Standing up for women: Female comedians give India a side-splitting time

Male comedians do not find the pandemic funny. But the girls are giving India a side-splitting time to take life with a laugh.

Published: 09th May 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 08th May 2021 03:50 PM   |  A+A-

Stand-up comedian Neeti Palta

Stand-up comedian Neeti Palta

Silk saris, gold jewellery, oiled hair adorned with loops of jasmine, large spectacle frames and an unapologetic Malayali accent—growing up in the 2000s, it was impossible to miss Lola Kutty, the versatile VJ of Channel V. Lola was the quintessential woman standup comic before such a term was even a gleam in Amy Schumer’s eye. “VJs were the influencers of that time. Now a performer can bypass TV altogether and take the internet route,” says Anu Menon, aka Lola Kutty. Today, she has her own standup act, ‘Wonder Menon,’ sans Lola. “I’m ultimately a storyteller.

Finding my voice as Anu Menon is very important to me. Standup is the closest version of who I am,” she reveals. Take a look around, cock an ear and you will come across a thousand comedy acts; look deeper and you will see that more often than not, they are largely by men. Where are the comediennes? “Women are told not to talk about such and such things; don’t look too attractive on stage, etc, etc. Someone would say ‘women always talk about women things’. But then, men also talk only about men things,” Anu laughs.

Even as comediennes are slowly but surely stepping on to India’s punning platforms, the rules remain different for men and women. Ironically, it is only on Women’s Day that women are much sought-after—it’s the woke thing to do. Koval Bhatia, creator of A Lil Anarky Films, used to host all-women standup comedy nights in New Delhi before Covid-19 applied the brakes. She believes that there are plenty of women who want to do comedy, but most open mics rarely feature females of the species. Ahmedabad-based Preeti Das has been in the guffaw game for 10 years before she founded the comedy collective, Mahila Manch three years ago to get more female sense of humour on the stage.

“Our brand of comedy is not your usual run-of-the-mill laughathons. We try to include awareness on pressing issues,” she insists. Preeti collaborates with hospitals to inform women on mammography. She invites couples to talk on domestic violence. Her acts have hardcore political content. While many male standup comics stick to amateur jokes on girlfriends, wives, beer and hostel days, women comics are taking humour seriously. “The trick is to package your act in a way that doesn’t look like ‘giving gyaan’,” she hints. However, these girls with the giggles get the most flak from hidebound male traditionalists hung up on the Bharatiya nari model too many cuss words, gender jokes, references to sex, periods and sanitary napkins. Preeti points out, “Swearing and sex jokes are part of a cycle every standup comic goes through.

When you start performing, you inevitably begin with the lowest common denominator, before your act slowly evolves and generates good content.” She thinks that ultimately standup is power and power is equated with men. “This is the reason we find women ‘ashleel’ or vulgar when they talk sex. We need more women on the stage and in the audience too,” Preeti is certain.

Underneath the brimming confidence of the comediennes are bittersweet tales of parental ambivalence, patronising males, performance anxiety and hard sexual choices. They harbour a healthy contempt for the establishment. Theirs is the thrill of freedom and power on the stage which comes from their ability to connect, tell their stories and send patriarchy cowering with a big 'ha ha'. And somewhere in between, also pay the bills.

Jeeya Sethi

“I’m as social as social media lets me be.”

@jeeyadhadkdhadk  28.9k followers

LOL Your midlife crisis is at 25, because at 40 you know who you are, what you want to do and who you want to do it with.
Oops moment I fell off the stage at NCPA and dislocated my elbow.
Love More than two women on the line-up.
Hate All-male line-ups.
Favourite comic artist Luisa Omielan, Aditi Mittal, Anirban Dasgupta
To the powers-that-be Take a chill pill, bro, and laugh a little.
A laugh for the times The PM Cares fund was for the PM’s care.

In 2013, a new funny face named Jeeya rocked the audience with her ‘gym joke’. She impersonated the gym dude bros doing the ‘trying-too-hard-to-impress-the-babe’ grunts and puffs on the push-up bench. Jeeya’s comedy has a lot to do with her own hassles and experiences. Her audience immediately plugs into her jokes, since the satire resonates with their own issues. The laugh lines are deep “Falling in love is like cooking. Every once in a while you forget that the vessel on the stove is burning hot, and you reach out to hold it”.

