I remember being very surprised when The Viral Fever (TVF) launched its web series Permanent Roommates, about a couple living together in Mumbai. For everyone who has struggled to find an apartment in the city, it would have been a familiar situation. Live-ins are looked down upon, and finding a landlord who is ready to let an apartment out to an unmarried couple is very difficult. Permanent Roommates started a conversation and, as is evident from the thousands of comments the episodes get on Youtube, people are still debating the issue. They might be light comedies, but these web series are changing social perceptions and perspectives towards women, mores and relationships.
The interesting fact is that these shows and videos enjoy a viewership from across the country, and are lapped up regularly by young adults from Tier Two and Three cities and towns. These are people who have access to decent internet connections and are bored of the regular fare on Indian TV. It’s the comedy, balanced and with socially relevant insights, that makes Indian web content extremely popular in the country. The most important change in perception is in the way these web shows and videos are portraying women and discussing women’s issues.
Indian visual content is still quite regressive, and for some reason, this content is still popular. Be it mainstream cinema or TV serials, women are either objectified or seen as housewives engaging in unnecessary kitchen politics (actually, “kitchen politics” is a term that was created to define Indian television). Women don’t seem to have anything to do but fast for their husbands’ long lives, cook them elaborate meals and try to keep their roving eyes under control. More importantly, they have no self-respect or worth and are mostly pawns in narratives about adultery, supernatural curses and other villainy. With the current trend of mythologically-themed TV shows, it feels like we are going further back into the dark ages.
But not on the internet. While Permanent Roommates is a healthy approach to modern relationships, other shows like Ladies Room, Girliyapa and Sex Chat with Pappu and Papa deal with interesting insights into women, sexual intercourse, consent, marital rape, menstruation and objectification. More importantly, they are not serious discourses on the subjects, but comedic and sarcastic sketches on various issues. The writing is crackling, and viewers find it easy to warm up to the characters. People from smaller towns and cities are lapping up episodes about contraception, Tinder and something as brave as Girliyapa’s Period Song (Indian internet will forever be proud of this) while also discussing rape, abuse and rights. The Indian mindset is broadening, thanks to the internet, and brownie points are due to these guys for creating stereotype-free female characters in shows that might not have a dominant women-centric narrative arc. For example, in Y Films’ Bang Baaja Baaraat, Shernaz Patel’s character has a young lover in Neil Bhoopalam, and the two don’t care about social norms about divorcees, second marriages, ageist rules in relationships and how women should behave with men after a certain age.
Globally, comedy has always been a male bastion. Even though we have moved on from just a few people like Julia Louis-Dreyfus to a bigger bunch of voices now, like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling, comedy as a genre is still seen as a masculine one. In India, the number of comediennes is much less in ratio, but, thankfully, growing in number. “Comedy, the art form, isn’t gender biased — it’s us,” says Nidhi Singh, who plays Tanya in TVF’s Permanent Roommates. “That’s probably because most people are comfortable with the more sweet, coy and ladylike persona of a woman than the funny, opinionated and unabashed side of hers. It’s just easier to identify with because of our conditioning. Although, there’s a shift that everyone can see and feel now, and slowly but most certainly these parameters are changing. We do have a long way to go.”
Maanvi Gagroo from Girliyapa and the recent TVF show, Tripling, agrees. “Think about it: girls having a good sense of humour are considered “mannish” or “tomboys” or one of the boys. Unless, of course, it’s the “dumb blonde” humour, which is considered a woman’s forte. This translates to the screen, too. Only the dumb lines are written for women, or self-deprecating dialogues making fun of their weight, skin colour or some physical feature.” The change that Nidhi is talking about is slow, but a visible one. Consider Mallika Dua. The comedienne went viral with a random video where she mimicked the various kinds of women you spot at Delhi’s Sarojini Market. Now quite popular for her Jat/Delhi/North Indian act, she is the face for the new DNA digital campaign, has worked with AIB and is a Girliyapa regular.
Dua is not your regular campus hottie. In a Girliyapa episode, she goes into a full-blown tirade on how men don’t hit on average-looking women, only to diss a guy who starts checking her out — a commentary on the hypocrisy that women often exhibit. “I am sure we all would agree that women are all those shades and a lot more than what we see on the web,” says Nidhi. “That’s the reason why our viewers find the content relatable. My small life and humbling experiences tell me that the performing arts, be it in any form or on any platform, inspire and fuel change.” Maanvi is a tad more practical about the effects of the content. “The change won’t happen overnight. We are not sure whether it will happen at all, but at least there’s the starting of a discussion. For example, after Pitchers, the relationship between Naveen and Shreya has been extensively dissected on social media. So finally there are two voices representing the two sexes. For me, reading the comments on my videos is one of my favourite pastimes. It tells me so much about the views and mentality — progressive or otherwise — of our viewers and the millennials.”
Y Films’ Ladies Room is possibly the bravest and as-honest-as-it-gets show on the internet right now. It details the sufferings of two twenty-somethings (Dingo and Khanna) discussing drugs-sex-dicks-sexting-periods-fuckbuddies-you-name-it-they-have-talked-about-it, confined in various washrooms. The show has episodes titled “Dingo and Khanna get caught with pot”, “Dingo and Khanna on dicks and pics” and “Dingo and Khanna tripping balls”. Those titles should be explanatory enough. I talk to one of the writers of Ladies Room, Ratnabali Bhattacharjee, who also wrote one of the Girliyapa gems on marital rape, How I Raped Your Mother — a sitcom-style parody of the issue. “I think women are always having to try to push themselves a little more — it could be a subconscious thing — because we know that we have to make our mark a little stronger and speak that much louder to be heard,” says Bhattacharjee. “I was reading a very interesting article about a study on conference rooms, about how if a woman interrupts a man, she is seen as ill-mannered and rude, while if a man does the same, everybody shuts up and listens to him. That doesn’t mean the men of today are all bad people. It has to do with social conditioning. Thanks to the internet, it has given everyone a platform now, and women don’t have to fight to be heard, because they are creating that space for themselves. But we have perpetually censored women from talking on certain subjects like casual sex or personal hygiene. While men can talk about anything, sometimes bordering on the obnoxious, why is it that women have to censor themselves?”
“But I think that is something we ourselves can change,” she continues. “Just go ahead and speak your mind, right? For example, Amy Schumer is doing just that, talking about what people call inappropriate things. Inappropriate puns have been going around for centuries, but they say she has crossed a line just because a woman is saying the same thing. We do get trolled and called “Femi-Nazis” if we talk about women’s issues. I get called that often and I think that is a wonderful term,” Bhattacharjee laughs.
This is a heartening time for Indian web content. With women like Bhattacharjee, Ashima Chibber (the director of Ladies Room), Tracy D’Souza (channel head of Girliyapa) and the many popular actors who are ready to commit to a different kind of content — progressive, open-minded and healthy — we can look forward to powerful writing and interesting conversations. Indian web content is a refreshing change from its mainstream cinema, which is still primarily ruled by older producers and studio owners. The change is being brought forth by a young crop of talent and, thanks to the internet, they don’t have to wait in line for their turn to shine.