The plight of female comedians in India

The other day whilst chit-chatting with a friend of mine, we got into the topic of discussing a new stand-up comedian that I had discovered and how funny his jokes and observations were. As the conversation went on, I told my friend about the lack of female representation in India’s comedy scene. To which, with outmost politeness he replied, “I know what it is going to sound like and I know it might be a problematic view in several ways, but none of the female stand-up comedians in India really are funny.” I countered his view obviously, and he seemed to accept it at least as a satisfactory counter-argument and the conversation steered in a different direction. But it got me thinking, is this why female comedians in India are not getting opportunities? Is this how the majority view them? And most importantly, are women really not funny?

The earliest personality that I can remember who commercialized the modern comedy genera and brought laughter to many households and to all kinds of people, was Charlie Chaplin. How many iconic female comedians from back in the day could I recall? None. Of course, now there are recently popular famous female comedians like Ellen DeGeneres, Amy Schumer, Tina Frey, Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling from the other side of the globe to our very own Sumukhi Suresh, Kaneez Surka, Aditi Mittal, Malika Dua, Aishwarya Mohanrai etc. to name a few. But I thought that cannot be it. Is the presence of female perspective in mainstream comedy genera in India that recent? So after raking my memory a little bit more, the earliest memory that I could think of, a female character that made me laugh was Chachi from the 1997 Bollywood movie ‘Chachi 420’[1]. But even in that movie, Chachi wasn’t really a female lead, what we were laughing at was a man cross dressing. I am not questioning the subjectivity of the humour level of the film but about my memory’s revelation of how little women’s engagement with mainstream comedy has been over the years in India. This article is an attempt towards understanding the female comedy scene in India, especially the stand-up genera.

Intersectionality

Kimberle Crenshaw was the first to put forward the concept of intersectionality to explain the problems of discrimination- comprising the dual factors of race and gender, faced by African American women[2]. Intersectionality as a concept is exactly what it sounds like, it contends that a person does not have a singular identity and often there is an overlap of these identities. So the discrimination in society or the troubles that they have in leading life is a result of the combination of these identities. They cannot be looked at as exclusive aspects of someone’s identity. Paula M. Caldwell in her famous article explores the ignorance of courts and therefore, society in general, towards the concept of intersectionality through the case of Rogers v. American Airlines[3]. Considering, the concept of intersectionality in the case of Indian female comedians. There is a clash of gender and their unconventional career choice which is posing problems in women succeeding in the field of comedy. Being a woman and being funny are still seen as exclusive of each other. Comments like ‘oh she’s so funny for a girl’ are passed around as though it isn’t sexist at all. It don’t make sense to me, if it supposed be a compliment or a critique? People somehow cannot wrap their heads around the fact that a woman can be funny. A step forward in improving lives of female comedians and aspiring female comedians in India is to acknowledge that there is a there is a female problem in the comedy scene[4].

Ways of seeing

“It’s not that female comedians in India aren’t funny, perhaps the fact that we literally cannot remember growing up watching any iconic female comedian is the problem. We are not used to this idea.” Was the comeback that I replied with, feeling slightly defensive, when my friend said that he doesn’t think that funny female comedians exist is India at the moment.

John Berger in his famous book Ways of Seeing, wrote that, “The way we see things is affected by what we know or what we believe.”[5] The existence of systematic patriarchy cannot be ignored and our limited perception of what jobs women should do are constantly evolving as society evolves towards taking a more progressive stance. There should be an acknowledgement that this biased view of what comedy should be and by whom, causes people to be either highly critical of new comers of the comedy world: women, or outright refuse to give a listen to them, to even entertain the idea that a woman indeed, can be funny and make people laugh.

John Berger says, in the context of old European oil paintings about women and how the ‘nude’ category of such paintings were always reserved for woman as a subject. He says that men look and women look at themselves being looked at. Objectification of women has not ended. To give a simple analogy about objectification, suppose the pen that you write with, comes to you one day and tells you what to write and how to write. Firstly, you’d be surprised that a pen can have thoughts. That they might not be just a pen that you use to project your thoughts and ideas, but something that has independent agency. Secondly, your ego would tell you how can something that you have used for so long, take a break from being an object and tell you how to do your job. How can the pen now point out your spelling mistakes?

But John Berger’s idea of objectification of women only stands because the paintings were made keeping in mind the male audience that was in majority at that time. What about now? Surely times have changed now and it is no longer a mono-gendered audience. The fact is, even if women today have become a part of the consumer population, they were brought up in the same persistent patriarchal society. When somebody says that there aren’t any funny female comedians, they are ignoring the patriarchal power structure at play here, limiting or denying opportunities to female comics. The existence of female comedians are proof in itself about how women are actively pursuing to demolish patriarchy.

India’s film industry’s role in perpetuating patriarchy

In one of the essays in her book, Laura Mulvey argues that Hollywood’s portrayal of women is sexist and male-centric[6]. She talks about the implications of the male gaze with respect to Hollywood films but it holds as much value in Indian media context. Films have a big effect on the thinking of people and when Bollywood and the entirety of Indian society as a whole have internalised patriarchy and sexism[7] in the minds of general public, is it really a shock when anything that does not conform to the norms, is deemed unacceptable or simply worthless? There is a subconscious patriarchal-mindedness of audience that also goes to watch these female comedians. This subconscious patriarchy comes into light when one looks at some of the comments that these women receive on a daily basis. Even while complementing these funny women, people often use words like ‘oh you can tell she’s not trying too hard and that she’s genuinely funny.’ These are same kinds of people who will sit and watch comedy nights with Kapil Sharma (a comedy show with exaggerated and forced jokes which consists of stereotyping, misogyny etc.) and laugh at the sound effects after each joke or laugh at a man’s attempt to do comedy as a woman by cross dressing. That is absolutely pure gold comedy according to them compared to these women who obviously always try way too hard to be funny because of course women cannot be funny.