In the ‘Full Body Medical Examination’ act, Jeeya bemoans the pains of paying `15k for a cardiac test, a sonography, a mammography, and what-have-you only to be told she has Vitamin D deficiency. Or the ‘Rich People & Failing in School’ act “I hate rich people. They would say in their Singapore-returned British accent: ‘You know, Jeeya, today I took a train from Church Gate to Andheri’” which has people crying for more. A self-confessed classroom joker, her shows have all the bells and whistles that make good comedy work snarky tones, and priceless expressions coupled with generous theatrics, witty improvisations and comebacks. The maximum hits on her YouTube channel is for “Inside the pot, not around the pot” joke in which she coaches men to take aim. The channel has over 126k subscribers. Does the establishment lack a sense of humour? “The establishment lacks a lot of things. They do not know how to have fun in life,” she retorts, her trademark large glasses, red lipstick and streaked hair in place.

Neeti Palta

“I will conquer today tomorrow.”

@neetipalta  85.5k followers

LOL I’ve done so much steam inhalation I’m quite sure I’ll fart clouds.
Oops moment Getting tangled in the cord of the mic and doing a weird cabaret to untangle myself.
To the powers-that-be Establish yourselves better.
A laugh for the times With the lockdown I got so lonely that I rejoined my family WhatsApp group.
Hate The crash that comes after the high.
Love The adrenalin rush.
Favourite comic artist Varun Grover, Zakir Khan

Neeti’s first open mic event in Delhi was her gravy train moment. Surprisingly, she believes that a standup comic’s first show should be bad. “It keeps them grounded. I became overconfident after my show became a hit,” she admits. But ‘Handas on Holidayzzzzz’ and ‘Punjabi Weddings’ prove that Neeti is hitting all the right notes on the laugh-o-meter. Sample these: “Nothing can beat a joint family if they want to work as a team.” “Punjabi aunty’s dancing energy at the wedding is directly proportional to how big a catch the groom is.” The success of a good act depends on impulse and timing. Neeti remembers reaching out from the stage in the middle of an act and grabbing a beer from someone close by in the audience. “At that moment I just needed a desperate sip,” she explains. Neeti believes the self-appreciative “stink of confidence” keeps her going. Nonetheless, she is apprehensive about the present Indian comedy scene. “There is hardly any space left for reason, let alone humour. Aggression and intolerance force us comedians to continuously re-examine our lines. How can anyone expect us to be funny, then? If quick wit is the requirement of a comic, a lawyer on speed dial is a necessity,” she jokes.

Saloni Gaur

“Humour gives me hope.”

@salonayyy  559 k followers

Oops moment  I was once performing at my college fest and I cracked some jokes, which the teachers obviously didn’t like. They turned off my mic.
Hate Nothing so far.
LOL Trolls are just keyboard warriors with cheap internet.
Love People send free gifts so now I don’t buy new clothes.
To the powers-that-be Do not take my jokes seriously.
Favourite comic artist Vipul Goyal, Sumukhi Suresh, Prashasti Singh
A laugh for the times On your mark. Get set. Ro (cry).

Saloni wrote and performed her first gig in school. Going by the applause she knew she was a winner. She convinced her folks to let her take up comedy full-time after college, rather than go for an MBA. She was forever mimicking her teachers which gave her friends the laugh-aches. Her popularity soared after last year’s lockdown when her alter ego Nazma Aapi’s biting satire on the government on various issues like the CAA went viral. “With petrol and diesel competing to hit a century, we are not missing the IPL,” is a gas. A good standup makes the cut by spinning issues of the day that matter. Patriarchy is a favourite punching bag of comediennes the world over.

Saloni’s Adarsh Bahu is a slap on the face of society—“My father never discriminated between his two children. He educated both his daughters till Class XII and married them off.” The Kangana Runout uploads took the Bollywood actor’s misogynist and anti-activist comments to the cleaners. “People often ask why spoof Ranaut? The answer is simple, she is right there in the middle of it all.” Saloni says the motormouth diva is great material for her jokes. Shashi Tharoor was so delighted with the comedienne’s impersonation of him that he tweeted: “Flattered by the comedic imitation. However, I would like to believe that I am not such a garrulous sesquipedalian... Clearly the artiste on the screen 
does not suffer from hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia!” 

