By Shambhavi Saxena for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Vasu Primlani is not your average comic. She has a routine that melds together an unlikely combination of jokes about gender, the environment and queerness. She wears a number of hats – ‘triathlete’, ‘environmentalist’, and ‘somatic therapist’, to mention a few. Sounds like a lot to have on one’s plate, doesn’t it? And then to delve into comedy too!
“These are all healing fields,” she explains. “Healing the environment around me, myself, or the people around me. So even though they sound diverse, they really aren’t.”
But it’s challenging to explore humour in something as technical as the environment. To look at coal mines, and deforestation and carbon emissions as anything but devastating statistics and what they mean for small communities can be quite the task. Or exploring the humour in gender and sexuality, given that they are such political terrains, and more so today when conversations about violence, rape and homophobia are peaking.
“Rape, the environment and diversity issues are very difficult to talk about,” says Primlani. “They are scarcely discussed in any positive manner in Indian society, let alone joking about them. And there’s the other difficulty as well – because these are so sensitive and controversial, it is a leviathan task to convert them to humour. I tried and failed over and over again, until now I get applause on all these sets.”
Stand-up comedy is a fairly new art form for Indian audiences, some of whom are likely to be familiar with a Jerry Seinfeld brand of jokes or the more home-grown Kapil Sharma variety. So the comedienne – the female comic – is quite the rare breed. “Comedy as a profession is a microcosm of Indian society; it is no different than other professions such an engineering or the medical fields.”
Back in 2013, Primlani did a show with contemporary comics Aditi Mittal and Neeti Palta, who she thinks “are incredible comedians, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their male colleagues despite prejudices from Indian society.” But Primlani knows that “the gender ratio in the comedy field is perhaps worse than in any other profession in India.”
Over a month ago, Academy award winning actor Meryl Streep broke about a gazillion feminist hearts by saying categorically she was a ‘humanist’, joining the ranks of other women who won’t use the ‘F-word’. Given that Primlani’s stance on gender issues and much of her routine has been so strong, we wondered if she identifies as a feminist. “The word feminist polarizes society,” says the comic. “I agree with the term ‘humanist’. It is not about women versus men. A humanist works with humane values, whether they apply to men and women – their application is equal rather than skewed to favour one or the other.”
Having performed on massive stages, and even on airplane P.A. systems, she was also asked by Delhi University’s Queer Collective to perform as part of the run up to the Delhi Queer Pride, on 4th November 2015. Responding to the way the queer movement is shaping up in India, she says: “It’s coming up well. There is a huge underground movement in India, and even more live silent, and often sadly, invisible lives. It is very challenging for the gay person in India, where most developed nations have accepted and given equal rights to homosexuality, India stands with the most backward of nations in their parochial rigidity growing from draconian colonial laws.”
Speaking about the show (at the time of taking this interview), Primlani said, “It’s especially for the queer community. My comedy builds bridges rather than pry people apart. You’ll have a great time regardless of who you are attracted to.”