Four of the country’s most popular comediennes — Sumukhi Suresh, Urooj Ashfaq, Kaneez Surka and Neeti Palta — discuss what it means to be a woman in the comedy circuit today
“All right, so before I start, we’ll play a quick quiz. What are female comics called?” I open my interview with Sumukhi Suresh, Urooj Ashfaq, Kaneez Surka and Neeti Palta. The responses were varied and are listed below.
“I am a comedian, the way you spell it for men.”
“Who wrote the Oxford, yaar?”
When I tell them that the correct word is comedienne, I am greeted with a collective “hatt!”
The atmosphere in the room is pretty chill — of course, the four women I’ve come to interview know each other. I ask the women if comedy has a gender, and while three of them let out a strong NO!, Surka has the best answer – “it’s female because it makes you feel good,” she says. Of course, we all applaud and wolf whistle.
The reason I began my interview with these two questions is because, through the course of my research, I had noted a trend — journalists kept treating these women as a separate breed as if comedy was a playground for men and these ladies had started practising their own gilli-danda on the side. Then, of course, there are these sexist notions we are surrounded by which tell us that women can’t drive and that women aren’t funny.
Palta and Surka, in particular, I noticed, had jokes dedicated to how female comics were considered an alien species.
“Music doesn’t have a gender, painting doesn’t have a gender, writing doesn’t have a gender,” Ashfaq chimes in. Palta states that there are certain routines dedicated to experiences these comics encounter, like, “getting your ass pinched”. That, understandably, becomes ‘chick comedy’, she states. But, even when she is talking about an experience as normal as being treated by a doctor, it still gets branded a chick comedy simply because she is a woman.
“It feels diminishing. They talk about me being an improviser and they’ll say ‘the first female improviser in the country’ as though there were a hundred men before me but I was the first person, the first improviser. That diminishes me like I’m only good enough in one bracket,” Surka says.
Ashfaq makes a fine point. She says that women everywhere are pitted against each other. It’s always a Tina Fey versus an Amy Poehler, a trend that doesn’t seem to affect men. And if it does, it’s too microcosmic to become an issue. Surka believes that because of this, we see men doing a lot of collective work while women are asked to compete with each other.
“It makes us very lonely,” she says.
Suresh, of course, knows that, as comediennes, they have a lot of responsibility. Because there aren’t many female comics online, there is a notion going around that there are few of them altogether. This isn’t true. Hence, she says, it is their responsibility to put as much content online so people get to see the ‘variety’ they so apparently crave.
“There’s a good number of women doing open mics across the country. The reason you feel there are fewer women doing comedy is because there aren’t more of us online. That’s all,” she says.
Ashfaq agrees with Suresh but she also believes that there is a logistical reason behind all of this. Throughout her career in stand-up comedy, she has encountered women who come for open mics and live with their parents. Safety concerns and the fact that performances are generally held at clubs become a hurdle that these women have to deal with. “Safety is such a big issue, while men don’t face that same problem. I live in Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, and I go home at 1 AM in the night, and that’s different from a boy going home at 1 AM. There will be ten funny girls in Kharghar but only one girl’s parents will allow her to go out,” she responds.
When she first began, Palta was told by someone that she didn’t look like a comedian. This led to her dressing down intentionally and wearing baggy clothes. She was doing so in a bid to ensure that the audience would only focus on the words coming out of her mouth and not on anything else. “It’s like, oh you think you’re sexy and funny, oh ho ho ho,” Surka says.
“You can’t have so many things, bitch!” Ashfaq joins in. The atmosphere in the room, as I have mentioned before, is extremely chilled out. Ashfaq has an answer on her lips before I even finish the question — she’s quick like that. Surka and Suresh have their own party going, a sort of unassuming comfort that comes from knowing each other for a long time. At one point, Suresh urges Surka to admit that she is the first funny woman she’s met in her life — a routine that is entertaining to watch, to say the least. Palta is very matter-of-fact and while I’m no expert in judging comedy, I figure that her brand is deadbeat humour. And she is fucking good at it.
This interview, however, is not just about them. These women have been on the forefront of educating men on how to converse with the ladies. Men, at times, don’t even know that they are talking over a woman or that they are enforcing their opinions on her. That’s how it’s always been and they have no idea that they are being disrespectful.
