challenge on Star One in 2008. Singh’s creation, Lalli, an overweight toddler from Amritsar she enacts herself, had become a household name in Punjab before she came to Mumbai’s studios.
"Our language and usage are so patriarchal. Take the connotations of the words witch and wizard, bitch and dog, spinster and bachelor, lesbian and gay. Gay is a positive word, while lesbian sounds like a disease."
Her fat girl is an unapologetically grotesque spectacle. Singh sees no conventionally redemptive future for Lalli. Like Tun Tun, she is the brain-dead, undesirable girl. But unlike Tun Tun or Manorama, or any female Hindi film comic, Lalli’s humour is a statement as much about the overweight girl as about those who make fun of overweight people. “Everything boils down to one thing,” says Singh. If you are comfortable in your skin, and you think you can laugh at yourself, you wouldn’t feel any hitch doing the same in front of audiences.” She gets invited to host award shows, to private parties, small towns across India, and even to the income-tax department’s annual get-togethers. Lalli’s audience is growing.
Lalli would be a misfire at the Canvas Laugh Factory, formerly The Comedy Store, or the various venues in Delhi where stand-up evenings are becoming routine weekend draws.
It’s open mic night at Downstairs at Zo in Hauz Khas Village, Delhi. The cozy 40-seater venue in south Delhi is packed beyond capacity, with people standing at the bar and lounging on floor cushions. Halfway through the evening, organizer and emcee Raghav Mandava says the next act is someone who has shattered the common perception that women are not funny. As 35-year-old Neeti Palta makes her way to the small stage from among the audience, grinning from ear to ear, he adds that she’s just returned after a show in Melbourne, Australia.
Dressed in a white top, red capris and sandals, Palta has a studied unremarkableness about her. “You can’t stand out too much when you’re doing a show,” she says. “I would much rather people focus on what I have to say than on what I am wearing.” The only sparkle she allows herself is a pair of silver sneakers. “I feel somehow empowered when I wear sneakers on stage. There’s an extra bounce in your step, you are somehow more cocky. And there’s always the added advantage that you can run off stage if it’s not going too well.”
Almost everything she says ends in a ta-da punchline moment. “Growing up, my big brother and I were always punching and punchlining each other. Mom would scold us saying, “You don’t always have to get the last word”. An army child who lived in Nagrota in Jammu and Kashmir, Kalimpong in West Bengal and Ambala in Haryana, Palta’s big ambition was to become a policewoman. “Kiran Bedi would jump out of Jeeps before they came to a complete halt and wield a danda (stick). That was so cool,” she says. Her uncle was a policeman at the Parliament Street police station in Delhi, and she would often see Bedi at work.
"I feel somehow empowered when I wear sneakers on stage. There’s an extra bounce in your step, you are somehow more cocky. And there’s always the added advantage that you can run off stage if it’s not going too well."
But her disapproving grandfather and that minor hurdle of the Indian Police Service exam forced her to reconsider. “I walked around the house with a cap and a magnifying glass, pretending I was Vijay detective. Vijay, because I liked Amitabh Bachchan so much.”
Her next career ambition was to become a college professor. She would spend hours at The British Council library in Connaught Place during her college years. “I even wore fake glasses so the librarian would think me studious,” she adds. But this too was not to be.
Next, she talked her way into a job in advertising. When she quit after 10 years as creative director at JWT in Delhi, her father was distraught. But she started doing well at Sesame Street India (Galli Galli Sim Sim) as a writer, eventually leaving it around four years later to become a stand-up comedian.
It’s difficult to reconcile these two images of Palta—as someone who sets score by what her family has to say as well as a woman who charts her own path. “Most people don’t know this, but I married at the age of 20. I would take my brother’s bike and go off into the hills. I wanted to be a travel journalist then, and my parents worried. They worried not because they thought I would hang out with boys, but because they feared I would become too engrossed in my work and never marry,” she says. Her husband does not like to be written or talked about, but is a supportive force in her life.
Palta’s comedy derives from observing life as a girl. She had earlier written the joke to say that female foeticide meant shorter queues for her. But the “dark humour” did not go down too well with audiences. She retired that joke and worked on something more palatable. She gets applause when she reasons that now that there are so few women, men get what they deserve: the company of other men.
Back at Zo, an audience member shouts out: “Marry me, Neeti.” Heckling is a part of stand-up comedy the world over, and Palta is a past master at handling it. She points to her 5ft, 2 inches frame and says she is “high maintenance”—he needs to make loads more money before asking her again. The audience member is oddly pleased at the snub, and the comic remains unfazed by the interruption.
