(Clockwise from top left) Kajol Srinivasan, Jeeya Sethi, Ankita Shrivastav, Radhika Vaz and Sonali Thakker
BACK IN 2020, WHEN THE PANDEMIC had led to the closure of all performance venues, like many standup comics, Jeeya Sethi took her gig online. Sethi is a popular name in Mumbai’s standup comedy circuit. She doesn’t just do her own acts, but also organises events across the city. In the initial months of the pandemic, people would pay to watch standup shows on Zoom, but by October, fatigue had set in, and comics like Sethi had begun to host free shows. That evening, as she performed her set, among the audience online, she could see that one individual did not have his camera directed onto his face.
It was on his genitals.
Sethi removed him from the show. But all through that evening, he would keep trying to get back in, changing his ID and display image. Once, when he managed to log in, he even started playing porn in the background.
“It’s always boys,” she says, talking about the ways in which young men constantly harass female comics online. “I kinda get mad that boys that have never shaved in their life are calling me l****. I have a video [online] where I say I don’t like cricket, and a lot of cricket fans have given gaalis [abuse]. I have disabled comments from that video, now these boys go to other videos and comment there, saying, ‘Why have you disabled comments?’ Just faceless people and I don’t care for them.”
Sethi is part of a new crop of female comedians transforming the still relatively new and very male industry of standup comedy in India. There might have once been just a handful of women in this space but they now seem everywhere, from clips circulating on social media, Netflix and Amazon Prime specials, to the stages of live venues. Writing edgy content from a female point of view, describing very distinct experiences like what it means to be a Muslim woman in India today or how feminism plays out in the lives of women in small towns and cities, delivering lines with crackling irreverence and sometimes with the foulest of mouths, all this while standing up to hecklers and bullies online, comics like Sethi are shattering stereotypes and showing that comedy isn’t gendered.
For many years after the standup comedy scene first emerged in India in the mid- 2000s with the establishment of comedy clubs in cities like Mumbai, one could count the number of female performers on the fingers of your hand. Men dominated the industry. Their sets were still heavily reliant on wife and girlfriend jokes. Large comedy events featured no, or just the occasional, woman. When Amazon Prime Video inked its first deal with 14 popular Indian standup comics a few years ago, not a single one was a woman. While the industry was more urbane and presumably more progressive, it did not seem very far removed from the comic landscape of mainstream TV, where the women in comedy were either overweight, or on shows such as that of Kapil Sharma’s, where men played women in drag, and the only real woman served the purpose of being the butt of sexist jokes.
There might have once been just a handful of women in standup comedy but they now seem everywhere, from clips circulating on social media, Netflix and Amazon Prime specials, to the stages of live venues
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Radhika Vaz, a former advertising professional, was among the earliest female standup comics in India. She had begun her career in improv comedy in her early-30s in the US, not realising, she says, that in the predominantly young, white male world of comedy in the US, being older, female and brown were all problems. “By the time I got to realise how f***** I was, it had been a few years, and I was embedded in it. I couldn’t back out because of these perceived disadvantages,” she says. “And these weren’t really disadvantages, these were just facts of the game.” While the world of comedy was dominated by white young males in the US, when Vaz returned to India, she found that comedy here was all about being a young man. “The thing with comedy is that it is a reflection of every job on the planet. Very few jobs are handed to women. Just the way it is. Comedy is not a sexist-free zone because the rest of the world is not sexist-free,” she says.
By 2012, when the likes of Sonali Thakker took to standup comedy, women comics were still considered rare. When a host would introduce a female comic before her set, she recalls, he would appear to highlight her gender by stressing every feminine pronoun. “The whole standup scene was a relatively new art form for audiences. On top of that, a female comic was seen as a new element,” she says.
But this changed with the explosion of smartphone penetration in India. Even though the standup scene was still heavily male-dominated, female comics suddenly had a new avenue online. “You had to perform for years, depending on word of mouth earlier. Now, if one [online] video worked, you could fill a few 100 seats, corporate shows opened up, and you could pursue this professionally,” says Ankita Shrivastav, a popular standup comic who goes by the moniker Filmychokri online. Shrivastav, who acted in films and TV shows earlier, moved to standup comedy because, unlike acting, she says, it provided for immediate artistic satisfaction in the form of laughs and applause from the audience. It was a short online video back in 2016, she points out, which after going viral enabled her to pursue a career in standup. The arrival on streaming platforms of standup comedy shows like Comicstaan, Ladies Up and Queens of Comedy also led to the emergence of even more female comics.
