Opinion: Why women comedians have to fight harder for spotlight in India's comedy space

Written By: Srimoyee Pandit
Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Updated: Feb 07, 2018, 12:40 PM(IST)

Vasu Primlani and Anuradha Menon Photograph:( Others )

Remember Lola Kutty on Channel V? The Lola act was born in 2004. It has been more than a decade since. The popularity of comedy as a medium that entertains people with fast wit and humour has been on the rise. Anuradha Menon with her Lola Kutty act had ushered in a new style in the comedy space. It was not slapstick, not just mimicry. The content and the style of delivery was fresh, different. India was quick to lap it up.


The last few years witnessed the rise of several very gifted, quick-witted women comedians who manage to get their audience in splits every single time they don their comic hat.


In the words of comedian Vasu Primlani, a woman with a multifaceted career who plays multiple roles with great ease and grace, “Women comedians bring beautiful perspectives to the stage.”


It is fascinating how women have chosen to push all boundaries and have drawn courage to talk about things that matter- the environment, civic sense of the population, politics, religion. Women comedians have progressively become more confident of cracking jokes on erstwhile hush hush subjects like sex and relationships.  They have begun speaking of everything that makes them cringe or wonder.


And as comedians put their best foot forward to make India ROFL, the quality of the content bettered and there has been no stopping our desi jests anymore.


It would be fascinating to live in the headspace of comedians and find out how they manage to take note of something dark, the asymmetry sticking out of the regular like a sore thumb, dress this observation with great wit and present it to the audience in the most relatable manner. To make people uncomfortable by doling out a generous dose of hard-hitting reality and then make them laugh at life’s imperfections, cannot be an easy job.  


“Anyone can make you laugh on a banana peel. What does it say about me as an artist if I can bring the most negative or dark topics and shine so much light on it that you applaud?” Ms. Primlani puts it in perspective.


Sadly, however, the space is marred by strong gender bias. Ms. Primlani feels “Comedy is even more gender-skewed than engineering in India.”, while Ms. Menon is aware of the prevalent hypocrisy in this space. “There will always be difference in the way jokes are received. A man talking about masturbation seems more funny and acceptable than a woman talking about masturbation. My issue is when you say one kind of humor is more acceptable from the mouth of a man than a woman”, Ms. Menon adds.


Living in a society that is yet to get rid of archaic notions and choosing to talk on taboo subjects can be quite daunting. Discussing periods and the perceptions that dwell around it, finding the right bra size, sex and porn, taking a jibe at the male gender, is completely off limits. Attempting to make people laugh while constantly being pressurised to not give an impression of being too opinionated "for a woman” is a struggle for our women comedians.


Ms. Menon narrated an incident where she was a judge at a comedy show and was pretty taken aback when her male co-judge told a woman participant her act was not “ladylike”. Women comedians, thus, have this additional pressure to not come across as too strong, too opinionated- in a nutshell, not be anything that would defy the drafted etiquette code for women. Looks like the women participants in a comedy show are compelled to spend way too much time concentrating on acting lady like than preparing a set that is truly funny.


There is a general perception that women comedians will talk only of women things. Ms. Menon points out it is rather difficult to explain that voices are different among women comedians themselves and it is wrong to club all of them under this one ‘all women comedy show’.


The corporates who organise comedy shows for their staff do not want women comedians. Their excuse speaks a lot about why women, in general, must work way harder than their male counterparts, be it in the comedy space or any other sphere of work.

Ms. Primlani explains, “In a company that is 90% men, when they think of getting a comedian, they don't think, let me get a woman comedian. They automatically think they'll talk about women's issues that my staff won't get. When we come on stage, you can't distinguish male comedians from female ones. Professionally we are just as good, and in some cases, better.”


No wonder women comedians find it so tough to get work. Ms. Primlani wishes there was a “study on the pay comparison and how many shows female comedians get vs. men in India” to establish the glaring gender inequality in the Indian comedy space.


Audience’s response to women comedians post their act is also way different from the one a male comedian receives. There were instances when Ms. Menon was asked about what curling products she uses and about her fitness regime post her act, while she waited to catch a comment on the jokes she just cracked. At best, she was told, “you are pretty funny for a woman.”


Women comedians also draw a lot of harsh criticism for the same kind of work that bring accolades to their male counterparts. “If you go through the comments section of comedians' videos on YouTube, you'll see the underbelly of every nation. How vicious, how angry, how illogical people can be.”, Ms. Primlani noted. 


A journalist challenged her once asking her how dare she cracked rape jokes? She, who is a rape survivor herself gave a befitting reply, “My point in doing jokes about these topics is not because of these topics are funny, but precisely because they are not. When I use comedy to deliver a message, not only will you talk about it, the message will be so memorable, you will even go repeat the message again and again.”


Ms. Menon drew a lot of flak for her ‘relationship with the mother-in-law' act. People thought she was a ‘modern frustrated woman hanging her dirty laundry in public'.


Wonder why a guy’s joke on his equation with his mother in law is so readily accepted and received with loud applause, while a woman’s joke on the same manages to get some hard to hear, suppressed giggles?


The sexual harassment that a woman comedian is compelled to counter from not just audience, but their male counterpart as well further adds to the tale of their harrowing experience.

Ms. Primlani was appalled when a male comedian asked what his name meant responded saying it meant large dick. “Even at this stage, at his level of claimed professionalism, he is STILL making dick jokes? Seriously?”, she exclaims.


While all these dick jokes are being cracked, we as a society continue to doubt the prowess of our women comedians even when the likes of Anuradha Menon, Vasu Primlani, Aditi Mittal, Mallika Dua, Radhika Vaz have time and again proved their mettle. Why? Simply because they are the women kind and the society think women can’t really be funny.


When the going gets tough our women comedians draw strength from their commitment to their craft. And that is beautiful.

“Just keep at it”, is Ms. Primlani's advice to the budding women comedians. Ms. Menon who gears up to soon launch another special of hers, Wonder Menon, feels women aspiring to be comedians must first wet their feet at All-Women's Open Mic, given the “feeling of sisterhood” that these platforms provide before moving on to regular open mics and get integrated into the mainstream.


 The audience must, however, first learn to appreciate a joke for the fun quotient without seating themselves on higher moral pedestals and judging the comedians based on their gender.


You go, girl!


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)  

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