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It Ain’t ‘Chick Comedy’: Comedian Neeti Palta Sorts Out Feminism, Padded Bras And More

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By Moumita Ghosh for Youth Ki Awaaz:

It is true that you can guess the size of a man’s penis by the size of his feet?” asks the comedian, and then, pausing briefly, casually drops the next line, “So, all you men wearing pointy shoes tonight, you cannot bitch about padded bra-s, dude”, to an audience hooting unanimously with laughter.

From “selling cola to the youth” to scripting Sesame Street’s Indian version— Galli Galli Sim Sim, Neeti Palta has played many a role before venturing into the realm of stand-up comedy and how! The comedian who lives with two pet dogs in her Delhi apartment and often tweets about them (“My doggies fight so much I’m going to call them Delhi Government & Centre”) is one of the best known faces of the Indian stand-up comedy scene, having performed alongside Russell Brand in the Comedy Central Chuckle Festival 2015 in Delhi, earlier this month.

Ask her about the stand-up landscape back in the day without the whole internet shebang and Palta quips, “Back in the days (Oh I sound soooo olllldddd now) when we discussed comedy, it was a lot to do with who tanked on stage, who got heckled, how many applause breaks did one get. Now-a-days the conversation is more about how many hits did one get on his/her video and how so-and-so was such a son-of-a-so-and-so for not sharing a video!”

In an exclusive interview with Youth Ki Awaaz, Neeti Palta talks about “chick comedy”, screaming fans and ‘why‘ she takes advantage of the fact that she is a woman!

Moumita Ghosh(MG): As a comedian, how do you deal with the obligation of being perpetually funny?

Neeti Palta(NP):I ask for money whenever a smart ass demands a joke at a party. And in any case, if any of my wisecracks fall flat I tell people that I am off duty!

MG: Being hailed as a “female comic” by the media rather than “just a comedian”, does that ever bother you? How about receiving masculine adjectives like “women with balls of steel”?

NP: It makes me insecure when someone announces me onstage as a female comedian. I mean, surely they can see that for themselves right? Right? As for masculine adjectives, honestly, I’m not hyper-sensitive about them as long as they are meant in a good way.

MG: But can gender ever be separated from the narrative onstage, especially for someone like you who promises to provide a “female perspective”?

NP: I have always wanted to be seen as a funny “person” onstage, trying to make people laugh, but I guess you cannot separate my gender from what I say onstage. Obviously, my jokes come from my observations and experiences as a female. The only thing I object to is my material being branded as “chick comedy”. After all a male comedian’s stuff is never called “stud comedy”. A lot of the observations in my stuff are universal and I would prefer people to listen first and then form an opinion before branding it anything.

MG: You had gone on record to state that the idea of a female humourist performing “naughty jokes” at a pub in India is often deemed problematic, as more often than not, she is perceived as “fast”. How much of that attitude do you think has changed in recent times?

NP: Different audiences behave differently. However, given its skewed patriarchal upbringing, the Indian mind-set always tends to describe a female doing naughty jokes as “bold” and “edgy” when trying to be complimentary! While the adjectives used for a male comedian will be “funny”, “talented”, “cool”, etc. The amusing part is they don’t even realise they’re discriminating!

MG: Why aren’t there as many female comics as much as male ones on the scene?

NP: We get enough attention as it is by merely walking on the road or taking public transport! But jokes aside, I think women are somehow brought up with a mindset to not attract attention to themselves, lest they be seen as a “fast” woman. Add to that, the fact that we deal with far more self-doubt than men, constantly dealing with that nagging voice in our heads that keeps telling us that we can’t. So it’s a combination of society and self that makes us reticent.

MG: You perform in English and your audience is a certain class of urban, buttoned-up individuals. Do you ever feel that you lose out on a certain section of Hindi-speaking audience who also need a nice dose of reality check on existing norms which your humour seems to provide?

NP: True English comedy is rather niche. But I have also done shows in Jaipur and Indore. And a whole bunch of shows where the brief was to mix in Hindi and Hinglish. Those were the shows that made me realise that humour is universal when people see the truth in it.

MG: How do you think your audience reacts in terms of taking the lesson back home or is it merely confined to a few laughs inside the auditorium and then promptly forgotten?

NP: I have been fortunate enough to have people walk up to me after shows and actually tell me that I made them self-conscious, and that the next time they’ll be more careful in the way they deal with women lest they be made fun of the way I did! What follows usually is a happy, sense of pride which increases my chest size more than any padded bra ever can.

MG: Recently comedian Abish Mathew was shown the “middle finger” (ironically enough) and called a – sexist pig at NLU, Delhi. Radhika Vaz has said in this regard – “When it comes to any message – comedy or not – I think intent rather than content is what we think people need to consider. In my opinion, he cleverly covered domestic violence without clubbing it over the head (oops).” You, too, have quipped that “feminism is becoming like jihad”, on more such recent happenings. We would love to hear more about your take on this while we wonder whether you would call yourself a feminist.

