At the now infamous All India Bakchod Knockout roast last year, comedian Aditi Mittal told this joke about her fellow panellist Abish Mathew: “Abish, if a girl has sex with you she becomes a virgin again. You are literally a hymen repairman.” Though hardly the most vulgar joke of the evening, suddenly Mittal was fielding cancellations for shows she’d booked with corporates who wanted a “female performer” for International Women’s Day, typically one of Mittal’s busiest performance days of the year.
Mittal, along with Neeti Palta, Vasu Primlani, and Radhika Vaz, is considered one of the top four female Indian comedians working today. The joke is that there are only four Indian female comics, a near obligatory comment in every interview and article about these performers as well as a staple punch line in their own acts. The hymen joke is a rather tame example of the range of topics they cover. It’s all on the table: discussing sex with parents, cunnilingus, women masturbating, deciding not to have children, sex-selective abortion, aging, shit, sagging vaginas (and the beauty industry that promises to make you “18 again” with tightening cream!), rape, and menstruation including a rather brilliant piece Mittal does in which she compares talking about sanitary napkins to uttering “Voldemort” in a Hogwarts common room:
What’s so controversial about a woman talking about hymens and sanitary napkins? In an era where even a mild ‘female buddy comedy’ like Angry Indian Goddesses makes the censor board clutch their pearls, apparently it’s offensive when women say much of anything. These comedians don’t perform a genre of “female humour”, or “jokes for women” – it’s observational humour that might seem different because it reveals experiences long missing from the male-dominated Indian comedy scene (or the comedy scene anywhere, for that matter). Women might laugh harder at a bit about street harassment, though, because they’ve been on the receiving end. All of these women underscore the importance of truth and personal detail to successful comedy. The audience has to believe that you’re sharing your own experience with them in order to build the kind of trust that allows the comic to really push boundaries. As Vaz puts it, this is both the point of comedy and the reason why so few women go into the profession. At its best, stand-up uses humour to make the untouchable more accessible by getting a reaction and making a “big bloody scene” about something we wouldn’t normally discuss. But women, Vaz says, are taught to remain quiet and not make a scene, to “keep our vaginas shut, so to speak.” Vaz’s statement lacks nuance, but it’s a strategic kind of gender essentialism that forms a common thread in these women’s work. The shock value of female comedians discussing gender and sexuality in a way that seems bawdy and brash serves to draw audiences in. Once we’re hooked, however, they waste no time in renegotiating social norms about what women should do and say, invoking generalizations only to tear them down. The joke isn’t a woman yelling “vagina”, but how silly it is that some people think that she shouldn’t.
It might not just be that the truth of comedians’ material is hard to swallow, but rather that the very presence of women who are both funny and conventionally attractive using humour to their own advantage is subversive, disrupting deeply-held norms about who is ‘allowed’ to be funny. As Taran N. Khan writes about the history of funny women in Bollywood, only women considered “bizarre” in some way – the horny vamp, the fat woman, the quirky grandma – were allowed comedic capers that no decent ‘beautiful’ heroine could perform. Despite their obvious talent, actresses like Tun Tun were shunted into sideshow/sidekick roles, laughed at for their failure to be “real” desirable women. Numerous scholarly studies probing how men and women use humour show that because of norms dictating that women’s sense of humour should be limited to laughing at the jokes men make, women laughing at and for themselves makes them seem less attractive. In comedy then, as elsewhere, norm violators are punished. Anxiety still runs deep about how audiences perceive the sexuality of a female performer – who is especially dangerous if she appears conventionally attractive and gets you to laugh at the systems of power that define the parameters of women’s attractiveness. She is already in on the joke that society had hoped would go over her head.
Another way in which these performers’ acts might differ is the ways in which performing – or refusing to perform – ‘ideal’ femininity and sexuality onstage is integral to their comedy. When in an interview Vaz states that she is “barely a woman”, you get the sense she says this not to fit in as one of the guys, but because she is vehemently opposed to an ideal she doesn’t plan to embody. Vaz’s comedy has incorporated costumes like the retro femme 1960s look she rocked in her show Unladylike, in which she sipped from a delicate tea cup while ruminating on farting and “tongue-juggling” her husband’s balls. The juxtaposition was key to unmooring the audience’s expectations of what a “proper woman” is supposed to think and say. Notably, in her most recent performance, Vaz wears her everyday street clothes; one might guess that in line with the show’s title – Older, Angrier, Hairier – Vaz gives fewer fucks after 40.
