My advice to you ladies—touch yourself. Once every six months, touch yourself,” says Aditi Mittal towards the end of her video titled Bra Shopping. This is the only line which is not a joke in this act, which had garnered 7,304,809 views on YouTube when I watched it earlier this week. I peer closely at the number to make sure it is actually 7.3 million. After all the jokes about the shape, size, song and even the groping of breasts on Mumbai’s locals, Mittal leaves the audience with a single takeaway. A heightened awareness of the risk of breast cancer.
I’ve been chatting, texting and talking to Aditi Mittal for over a year now. Sometimes we are friends exchanging notes, sometimes I am interviewing her, and most of the time I am trying to join the dots. What makes Mittal, one of India’s most popular stand-up comics with her own hour-long Netflix show, so preposterous and yet so resonant with audiences? She locates her jokes in the most uncomfortable moments in one’s life, and makes us laugh. And then think.
We have spoken about mothers who have the same one-liners and brothers we get along with best when they are a few continents removed from us.
“In a clean, straightforward way, you exist in the years between my daughters and me,” I type in the chat window, trying to articulate my fascination with observing Mittal. Even more than her performances, I watch her off-stage, keenly following her outspoken, self-deprecatory avatar on Twitter and Facebook. I also sense a vulnerability and want to reach there with her.
“What I love about my job is how it makes me live for a living. I have to really live, and immerse myself so I have something authentic to talk about on stage,” Mittal says as we talk about her influences. “And when I can bring the uncurated, real me on to the stage, the act always works. That’s my best preparation.”
In the middle of last year, Mittal’s father died after a brief illness. I send her a message a few days later. “I want to fly to wherever you are and laugh and cry with you a little.”
She gets back after a few hours. “No crying,” she says. “He outclassed everyone else in death. So laughing is all that is left in this life.”
I send her a red heart emoticon in the chat window. She replies with two words. “True story.”
“I believe you, Aditi,” I say.
Mittal stresses on the privileges she has enjoyed, but she is also shaped by the unconventional life she has lived. Mittal’s mother died when she was three years old. Her older brother and she have been brought up jointly by her aunt, a single woman, and her father, who never married again. The children had two homes to call their own. Mittal refers to her aunt as Mom, and her stage acts are full of jokes at her expense.
“My Mom’s mad, she is never pleased with anything,” Mittal tells me. “I hope I never please her fully. I don’t know what a look of approval looks like, and I don’t want to see it either.”
“But children usually resent this in their parents,” I say.
“My Mom’s too funny. She doesn’t give a hoot. After she saw my first performance, her friend had so much feedback and praise for me. But Mom was just like, let’s leave quickly, we don’t want our car to be stuck in traffic now. Mom taught me to be bindaas (carefree),” says Mittal. “Sometimes when my friends say, my Mom loved your show, that’s the best badge of honour for me.”
On another day, we chat about the use of personal stories in our work. “I am fascinated by truth-tellers,” says Mittal. “There are people whose work makes me pause and say, oh, he or she has revealed this also? They have said what we had assumed was unutterable.”
She recalls with much hilarity her memories of a schoolfriend’s grandmother, who used to yell at others with great abandon. “I love older women,” says Mittal. “Their giving-a-fuck filter is gone. They don’t want to seem seductive to anyone any more. I was inspired to create the character of Dr Mrs Lutchuke from watching this grandmom, who could chase you down the street if she wanted something from you. This character, with bad posture and a worse mood, allowed me to say so much on stage. I didn’t have to be Aditi Mittal saying outrageous things. I could step into the skin of the crazy Lutchuke woman and distance myself from her behaviour. It’s a fascinating device.”
I tell her that whether she cares to accept it or not, she is a role model too. It is inspiring to watch a young, single woman going on stage to perform comedy, using her body, her voice and her words to draw laughter without fear of ridicule. Stating grand truths with a lightness of touch, so the laughs come first and the shock of the revelation settles in later.
“Raise the standard of your role models, Miss,” Mittal says in her inimitable way. “Performing stand-up comedy is like an adventure sport,” she adds. “No two situations are ever the same. You can bungee-jump 10 times to practise, but the risk remains the same each time you perform. If you do badly, you die.
“There is a symbiotic relationship between the writing of the material and the performing of it. One informs the other. You are under duress when you are performing, you have to be in the moment and adapt according to the energy in that space.”
Mittal has a busy schedule and a full calendar. In the last two years, she has debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, presented a show called A Beginner’s Guide To India on BBC’s Radio 4, released her Netflix comedy special, Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say, and performed multiple shows every week. She performed 168 shows in 2017, adding new destinations like Hubli, Visakhapatnam, Guwahati, Shillong, Lucknow and Raipur in her itinerary.
“Shillong was my best audience,” she says. “Work makes me meet new people and places all the time. I am always learning from watching responses. What made them laugh? What didn’t? Sometimes the late realization on someone’s face—it’s thrilling to observe faces from the stage.”
“Where do you want to reach?” I ask Mittal. I want to know what seems like the pinnacle of achievement to a stand-up comic.
“By the mathematical odds, I feel like I have already won a lottery,” she says. “I am too lucky. Just the fact that I get to do this on a consistent basis is a win for me.” After a pause, she adds, “I want to do this till I am 90.”
“Till Dr Mrs Lutchuke and you become the same person,” I say. She laughs at the thought, giving me the thrill of having seemed funny to a comedian again.
Because I am so aware of my own inhibitions and roadblocks, I am keen to hear about the fears Mittal grapples with. “The only way to it, is through it,” she often repeats in our conversations.
“Naak pakad ke kood jaao (Hold your nose and jump in). When my father passed away, I had to leave for Edinburgh soon after. So I did. For the next few days, I knew I had to be at my spot (to perform) at 5pm every day. The necessity of it was good for me. I just had to do it, and I did.”
“Did it colour your performance in some way?” I ask.
“Who knows?” she says. “It’s all just writing in the sky. It’s there and then it’s gone. The magic was in the moment.”
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar