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.
MG: 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