Writing edgy content from a female point of view, describing very distinct experiences like what it means to be a Muslim woman in India today or how feminism plays out in the lives of women in small towns and cities, delivering lines with crackling irreverence and sometimes with the foulest of mouths, all this while standing up to hecklers and bullies online, comics like Sethi are shattering stereotypes
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What has also changed, says Kajol Srinivasan, a popular comic in Mumbai, is a new generation of audiences and their value systems. “The whole comedy scene has become more inclusive. There are some issues and people will say, ‘Oh, you can’t say things anymore’, ‘Everything has become too woke’. But I think it’s better when you are moving towards more inclusivity,” says Srinivasan. “One of the big reasons for this, I think, is the change in the audience. The generation gap [and value systems] between the millennial and Gen Z is huge.”
While there is a visible difference in the standup scene compared to about a decade ago, it is a long way from being perfect. The industry around humour still brands jokes centred on female experiences as female comedy, while jokes around male experiences get privileged as just comedy. “People react differently to women in general. [Men online] will say women only talk about bra and periods, but [when] male comics joke on masturbation, no one ever says men only talk about masturbation,” Sethi says.
There are also subjects, for instance, around sexuality, which when a woman makes a joke about it, leads to discomfort. “At a recent corporate gig, when I cracked some risqué jokes, all the men looked uncomfortable and the women seemed embarrassed,” says Srinivasan, while talking about how male comics will be invited by the senior management to hang out with them over drinks after such events, but for female comics, they will at best get a human resources intern who will show her the way to dinner. Srinivasan also does not hold back on politically charged material. Once at a club in Mumbai, when an audience member took issue with one of her jokes about a popular but divisive politician, she had to escape through the kitchen at the back of the bar to avoid any harm coming her way.
By 2012, when the likes of Sonali Thakker took to standup comedy, women comics were still considered rare. When a host would introduce a female comic before her set, she recalls, he would appear to highlight her gender by stressing every feminine pronoun
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THE DOUBLE STANDARD over the way female comics are judged has also led to some interesting experiments. Sumukhi Suresh, a popular name in the comedy circuit, occasionally performs Disgust Me, a women-only private show with plenty of sex jokes. She began to do this when she realised how uncomfortable women became when fellatio jokes were cracked in the company of men. Through her comedy-focused events company Comedy Ladder, Sethi organises a show, titled ‘FemaPalooza’, where only women perform jokes for women. “The idea is to create a safe space for women, to have a stage with zero judgement and to have more than one woman in the green room,” she says, pointing to how until not so recently, she would invariably find herself the only woman in the green room during open mic events. Another event she organises, titled ‘Women Slay’, gives a discount for women watching it. She says these initiatives are also meant to encourage more women to come to comedy shows.
The internet may have provided a new playground for comics, but it still remains largely male and so a female comic has to either tailor her material in a way that resonates with both men and women, Shrivastav points out, or she can stay true to her own experiences and just accept that her work will have a smaller reach. “It is just an inherent bias. You can’t fight it,” she says. While it might seem the comedy landscape has altered dramatically, with more female comics entering the scene, she points out that for every 20 male comics making a living through this profession, there is probably just one woman doing the same.
There is also a lot of abuse directed towards female comics online. Threats and dick pics invariably fill up their inboxes. Their videos get inundated with comments like “women are unfunny” or on their appearances. Vaz, who has been subjected to vicious trolling in the past, has had to consciously cut down on her interactions online. “It was just not worth the peace of mind,” she says.
From the obstacles women face at the start of their careers when they struggle to get permission from families to step out in the night to perform, to encountering green rooms and audiences that are still mostly filled by men, there are many ways in which sexism pervades throughout the standup comedy scene
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From the obstacles women face at the start of their careers when they struggle to get permission from families to step out in the night to perform, to encountering green rooms and audiences that are still mostly filled by men, there are many ways in which sexism pervades throughout the standup comedy scene. While Shrivastav has learnt to deal with the occasional heckler on the show or an online troll who will make sexist comments, what has remained difficult for her are the crowds at college events. They would shout together, preempt her lines, and generally make it impossible for her to complete her set. “It was so difficult because I wouldn’t know how to proceed,” she says. She would sometimes pause mid-way or tell them to behave. At one point, she even began to dress differently, wearing shirts and trousers to appear more formal and authoritative. But it never worked. Male comics, she says, don’t face the same issue.
“Men don’t listen to women. It boils down to that,” she says. “A woman on stage, having an opinion, cracking jokes, I don’t think the Indian society is still completely ready for that.”