Sonali Thakker Desai

“Voice out facts with humour.”

@sonalithakker 27.2k followers

LOL Achhe din.
Oops moment The joke that was extremely funny in your head last night, hits a silent note with the audience the next day.
HATE Dependency on YouTube.
Love Connecting with strangers.
Favourite comic artist Ali Wong
To the powers-that-be If not Modi, then who? Umm, literally anybody.
A laugh for the times Is CoWin website the new IRCTC?

Sonali had vaguely heard about Vir Das when she went to watch his show in a Bandra restaurant. Going to standup comedy shows was the new cool, sometime in early 2010. Soon, her then-boyfriend and now-husband, Aditya Desai, who loves the stage and laughs, decided to try his hand at comedy. With the ‘what men can do women can do better’ shtick, Sonali took to the funny state in 2012. She was studying to be a chartered accountant then. She did the maths and found she liked making people laugh better. Sonali occasionally slips in CA stories into her dialogues “everyone at some point or the other knows another person who has gone through the rigmarole of being a CA”.

Covid-19 has not dulled her funny bone. “I’m very amused by the number of Bollywood celebrities who flew to the Maldives during the pandemic. At one point I heard that the government of Maldives almost considered changing its name to Mehboob Studio.” Her take on the troubles of travelling alone and dealing with unwelcome male stares (“by staring right back and sticking my finger right up my nose and doing the gold dig”) always brings the house down. Her heartfelt wish? “In the US, they have this thing called the Correspondence Dinner where the President gets roasted by a comic and vice versa. Yahaan press conference ka mahurat aaj tak nahin nikla hai (Here even a press conference is yet to happen),” she eye-rolls.

Kareema Barry

“I talk through jokes.”

@kareemabarry 120k followers

LOL Adulting is super fun!
Oops moment Every time I’m shooting, my dad crosses my room and comments, “Sab theek toh?”
Love I get to be me for a living.
Hate The pressure of not doing enough.
Favourite comic artist Don’t want to play favourites.
To the powers-that-be Good morning, it’s time to work!
A laugh for the times Hum sab chamkeele hain, chamakna mat bhoolna (We all have our shine. Don’t forget to shine on).

Kareema uploaded her first video in an Instagram challenge. “You posted goofy pictures of yourself and challenged people who liked it to do the same. Instead of goofy pictures, I posted random small videos. Viewers enjoyed it. I kept posting more,” she marks her starting point. A classroom joker from school to college, Kareema was constantly prancing around wisecracking or simply doing something absurd in class. “All my characters were formed during these years, my friends were my first audience!” The classroom wise girl has now metamorphosed her comedy to suit the times. As ‘Futtoh phuppo’—the quintessential aunt who has an opinion on everything under the sun—Kareema’s brand of satire is an identifier. Her take on slice-of-life moments such as ‘The Friend Who’s Really Over their Breakup’—exaggerated tears, facial contortions, hand-wringing, a quivering voice and eye rolls—adds a soupçon of black to her humour. Serious issues such as the government’s handling of the pandemic and mental health keep cropping up in her acts as she enters the political discourse as a woman with an opinion no man is going to mess with.

Rupali Tyagi

“Humour allows us to question the mighty.”

@rustic_rupali  12k followers

LOL My internet connection yesterday was so good, you could also see my ugly soul.
Oops moment If rejection can count as embarrassment, then a comic gets a daily dose of it.
HATE We have to keep nurturing an ecosystem that gives us the opportunity to perform and get better.
Love There is no high like the high of making someone laugh.
Favourite comic artist Kanan Gill, Jerry Seinfeld, Brian Regan
To the powers-that-be  A harmless joke becomes the centre of a storm.
A laugh for the times No jokes, but I believe that this too shall pass.

She is an engineer-turned-HR pro-turned-standup comedienne who has been getting chuckles in Hyderabad for five years now. Recalls Rupali, “I stumbled on a comedy open mic and saw people going onstage, talking to the audience and getting some laughs. I thought I could do it too. I scribbled a few jokes and went up. And I got some laughs. The feeling stayed with me for days!” she recalls. The experience encouraged her to quit her job and pursue comedy full-time. Rupali is a small-town girl whose education and career took her across India.

