Stand-up standout

Urooj Ashfaq becomes the first Indian to win at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards.
Urooj Ashfaq with the Edinburgh Comedy award. (Photo | Express)
Urooj Ashfaq with the Edinburgh Comedy award. (Photo | Express)

As a young stand-up comedian in India, Urooj Ashfaq finds it easier to dig into her personal life for material for her acts. A tricky terrain, for sure—especially if it involves anecdotes from her own therapy sessions and talking about her parents’ divorce—but Ashfaq has learnt to navigate it. “As a rule of thumb, I talk about my therapy sessions only when I have processed everything off-stage. By the time I put it on YouTube, it does not matter if some people comment negatively or miss the point, because it is in my past,” she says.

The 28-year-old recently became the first Indian comedian to win an award at the prestigious Edinburgh Comedy Awards in its 40-year-old history. She won the Best Newcomer Award for her show Oh No! In her show, the Mumbai-based comic reflects on cultural differences, the aforementioned divorce and mental health therapy sessions, the latter’s crying sessions eliciting a joke—“babies complain about me on a flight”—as well as asking questions to the counsellor on behalf of her friends because they can’t afford therapy are woven into the plot. Ashfaq also featured as a guest on Sloss and Humphries on the Road, a podcast hosted by comedians Daniel Sloss and Kai Humphries. Giving a nod to the times, the trio discussed India’s love for cows and majoritarian governance.

In one of her most popular videos, Uber Driver & Grandmother, which has 13 million views, she narrates an anecdote about her cab driver who assumes she is Hindu and starts a tirade against Muslims, calling them liars, and that they don’t shower and eat non-vegetarian food. “Iss mein se do toh maine aaj hi kar liye (I have already done two of these today)! How does he know?” Ashfaq wonders aloud. She also talks about her grandmother who is a “great nani but a questionable human being”, because she only wants three things from her granddaughter, “to eat on time, sleep on time and not talk to Hindus”. In another popular video Ghosts and Periods, which has 4.3 million views, she talks about how it would be such a big deal if boys got periods, with “a period jayanti” to commemorate the occasion as well as “a period minister and a PMS Relief Fund”.   

Born in Dubai, Ashfaq moved to India at the age of 12 and completed her education in Mumbai. Even as a child, she remembers comedy being her favourite genre. “I loved cracking jokes. I thought  I was funny; my friends would laugh at what I would say,” she says. During her college days, she started frequenting comedy shows at the then-popular Canvas Laugh Club, slowly working up her confidence to do some open mic. Of course, many of her jokes fell flat, but that, says Ashfaq, comes with the territory. “Some days, I feel like I can’t believe I have done this for six years and that I have no skills and some days, I feel there’s nobody better than me; it is a very unstable job emotionally,” she explains, tongue firmly in cheek.

Starting off her career writing for Abish Mathew’s Son of Abish in 2014, she also interned with All India Bakchod (AIB) for a bit during which she got to act in their video If Apps Were People in which she plays Supriya, a young girl who is trying to sleep without getting distracted by the various apps on her phone. The video went viral and in 2017, she got an opportunity to be a part of TLC’s Queen of Comedy, India’s first-ever female stand-up comedy show. From talking about periods to bigotry, burqas, tattoos and other unconventional themes, coupled with her quirky sense of humour and expressive delivery, she has endeared herself to a vast audience, especially the youth.

Being a Muslim, female stand-up comedian in India is not an easy job and Ashfaq has learnt that it is better to self-censor her material before going on stage or putting up content. “I appreciate it when people call me unfunny because that means they are attacking my skill, but when someone comments on my gender or religion, it disturbs me. Not anymore; now I find joy in annoying people,” she laughs.

Ask her about her plans for the future and if they include acting—she has acted in Sumukhi Suresh’s web series Pushpavalli—and Ashfaq says that if given the opportunity to learn and perform, she would like to give it a try. “My goal, however, is stand-up. It is not a means to something else; it’s the end and I want to be very good at it,” she says. If her climbing Instagram followers are anything to go by—she has 4.6 lakh followers—Ashfaq definitely is pretty good at her job.

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The New Indian Express