India’s comedy heritage is one that can be celebrated with as much ease as its tradition of music, dance, films, art and architecture. Right from Akbar’s court jester, Birbal to the modern greats like Mehmood, Kishore Kumar, Mukhri, Keshto Mukherjee, Johnny Walker, Johnny Lever and Paresh Rawal, India’s comedy reservoir has been rich and full. Radhika Vaz, a comedian and a writer, in an interview had once said, “While growing up I knew I either had to be funny or pretty. I chose to be funny.”
The women in India are now taking a cue from that and leaving their imprint on stand-up comedy, comedy sketches and improvisation acts. The changing perception of entertainment has made India diversify the mediums of finding it on the go; on their phones while commuting or during office lunch-breaks. The country is thus opening up to an array of entertainers, including some female comedians who are not just feather-tickling but bone-rattling good at what they do.
Laughter as a medicine
Amidst the staple, and mostly stale, fair of mainstream comedy shows on TV, social platforms like YouTube offer a refreshing alternative. Established and upcoming comedians produce shows with innovative content. It is, however, a glaring reality to find a stark imbalance in the male-female ratio. In the comedy business this is not simply a social commentary. “We live in a sexist world. Anybody who says we don’t, are either too privileged or are lying. Naturally, there is an obvious imbalance between the number of men and women taking charge of comedy, as is the case in any industry in India,” reaffirms Radhika, who has pioneered the stand-up movement in India, with her productions, “Unladylike” and “Older. Angrier. Hairier.” have been sold-out in New York, Los Angeles and all major Indian cities.
No Country for Funny Women?
Kaneez Surkha is a well-known Improvisation, Sketches and Stand-Up artist, whose television appearances in the CNN-News18 show, The Week That Wasn’t, is very popular. When she is specifically asked about her role in the industry as a female comedian, she opines, “There was a time when I used to feel that the question itself is sexist, but with time I realised that it is an important question to address. As a woman in the entertainment industry people often expect me to be prettier. But that is not my skill set. When I go to a comedy event in the city where there is a female comedian on stage, it is not uncommon to find the men exclaim about how the woman is so attractive. But that is scarcely the point. Did you hear a word of what she said?”
Sexism, Feminism, Rationalism
Radhika highlights the crux of the plight of female comedians in the country, “Here in India, we are primarily a patriarchal society. We are brought up being asked not to make noise. ‘Be a good girl, don’t make a scene or a fuss, behave yourself’. The problem with being in comedy is just the opposite – if you behave yourself, nobody is going to laugh. If you behave yourself as a comedian, you won’t do justice to the craft.”
‘Women in Comedy’, in partnership with YWCA Metropolitan Chicago, presented an all-female comedy show ‘A Love Letter to Myself’ in February earlier this year. It leaves one pondering about how the imbalance can be combated. Radhika explains, “When we have a festival, we shouldn’t have a panel without a female comedian. When the billing is all male, it leaves you wondering, could you not have looked hard enough to find a woman to put alongside the men? So when organisers do happen to include a woman in the panel it is obvious that they acknowledge the imbalance and want to change it. ”
Remarking on the plight of female performers and their expression of preferences in front of an audience, she states, “It is difficult for women to even perform on stage in this country. A young girl in Bangalore once said that she has a series of below –the-belt jokes but was afraid of cracking them, for the fear of how people will judge her. So I usually have a cry out for the women who want to have more of their problems addressed by way of comedy and enjoy female comedians to take their male friends and go.”
They say, laughter is the shortest distance between people. The comedy industry is in the safe hands of women who are slowly bridging gaps in the country.