This January, Amazon Prime signed 14 Indian comics for their comedy specials and all of them were men. Perhaps as a rebuttal, Netflix roped in one Aditi Mittal for a comedy special.
When I speak to three contestants from the recently-launched Queens of Comedy, India’s first women comedy show on TLC, the optimism, and excitement in their voices is palpable. Most of the contestants have been open mic regulars, so having landed some much-deserved screentime on National television, they are more than ecstatic.
“There needs to be an element of surprise in stand-up comedy. I could be dismissive of women’s rights, but if I put a contrary opinion across very strongly, then it is bound to make people laugh”, says 22-year-old Psychology graduate Urooj Ashfaq, who has also worked on comedy sketches with All India Bakchod.
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Sometimes, a lot of great comedy comes from a pain. Aayushi Jagad, a 25-year-old from Pune, lost her mother when she was 19. At times, she starts her sets by talking about it, “My father is English and my mother is dead. I didn’t make that up she is quite...dead.” Considering how open mic nights have several comedians performing a row, the shock value of her content helps her stand out. She adds, “When I say on stage that I am bisexual, I see the discomfort in the room. But as a comedian, you have to get your audience on your side.”
Saadiya Ali hails from a theatre background and stand-up comedy for her is another great opportunity to be up on the stage. It allows her to draw from her own experience and say the things she wants to say. But ours is a country where people take offense rather easily. How does a comedian get on stage and talk about the things that matter?
“It is funny, isn’t? It is easier to rape in this country than to speak your mind without consequences”, she says.
Aayushi, also a writer with AIB, feels that because she relatively comes from a position of privilege, owing to good education and access to opportunities, her material doesn’t have controversial content about politics, casteism etc. to garner polarising reactions - “Also, most of this trolling happens online and as a new generation of comedians we are not yet that important enough”, she adds with a chuckle.
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As an English-speaking comedian, Urooj is well-aware of her limitations to immediately achieve a mass appeal and become accessible to a larger audience. And also the fact that like any other industry, a woman has to try twice as hard to make an impression in comedy. “An all-female comedy show is like having a quota system where women get as much opportunity to acquire skills and make an impression as men would otherwise.”
Aayushi concludes saying, “More than anything, I hope that this show would inspire more women to start doing open mics and it would just normalize them being on stage and getting that visibility. One show cannot be a solution, but once the audience is invested in our act, it only leads to a bigger, more systemic change.”