NP: I would certainly call myself a feminist. That is, if we are talking about the original meaning of the word “feminist”, someone who sees both genders as equals. In fact I’m even willing to admit that there may be times that men are better than us in some things, but then we are also better than them in other things, so in the end it equalizes.

Content vs. intent has long been my measuring stick for myself too. As long as I feel that a joke, no matter how harsh, intends to deliver the right message, it is fine. Yes, I stand by the fact that I feel that not just females, but we as a society have become hyper sensitive. First we dole out years of repression and then when it comes to fixing the damage, we swing completely to the other extreme of objecting to jokes! What happened to middle ground? Why don’t we start out by teaching our kids better? So that they are equipped to decide what is appropriate and inappropriate. Mothers have to get over their “raja beta” syndrome and, kick some boy ass to instil the sense of equality in them. I actually have male friends who are blissfully unaware of the fact that they are sexist. Seriously! They don’t even realise when they are being offensive. And that’s where this joke was born –

Friend: Don’t take advantage of the fact that you are a woman.
Me: Why not? Someone’s going to. Might as well be me!

MG: Following that line of thought, what about ‘rape‘ jokes? Do you think they contribute to the ‘rape culture‘?

NP: While some of them may not be appropriate or in good taste, jokes don’t cause rapes. A violent streak and a sadistic mind-set, and a total lack of fear because of a woefully dismal punishment record, cause rapes. It is something to think about, when we become a society where a comedian is afraid to tell a joke, or an artist is afraid to draw a cartoon but a rapist is not afraid to rape.

neetipalta,russell brandMG: Share the experience of performing alongside Russell Brand at the Comedy Central Chuckle Festival. For those of us who weren’t there, we’d really appreciate a verbal sneak-peak into the event at Delhi!

NP: It isn’t often that one gets to perform in a stadium! And just when one thinks that English stand up doesn’t have enough takers in the city; there they were, in full strength. I loved the challenge of performing to a mixed audience of goras and desis. Russell is a true maverick. However I felt (and he kind-of announced on stage) that he had been warned about the various sensitivities involved in performing in India, so he was fairly politically correct.

Backstage, he was a very warm and friendly person. There is something very gentle and kind about him. He was sweet and humble enough to thank us for warming the audience for him, and we got to take a bunch of crazy selfies that I shall treasure.

MG: You are not a child of YouTube. So, what’s your take on the wave of stand-up comedy online, both in terms of content and scope, in times to come?

NP: I still don’t watch too much comedy on YouTube because I’m still trying to find my voice, my style and my humour. A lot of the newcomers are so influenced by some international acts that I genuinely wonder, if they’ll ever find their original voice. The new crop wants to be “edgy” because bucking the system is considered “cool”. Unfortunately many of them don’t have the street credibility to pull off that “edge”, however some of them, I’m happy to note, do. Stand up is definitely the new wave of entertainment and it is here to stay. Hopefully, soon we’ll follow the trend of the West and some stand ups will break through and become movie stars (irrespective of their looks!). Who knows we might even start getting big bucks to be brand ambassadors! Coming back to the online scheme of things, more and more brands are actually reaching out to us, to do sketches or snippets of stand up for them. There are companies out there actually designing apps to download stand up to phones! I have genuinely started feeling like a binary warrior in a digital
world!

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Quickies!

What does your workspace look like?
Two dogs, some pulled out hair, lots of snacks and strong coffee.

What do you do when you hit the writer’s block?
Drown my sorrow in junk food.

And where do you find that mythical muse?
Murphy. All tragedy is converted to comedy.

Tell us something about you that most people don’t know.
I’m an alien here to study humans.

What are you reading right now?
Terry Pratchett – Thud

Tea or coffee? Early bird or creature of the night?
Road trip or flying?
Coffee. Early bird. Road trip.

What is something you know you need to stop doing?
Wasting time. Or at least then feeling bad about it.

What are your pet peeves?
Currently, this guy on the plane reclining his seat right into my lap! I can see he has dandruff.
Next on the list, mosquitoes, bad network, traffic jams and people who come to comedy shows only to take offense.

What aspiring stand-up comedians must not do?
Steal jokes from other stand up comedians!

Critical acclaim or crazy screaming fans in a mosh pit?
Screaming fans. Lots of appreciative fans have bought me beers. Still waiting for someone to throw his article of clothing on me, preferably nice smelling!

Among the new kids on the block, who all feature on your list of favourites?
I am not very familiar with the new crop in all cities, but I feel Abhishek Upmanyu and Nishant Suri from Delhi, Kunal Kamra and Siddharth Dudeja from Mumbai and Naveen Richards from Bangalore are very funny and will go far.

A stand-up comedian you would want to swap your life with?
A rich, famous stand up comedian. It’ll be lovely to walk on to stage, just say -“hi” and have people find you hilarious because the tickets to your show were so expensive!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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