The beginning of 2018, brought me towards the end of my one-year sabbatical period in which I was to solo-travel, get fit, try consulting and writing as a career, and do stand-up comedy. I was approaching the end, and I had eluded myself from every other open-mic invite on Facebook. Unlike what a lot of seasoned comics say, I always knew I wanted to do it; not because I am an extrovert who loves attention and thinks highly of her sense of humour. I am in fact, an introvert who would never go up a stage for anything unless necessary. But I always had things to say.
After day-dreaming for two years and binge-watching every stand-up that surfaced online, I finally saw hope to perform stand-up in the name of Mahila Manch, a brand new group in my city, Ahmedabad. Mahila Manch came about like a haven for upcoming female stand-up comics led by Preeti Das, who until then, was a friendly acquaintance and an older-sister-figure I looked up to, and co-founder Shefali Pandey, a technology entrepreneur. Another highlight, the series was quirkily called ‘The Period Show’ because it was to happen once a month. Yet, I thought, “Oh, these people will be too elite. I don’t want to go there.” This is how I skipped the first show.
For the second show, I somehow gathered the courage to write to one of the members. They welcomed me with warm hugs, without a single question on my content, no restrictions on what to say and what not to, just plain trust. The show had a theme, but I was not coerced to follow it. It was my first time, and it was literally at a generous friend’s drawing room with 65 visibly-squeezed people. The anxiety of stand-up can be crazy.
“I have hosted an event with 20,000 people with Shankar Ehsaan Loy and did not feel a thing while doing stand-up comedy in front of 150 people for eight minutes, and my mic was visibly shaking,” says Aarti Boriya, one of the core performers and a radio jockey. Today, we are a group of five women from Ahmedabad, all from different professions and background. Apart from Preeti, Shefali, Aarti and I, there is Vidya who is a researcher. Apart from Preeti Das, none of us are professional comedians, so for us, ‘regular people’, getting such a mouthpiece in itself is an exhilarating experience.
In the past six months, we have covered a range of topics from LGBTQ, Rape, Alcohol, to Female Sexuality, Orgasm, and Body Shaming, catering to over 1,200 people in Ahmedabad with about 15 new performers, mostly females.
In our attempts to do comedy, we even make sure we don’t indulge in overt male bashing or make sexist jokes against men. This is unlike what we see a lot of popular male comedians doing out there. Also, in the Youtube-age, while every comedian around wants to put out their YouTube videos and somehow go viral, we practice restraint. Some of our own content makes us vulnerable. For example, in our shows, Vidya shares her excruciating and awkward experiences about being queer in this country. Laced with dark humour, her show provides a completely different take on womanhood. Vidya is, in fact, her stage name. For her safety and comfort, we can’t allow photography or videography during her performance. She can’t be tagged on FB either.
We don’t charge for tickets yet because we never saw the idea as one for profit making. But somewhere, this decision also comes from the inherent doubt of whether people will pay to watch us perform, and what if it reduces the number of the audience? That’s not something we want. At the end of each performance, little kids of the team members go around with a hat and seek money from the happy audiences. No compulsion. Besides that, I have been an entrepreneur myself, and I know how it feels to be the only woman in a room full of men. And I notice the same thing in comedy. Out of 11 performers, at times, I am the only woman. It doesn’t deter my confidence but it does make the process slightly intimidating. Although, thankfully, I have never had a bad, heckling or angry audience experience.
Location is another challenge. It changes every month because not every venue owner is comfortable with our topics- sometimes the name, sometimes the context. Not everyone may want to offer their space for free. One week before the June show, our co-founder Shefali Pandey got a call from the venue owner saying they didn’t want us to perform anymore because we had named our open-mic as ‘Achhe Din. Achhe Jokes.’
The whole weekend went in running around, hunting for places, frantically calling contacts but almost everything was booked. The content was hardly political or even aimed at a particular political party. It was an open-mic, an open event without any topic. But the hysteria around it surprised us. We did not change the title. Finally, a generous dance studio embraced us with open arms.
As far as the Period Show for July is concerned, we know that most people have appreciated the title ‘The Maa-Bahin Show’ which attempts to reclaim Maa-Bahen, it is not a swear word. It has been long used as one. Some people think we shouldn’t have used it.
On the July 29, we did our first auditorium show, graciously supported and funded by Univation, Ahmedabad. The show went well, 300 people showed up, and people thought it was a one-of-a-kind event. We invited comedian Pooja Vijay from Bangalore, who thought it was great because not only there was such a big crowd for such taboo topics but also the warmth and camaraderie that we had for each other. She wishes more women doing stand-up comedy support for each other. Although, Mahila Manch still gets questions and comments like, “Are you all lesbians?”
“You feminists are too damaged, hence the rant.”
“Obviously you get so many people, only because you are women.”
“Is this activism or standup, first decide then let us know.”
Newspapers don’t want to write about us, and media houses don’t want to cover us. Nevertheless, we know that it will be wrong to say that we are just five women at odds with the world. Challenges are many, but we have constantly got support, and love from the most unexpected people in gracious ways.
This article was first published on Women’s Web.