She draws her subjects from her itinerant world—simple characters you may come across in your family, at work, on the street; people who matter and people who do not. She talks about her life as a woman—a wife, a daughter and now a mother. Here’s her take on the ‘ripped jeans’ issue that got our patriarchal politicos in tangles: “The poor are wearing ripped clothes because they have to and the privileged are wearing ripped clothes because they choose to. So if you see anyone wearing ripped clothes, as a politician the only thing you can do is ensure that everybody has this ‘choice’.”

Vipasha Malhotra

“I will not be called Bipasha Basu. It’s boring and I prefer originality.”

@vipasha.malhotra  273.7k followers

LOL Mitch Hedberg’s, “Rice is great if you’re hungry and want to eat 2,000 of something.”
Love The validation because I’m a narcissist.
Hate The uncertainty of whether you’re gonna make it or not.
Favourite comic artist Bo Burnham
To the powers-that-be Establish yourselves better.
Oops moment When a show goes flat.
A laugh for the times Middle class parents are the real LGBTQ+ allies. They will always tell you to “keep your options open beta”.

Here is a Delhi girl who figured out that the best way to combine her two passions, music and comedy, is to become a standup. On Vipasha’s YouTube uploads and shows, she is often seen with an ukulele while acing the comic act. ‘Which object am I?’ is about nuking the male penchant for objectifying women—sealed bottles, mithai ka dabba, etc. A self-declared ‘classroom disappointment’, Vipasha’s impersonation of Alexis from Schitt’s Creek as a South Delhi girl will have you in splits no matter how many times you watch.

“I’m going to Rajouri, because I have to be at the sketchy bar, dating randoms.” What happens if the audience doesn’t laugh at her jokes? “They throw tomatoes and you’re never allowed to appear in public ever again (horror of horrors). Haha, just kidding. You just pretend like you planned on them not laughing and move on to the next joke,” she shrugs. A staunch believer in the relevance of humour, Vipasha acknowledges that despite opposing voices being silenced, many comics are finding innovative ways to mock the establishment. “I think the establishment has a good sense of humour, they just don’t like other people having it,” she reasons.

Aayushi Jagad

“Netflix is my life.”

@aayushi.jagad  7.5k followers

LOL Ali Wong on Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: “Her book is called Lean In. Well I don’t want to lean in, I want to lie down.”
Oops moment Every time a joke doesn’t land.
A laugh for the times Our government is like the boy who ghosts you and then cries wolf when questioned. If only it were as easy to cut ties with the government as it is blocking that guy.
Favourite comic artist  Bo Burnham
To the powers-that-be Give up. Have mangoes instead, they’re in season.
Hate: The rehearsal process.
Love: When the joke lands and the laugh rolls.

Funny, progressive and outspoken, Pune-based Aayushi does not think twice before putting anyone in their place. The TLC’s Queens of Comedy star, vocalist and former AIB (Mumbai comedy collective All India Bakchod) writer, Aayushi did her first standup in 2016. “A loud, generally overbearing presence in school,” is how Aayushi describes herself, and admits that a lack of confidence ‘even when I have nothing of note to say,’ has never quite been her problem.

The ‘Arranged Marriage’ gig where she talks about her bisexuality and the boy’s family platoon landing up to see the bride with the ‘sanskari pimp uncle’ acting as the go-between, is a laugh riot, So is her defiant take on dealing with unsolicited images of ‘men parts’ in her inbox. She even photoshops them and shares the images on her Insta story. But the tables do turn sometimes. Once Aayushi asked a couple in the audience if they liked their children. Assuming they would reply in the negative, she was ready with her repartee, when the man said, “Of course, we like our children. Your parents like you, don’t they?” “Safe to say, the audience roared louder than they had at any of my jokes that night,” she grins.

Anu Menon on relationship with MIL
“My mother-in-law is very attached to my husband. Obviously. She owned him first.”

Niveditha Prakasam on women’s lack of humour
“Women aren’t inherently funny because we don’t need humour to impress men.”

Sejal Bhat on Bollywood copying from Hollywood
“Trust me, if the music is too happy, it’s not us.”

Sumukhi Suresh on girls living away from home
“The number of times your mother calls you is directly proportional to how characterless you are.”

Radhika Vaz on honour killing
“If your family loves you enough to kill someone, then you need a new family.”

Aditi Mittal on women comics
“When I started out, a woman doing comedy was as rare as a monkey quoting Shakespeare.”


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