Primlani was a comic in California, US, before she returned to Delhi, where she grew up. In the US—her first show was at a café called Annie’s in San Francisco—her humour was more concerned with issues of the environment—she has a joke about phthalates, a substance used to soften certain kinds of plastics in things like children’s toys and thought to be carcinogenic. But she can’t assume her Indian audience knows about it.
Aditi Mittal at the Canvas Laugh Factory. Photo: Manoj Patil/Mint
Here, she is known for her jokes on alternative sexuality. “Our language and usage are so patriarchal. Take the connotations of the words witch and wizard, bitch and dog, spinster and bachelor, lesbian and gay. Gay is a positive word, while lesbian sounds like a disease,” she says, making a face. “In Delhi men and women hate each other. It’s not so in Mumbai and Bangalore.”
Primlani is a rock climber; her nimble, fireball stage persona is like an extension of her sinewy shoulders and back. A victim of child sexual abuse, she is frank about her past: “You can’t work a subject into your stand-up act unless you have made some peace with it. It can’t be a stage for you to resolve your issues.”
At the other end of the spectrum, 67-year-old Kamla Bhasin uses the stand-up format as a political tool. A feminist activist and co-founder of the NGO Jagori, Delhi-based Bhasin has written joke books and performed recently at the India Habitat Centre in central Delhi. She believes a lot can be said in fun. “Patriarchy is so ridiculous, you can’t tolerate it without laughing about it.” Bhasin’s humour is also a sort of attempt to take the “ism” out of feminism, to make academic feminist thoughts less grim and more accessible.
The Indian funny girl is not a sudden anomaly. A comic look at the urban woman’s existentialist dilemmas was fodder for Manjula Padmanabhan's cartoon strip Suki, which first appeared in the Sunday Observer in the early 1980s and is now Double Talk, a book published by Penguin India.
Suki is hilarious, in a droll, self-effacing way. She is the kurta-wearing urban prototype who is bored, sometimes giddily satisfied and sometimes utterly frustrated with her life in a much simpler Bombay. She loves her boyfriend with her “entire endocrine system”, tries every fad diet and then goes back to her original weight, and narrates autobiographical vignettes while fumbling for a cigarette lighter in her overcrowded bag. “She wasn’t ‘me’ at all, but I thought of her as a kind of virtual companion,” says Padmanabhan.
Literature and cartoon strips by women in which humour illuminates women’s place in society has been the subject of independent research, and a veritable reading list. The Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW) recently published the cartoons of Maya Kamath in a book. Regional humour writers include Kannada author Bhuvaneshwari Hegde, who contributed regularly to Nagemugulu, a Kannada humour monthly magazine published from Tumkur.
Sisters Savitri Kochar (left) and Mamta Surana are regulars on the Mumbai ‘Hasya Kavi’ circuit. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
The pantheon of performance humour in India, the hasya kavi sammelan or poets’ meet, has had some prolific women poets. Doordarshan has always dedicated a slot to hasya kavi sammelans, and its most famous practitioner, the brilliant deadpan comic Surendra Sharma, popularized the form beyond Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, where it thrives with some adaptations.
The poets no longer squat on the floor, for instance. “The jokes are shorter, the punchline has to come faster these days,” says 58-year-old Savitri Kochar, a regular at Mumbai’s hasya kavi gatherings. She has just returned from an all-nighter in Rajasthan. Kochar’s subjects are, in her own words, “sundry and related to family issues”. Known for a gentle brand of political satire and comic duels with male poets about gender, Kochar, along with her sister, 48-year-old Mamta Surana, also uses humour in a trademark show that combines stand-up comedy with a spontaneous agony aunt session for women.
"The jokes are shorter, the punchline has to come faster these days."
“A few years ago, I called up the Laughter Challenge (the Star One show) producers. They took long, too long, to decide whether I was fit for the show because it is a show that depends heavily on make-up, what you wear, how animated you are,” says Kochar. The sisters, whose roots are in Chhattisgarh, have performed at Hindi-speaking women’s forums in the US and India, besides regular gigs in Mumbai. “Everyone takes me seriously at home. When they see me in my shows, they see a different me,” says Kochar. “We get asked whether our husbands are supportive about this unusual profession. Even if they weren’t we’d make sure they were supportive,” adds Surana.
The sisters laugh uproariously, and inside the office of Kochar’s husband and sons, both chartered accountants, the silence of accountants at work breaks abruptly. Their heads turn and they laugh. Like a slice of urban India, they are warming up to a lady’s sense of humour.
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First Published: Sat, Jul 06 2013. 12 48 AM IST