The summer after class VII, when Raven Baxter hit Indian TV screens with her psychic visions and her outrageous antics, I realised that funny women were a rarity.
Sure you had a few funny quips from Reema Lagoo and Supriya Pilgaonkar in “Tu Tu Main Main” or Ratna Pathak in “Sarabhai vs Sarabhai”, but women by and large stayed away from the downright sidesplitting, knee-slapping hijinks we’ve come to associate with comedy.
Charlie Chaplin, Chris Rock, Kapil Sharma; it’s no coincidence that those most visible in the genre have been men. Still, funny women have made their mark. “Saturday Night Live” has churned out female comic after female comic. India too has comediennes like Radhika Vaz, Aditi Mittal and Bharti Singh, and it counts for something, because South Asian Women aren’t encouraged to laugh openly (it’s unbecoming!) leave alone crack a few rib-ticklers.
So it was a huge deal when a group of Pakistani women did a one-of-a-kind stand-up comedy event earlier this year. They’ve had both Karachi and Lahore in splits, and they’re called The Auratnaak Show.
“It’s an amalgamation of ‘aurat’ and ‘khatarnaak’ meaning dangerous women,” explains Faiza Saleem, who gave the group its name. “The content was very raw and the women presenting it are bold and outspoken hence the name. The vibe was ‘Don’t mess with us!‘”
Saleem had already founded The Khawatoons, Pakistan’s very first all-women comedy troupe, and was doing improv with other groups well before Auratnaak came to be. But the show came together to answer a very real need.
“Pakistani women had never talked about their personal issues like that before,” says Saleem. “I always wanted to pursue comedy even when I was in law school. I think some of the women wanted to simply speak up.”
But putting on a show like this “isn’t all ha ha hee hee” (to quote British comedienne Meera Syal). Even though we think of ‘funny’ as effortless, it takes work.
“Most of the women were new to comedy,” explains Saleem. “So everyone was a little nervous and unsure in the beginning. There was that awareness that what we were about to do will raise a lot of eyebrows.”
But her “dangerous women” compatriots got their game-face on, sitting through workshops with Pakistani comedians Hassaan Bin Shaheen, Faheem Azam and Akbar Shahzad.
A lot of their material Saleem says, comes from the experiences of Pakistani womanhood that aren’t often talked about: intimate relationships, bodily functions, body shaming and, of course, “rishta aunties”. Saleem says the show “talked about women from an unknown perspective – that of women themselves.” And the audience loved it.
But it wasn’t just the novelty of the show that made it important. It’s the fact that everything – from SMS joke books sold at railway stations, to careless remarks by politicians, to sniggering school-yard conversations – everything seems to suggest that “funny” is dictated by how men see the world. And “funny” is often used to maintain a sexist, transphobic, homophobic, masculinist and largely intolerant status quo.
When comedy routines or shows rely heavily on this kind of humour, they alienate women. And yet this is hardly ever seen as a problem. Joke about your own experiences as a woman, however, and you run the risk of alienating men. Luckily, Saleem isn’t too cut up about that. “I have been to enough shows done by men to feel the same,” she says. “They’ll get over it soon enough.”
The fact is that “funny” benefits from having women. Says Saleem, “Women bring in their own views to comedy that men either don’t share, or portray in a patriarchal light. Initially, we didn’t have a lot of women [comedians] to draw from but now that is changing gradually. More and more women are entering comedy and kicking ass at it!”
The South Asian patriarchy is formidable. But women have been chipping away at it, and perhaps most powerfully with humour.
Laughing about how your brown parents keep badgering you to marry isn’t just blowing off steam. It’s exposing one of the many social pressures that undermines the agency of and values held by young women (and men!).
“Comedy can be offensive. In fact it usually is,” says Saleem. Comedy’s power lies in taking a dig at the pillars of an oppressive, unequal society. But there’s also humour that punches down, and Saleem is firm when she says “There are some things one simply can not joke about.”
Jokes can be misinterpreted, and Saleem says people should be given the benefit of the doubt, but people should be responsible. “We realize that our work has a social impact and are mindful of that. Others need to do the same.”
There is of course, another kind of responsibility at play here. She says: “I keep telling the girls in both groups – we are not women doing comedy. We are people doing comedy. Comedians. And a certain standard always has to be maintained. If we bomb, we make other women to enter comedy impossible.”
It seems a bit unfair to have that riding on comedians who just so happen to be women. A bad male comic doesn’t quite jeopardise the game for others, because, as you know #NotAllMen. But given that the Auratnaak Show is testing the narrow confines society has set for women, maybe even that will change soon.
Update: A previous version of this article stated that Faiza Saleem had started The Auratnaak Show. The article has been corrected. The Auratnaak Show was started by Hassaan Bin Shaheen, and joined by Saleem and others.