Like all other artists, comedians also share a responsibility of making an impact on the larger audience. But when it comes to talking about the equality of sexes while serving humor as a side dish, one of three things happen – comedians either tell it like it is, ridicule it hiding behind the good ole “just a joke”, or take a problematic neutral stand. Something like Kanan Gill did in his stand up bit last year. “I’m not sexist, but I am also not a feminist,” says Gill, while establishing an imaginary middle ground in which he claims to be ‘outside’ of debates on gender disparity. The joke works, but also speaks volumes on how dissociation within a certain context takes an opposing stand.
Comprehension of feminism in the Indian comedy scenario is complicated. It varies from comic to comic and audience to audience. It can be observed that there is a decent lack of female (and feminist) comedians. All India Bakchod (AIB) marked the beginning of their career addressing victim blaming and homophobia in their sketches. Later this year, Tanmay Bhat broke down the actual definition of ‘feminism’ in a series of snapchat videos and called out the ones who do not associate with it. The inclusion of feminist-friendly humor continues to appear in almost every video. Following this, comics like Karunesh Talwar and SNG (Schitzngiggles) also came out in their recent comic bits.
Although, AIB aren’t the first comedians to put themselves out as feminists on stage. Enter Radhika Vaz, the face of radical feminism merged in a waggish nature of stand-up comedy, sketch comedy and writing. Her feminist comedy set, ‘Unladylike’ was on stage long before anyone in India could even think of a pro-women joke. ‘Older, angrier and hairier’ came out in 2013. Rad Vaz’s comedy owns a persona that makes women live in the moment of a relinquished (or say “screw everything”) freedom.
“There are some feminist comedians for sure. AIB did that one video with Kalki ages ago. Similarly, Aditi Mittal has always been out and proud as far as I remember – there are definitely voices out there and I think they will get louder and stronger as time goes by,” said Vaz when asked about the status of feminism in Indian comedy culture.
It can only be the sexist in us (and the media) who couldn’t notice when a woman was already around yelling “Yo! We all should be feminists’’ in an hour-long material, but wow-ed the man later saying the same thing in a Snapchat video. Ironically, you have to give it to Tanmay for calling out this very fallacy in AIB’s latest sketch.
Aditi Mittal is another gem and probably the most outspoken feminist comedian. Her hilarity emerges from a frustrated self in a society reeking of casual sexism. When it comes to calling out the hypocrisy of a patronising culture that revolves around feminine-products, Aditi takes on everything from sanitary napkin ads to bra-shopping. She has also been ahead in demolishing the sanitised version of feminism demanded by the corporates. In a riveting panel discussion, she explained how a mere observation of her upbringing in the family made her a feminist.
“I am generally an angry person and that’s where my comedy comes from. I was amazed with how things were different for me as a girl, like how my brother could stay out for long and I couldn’t. I remember thinking a lot about it. When I came to know of feminism, I was so excited to find that there is finally a word for this. We are living in a delicate time and comedy sometimes, can be very unforgiving and extreme. There are a few out there who use sarcasm to call out misogyny, but to me that is still offensive because you’re pointing out the obvious ridiculousness and not clarifying to me the other side of that thought.”
The Viral Fever (TVF) is one of the most popular comedy groups in India with a plethora of sketches and web series like “Pitchers” which currently scores a 9.4 on IMDB. This online community is adored for its style of relatable humour which lampoons the evident circumstances of a clichéd Indian student lifestyle and makes the content grippingly funny. As Naveen from “Pitchers” puts it, “clichés exist for a reason”.
TVF has been on a back foot when it comes to feminism. Their recent MasterChef parody involves a 5-second mock of the movement. “Sir, I cannot make you a sandwich, because I am a ‘feminist’,” says a man who appears feminine and is asked to leave. This not only derides the feminists but also the queer community.
In Tinder Qtiyapa, the guy is shown to suspect the girl’s “normality” from the absence of a “pout-face” selfie on her profile. He again left-swipes another profile saying “feminazi”. TVF has normalised public-stares in this video, reinforced objectification in this sketch, and the sexism in “Pitchers” has been best called out by Noopur Raval in this blog. Apart from this, they have always liked the term ‘feminazi’. Reason? Demand and supply. Sexism is a reliable medium in producing despicable humor which a bigger population enjoys and consumes. This results in more chances of a woman speaking up for basic rights being addressed as a feminazi, than a feminist (a rational human being).
Though Daniel Fernandez has spoken well on controversial issues like marital rape, student suicide and death penalty, in a recent performance he disdained the nature of radical feminism by calling it “terrorism in feminism”, and advised women to react to misogyny and not “overreact”. The Mumbai-based comedian took a sarcastic blow on male privilege, but ironically missed the point of it when he drew a line between harassment and flirtation in the context of Chris Gayle’s case of workplace sexism.
Similarly, The East India Comedy’s feminist approach seems rhetorical. One of their earlier videos “I Am Not A Woman” presents an apology to women on behalf of men with some flawed eloquent assertions. Their latest commentary “Fuck Feminism” strongly condemns the absurd (and basic) arguments against feminism. The big picture still remains faulty. Pointing to an Airtel ad, Sorabh Pant says, “The woman who is also the boss of her husband is “multitasking” when she also cooks, there is nothing wrong with it.” Then it later comes to the same lost rage over rapes and how things are changing. They are not.
What EIC couldn’t grasp is that feminism is not just being anguished over rape statistics, it is about abolishing the roots of a culture and a mindset which dictates rudimentary gender roles, that later result in violence against women. The woman in that ad is shown to be cooking not for her ability to multitask but for an appreciation of her abidance to the “duties” of a wife.
Not everything is a fault of the comic. There is a difference in dispensing a joke to a diverse population and “selling” it to a target audience. Stand-up comedy in India is rapid in being accepted, but not rapid enough in having a perception that doesn’t come at the expense of the oppressed. This puts the comedian in a spot where they cannot be completely left or completely right, but still have a choice of breaking this transparent wall. Folks like Aditi and Radhika do break it. Their comedy comes from a legitimate space of having had enough of patriarchy that frees them from such bondage and yet it wins the audience, because they mould it into a context that Indians relate to. This is the reason why they are called feminist comedians and not comedians who speak about feminism.
The opinions expressed in this article are based on personal observation with helpful inputs from Aina Singh and Vaishnavi Sundar.