Women comics have twice as much to lose if one of their sets isn’t able to make a good impression on these new crowds of men and women who come to watch them. A satirical article published in the New Yorker, hilariously sums up how people come to the conclusion that women inherently aren’t funny[8]. They are under intense scrutiny and are made to feel as though they’re doing something wrong by talking and making jokes about being a woman in India. Anything that men cannot relate with, is labelled as having a ‘feminist agenda’[9].

Countering stereotypes

Comedy like any other art form, plays a significant role in sending messages to the society. We are all too aware of the stereotyping of women as shopaholic, nagging, and clingy girlfriends. Angry wives, emotional mothers, female best friend who never gives her male best friend ‘a chance’ etc. The same old, the same old. Female comedians in India take these stereotyping and counter them with hilarious comebacks.

Stand-up comedy has the potential to provide female comics with a platform to be uncensored, unapologetically funny in shaping their own narratives about problem that men have decided their outlook in for so long. I assert that whenever something out of the ordinary happens, it always seems like a revolting idea in the beginning. History is an account of revolting ideas that shook people from what was considered as ‘normal’. Of course the normal in a patriarchal society is not when a woman comes on stage and jokes about problems of patriarchy.  The current comedy scene is a revolting example of how Indian audience views female comedians. When male comedians have a set with things that bother them, it is funny and relatable. However, when women have a comedy set about how they have a problem with patriarchy or eve teasing for example, it is obviously not funny because firstly, it is attacking the male ego and it is difficult to laugh at yourself but not at others. Secondly, it begs the men to ask difficult questions about their own bad behaviours that they have internalised. Nobody likes self-confrontation. But when something makes you uncomfortable, it is probably a subject worth having a conversation about. It is an unfortunate fact that only after corporation sees a trend, they make an effort to bring forward the talent of the amazing ladies of Indian stand-up comedy. After the #MeToo movement caught fire in India, Netflix came up with an all ladies Netflix special which hadn’t happened before[10]. Other than Aditi Mittal, there are no women comics out with a Netflix special yet. Now of course, there are arguments that maybe these female comedians themselves are not ready to perform a comedy special, they probably are not that far in their careers. But it is also no lie that female comedians are probably not pushed as much, do not receive as much funding and support from their management teams as their more successful male counter parts.


Conclusion

Many factors that have shaped what constitutes something as funny. Humour itself is something that is highly subjective and always under scrutiny to what is considered as ‘acceptable’. Jokes that were acceptable perhaps a decade ago, are no longer funny and new genera of comedy are also evolving.  Here’s to a hopeful bright future of talented and hilarious women in the sphere of Indian comedy.


[1] Crazy Mohan, ‘Chahi 420’ (Raaj Kamal Films International, 1997)

[2] ‘Kimberle Crenshaw: The urgency of intersectionality’ (December 7, 2016) URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=akOe5-UsQ2o&t=995s accessed June 16, 2020

[3] Paula Cladwell, ‘A Hair Piece: Perspectives on the Intersection of Race and Gender’ 1991 40(2) Duke Law Journal https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/dlj/vol40/iss2/5

[4]Priyanka Roy, ‘Female stand-up comics have far more difficult ride in the industry that their male counterparts’ The Telegraph (April 11, 2020) https://www.telegraphindia.com/entertainment/female-stand-up-comics-have-a-far-more-difficult-ride-in-the-industry-than-their-male-counterparts/cid/1764087 accessed June 16, 2020

[5] John Berger, Ways of seeing (Penguin, 1972)

[6] Laura Mulvey, Visual and other pleasures (Palgrave Macmillan, 1989)

[7] Buzzfeed India, ‘Bollywood sexist songs fixed: ft. Tanmay Bhat & Abish Matthew’  (April 3. 2020) URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKWcH9HO6Ac&pbjreload=101 accessed 16 June, 2020

[8] Ginny Hogan, ‘Women just aren’t funny’  The New Yorker (March 1, 2018) https://www.newyorker.com/humor/daily-shouts/women-just-arent-funny accessed 16 June, 2020

[9] ET contributors, ‘Girls, seize the mic! Why India needs more female comics’ The Economic Times (June 24, 2018) https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/magazines/panache/women-comics-steadily-carve-out-own-bastion/articleshow/64714469.cms accessed 16 June, 2020

[10] Shilajit Mitra, ‘Ladies up’ Review: female comics win out in new Netflix special’ The New Indian Express (March 28, 2020) https://www.newindianexpress.com/entertainment/review/2020/mar/28/ladies-up-review-female-comics-win-out-in-new-netflix-special-2122387.html accessed 16 June, 2020

Aishwarya Says:

I have always been against Glorifying Over Work and therefore, in the year 2021, I have decided to launch this campaign “Balancing Life”and talk about this wrong practice, that we have been following since last few years. I will be talking to and interviewing around 1 lakh people in the coming 2021 and publish their interview regarding their opinion on glamourising Over Work.

If you are interested in participating in the same, do let me know.

Do follow me on FacebookTwitter  Youtube and Instagram.

The copyright of this Article belongs exclusively to Ms. Aishwarya Sandeep. Reproduction of the same, without permission will amount to Copyright Infringement. Appropriate Legal Action under the Indian Laws will be taken.

If you would also like to contribute to my website, then do share your articles or poems at secondinnings.hr@gmail.com

In the year 2021, we wrote about 1000 Inspirational Women In India, in the year 2022, we would be featuring 5000 Start Up Stories.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.