When Mittal was first starting out in stand-up, she really wanted to tell jokes about sex but was concerned about the typical audience response to a female performer who refers to sex even once – that they are gandi (dirty), besharam (shameless), “obsessed with sex.” She decided to incorporate the character of Dr (Mrs) Lutchuke into her shows in order to displace the sexual topics onto the embodiment of this elderly Maharashtrian sex therapist character, known among other things for her “Guide to Losing Your Virginity”. By circumscribing sexual concerns in this way and keeping her ‘Aditi’ persona fairly buttoned-up, she tried to avoid accusations that she is only onstage because she used her sexuality to get there.
Primlani, an out lesbian, creates a different kind of tension with her performance. She relies heavily on physical comedy in her routines, and deliberately chooses young female audience members as volunteers. Though the topics are quotidian, – riding the Delhi Metro, how Indians stand in line, etc. – by openly discussing her own desire for women as she enacts these situations, she plays up rather than minimizes her sexuality, resulting at times in a palpable tension. Primlani has been both almost slapped on the face for her “insolence” by a female volunteer, as well as thanked by men promising to reform their behaviour now that she’s shown them how terrible they’ve been. She is most pleased by conversations her acts catalyse even among educated audiences after the show – by bringing the truth of her queer sexuality onstage, she overhears them questioning whether what they heard is “really true.”
If “comedy equals tragedy plus time,” as the saying goes, how do these comedians joke about things like rape and sex-selective abortion that are so close to home? Can jokes about rape ever be funny, even with a woman behind the mic? If comedy is really about sharing truth, it makes sense that women who experience a disproportionate share of sexual assault, everyday sexism, and other dangerous forms of gender- and sexuality-based discrimination would incorporate discussion of rape into their routines. When it comes to sexist treatments of rape in comedy, these comedians are more concerned about the rising ease with which Indians take offence to things – and what this says about the future of free speech – than about the existence of the jokes themselves. Intent rather than content matters most, as Palta notes in an interview: “It is something to think about, when we become a society where a comedian is afraid to tell a joke, or an artist is afraid to draw a cartoon but a rapist is not afraid to rape.” In their own work, these four show that earnest jokes about the (actual) causes of rape and how we as a society deal with it are at once heart-rending and hilarious. It is a relief to laugh not about sexual violence itself, but at the absurdity that it keeps happening, that a majority of women will experience rape in their lifetimes, and police and families continue to victim-blame whereas legislators refuse to acknowledge rape is even possible within the “sanctity” of an Indian marriage. Primlani, who has been open about the sexual abuse she experienced as a child and has given a TedX talk on the topic in 2014, recently released a video in which she explores what would happen if the police “investigated” other crimes, like a television theft, in the same way they approach rape: “Are you sure the TV has been stolen? Maybe you gave it away of your own volition.” Laughing doesn’t obviate the power dynamics that perpetuate these circumstances, but it does disrupt them. For a brief moment, we’re all in on the joke of how just how bloody absurd this reality is, and how rarely we hear the comic truth from women about the everyday violence they intimately know.
Featured in the review:
Neeti Palta performs with Delhi-based comedy outfit Loony Goons.
Aditi Mittal recently finished a tour of her debut show Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say. She is a regular performer at the Canvas Laugh Factory in Mumbai.
Radhika Vaz recently finished touring her show Older, Angrier, Hairier. She stars in the web-based comedy Shugs & Fats and posts videos on feminist topics to her YouTube Channel. Vaz also publishes a bi-weekly op-ed column, Read it and Weep in The Times of India.
Vasu Primlani performs mostly in Delhi and Mumbai, including recently at Lodi – The Garden Restaurant and with the DU Queer Collective for Pride 2015.
 And should it only be women talking about rape? Vaz thinks possibly so, but Primlani points out the importance of getting “buy in” from men on gender-based violence. Comic Daniel Fernandes, for example, has done an excellent job critiquing the Indian government’s (and Indian men’s) approach to marital rape.