Through the course of our conversation, not only am I extremely comfortable around the women, but I’m also making a conscious effort to understand what makes them tick and why they joke about the things that they joke about. “I do comedy because I get to say anything and I feel that the label of ‘comedienne’ protects me,” Surka says, when I ask why she does comedy. “I can talk about edgy topics or what the public considers crass and my mother can be like ‘oh, she can talk like that, she’s a comedienne’. I feel like there’s so much freedom,” she adds
Palta loves being the centre of attention and loves making people laugh. “Comedy gives you that high, once you know that you’re good at what you do, it’s a high without adding any inches to your hips, if you know what I mean,” she says. “This gives me a better high than alcohol.” Having said that, on a slight tangent, corporates, Palta tells me, rush to hire female comics on Women’s Day. The usual brief is that they should not joke about religion and politics too much but one company actually asked Palta to not speak about anything “too feminist-y”.
Then, I draw the conversation towards cancel culture. What is cancel culture? The millennial-driven Urban Dictionary has the perfect definition: ‘a thing that fifteen-year-olds do when a celebrity has said something ‘offensive’ in the past and they go ballistic on them and claim them as ‘cancelled’’. There’s been a lot of that going around on the internet.
“Cancel culture is also, unfortunately, a double-edged sword. As much as it is a reach of reaction, sometimes it has led to something good. It has led to more women coming forward and talking about issues,” Suresh adds. “As much as the knee-jerk reaction worries me — and I’ve been on the receiving end of collateral damage — one of the shows that Urooj has written and I was a part of it, got canned because of cancel culture. It did bother me because 60 per cent of the crew were women and one man destroyed it.”
I bring up a point that has bothered me ever since the #MeToo phenomenon broke out. While initially, everyone was supportive of the women, it soon took a dark turn with many social media users putting the responsibility on the women themselves. I ask the comediennes what they feel about it.
“I get this from journalists all the time. Recently, I was doing a show with a male comedian and he just got questions on comedy and all my questions were on the lines of ‘any advice for female comedians’ and I was like: why not advice for all comedians? And then he was like ‘do you think the MeToo movement was important?’ I was like fuck you! You didn’t ask the guy that question! He should answer that, not just me,” Surka says.
“That’s why I think cancel culture will bring in an amount of accountability because you can’t just walk in the next day and think that nothing will happen to you. Cancel culture instils an amount of fear and the only thing we have to keep in mind, as women and men who come forward with allegations, is how wholesome and correct our allegations are,” Suresh adds.
“If there’s accountability, men also have to do the heavy-lifting of helping out. The women are thinking about cancel culture and how to follow up with an allegation they made and the men who are accused are like, ‘this is not my problem’,” Afshaq says.
Surka talks about how she had to respond to the All India Bakchod (AIB) debacle. AIB founders, Tanmay Bhat and Gursimran Khamba, had found themselves in hot water after their names were called out during the start of the #MeTooIndia movement last year. There were numerous allegations of inappropriate conduct against comedian Utsav Chakraborty who worked closely with the comedy collective. Following this, AIB had accepted that Bhat had complete knowledge of the accusations against Chakraborty
“I had to talk about the AIB situation. They were just ‘you justified their behaviour’- what do you mean ‘justified their behaviour?’” Surka says, recalling that time.
Then, I put forward the question: What is the protocol for a man who has been called out? Is an apology enough?
“You should ask the man,” Suresh and Ashfaq say in unison. Suresh also adds that when a victim has come out with a statement, it is unfair to judge the victim.
“I came forward with a statement and I wanted her to take responsibility for what she did and I asked for that and I got it. And that’s what I want from a man as well,” Surka says. Surka had accused fellow comedienne, Aditi Mittal, of inappropriate behaviour last year. Following this, Mittal had come forward with a public apology.
“I gave a conclusion to it. I wasn’t looking for cancel culture. I was like, I want you to say sorry for what you did, and it’s done and there’s closure,” Surka adds
Here, the women school me. Suresh agrees that the question I have asked is a very valid one but it’s also one that should be asked of the men. The conversation then moves on to how, unfortunately, the MeToo movement, in Bollywood at least, seems to be dying out. Those accused are slowly crawling back and reclaiming their spaces. How does one follow up and go against someone as big as a Nana Patekar, a Maharashtrian who is quite popular in the state? But that doesn’t mean that the MeToo movement didn’t have good repercussions.
“There was a statement that Konkona Sensharma and a bunch of eight film-makers put out that: we see what has happened and any woman who has gone through this and is not getting work, please reach out to us and if you’re competent enough, we will give you work. That was a very interesting statement. There were eight film-makers who wrote scripts, had money to invest and directed films and they were like we’ll take care of it. That was a very good by-product of what happened,” Suresh says. She goes on to speak about The Better Life Foundation, a show she had worked on with comedian Utsav Chakraborty, and what she felt when it was canned. Suresh is coming from a completely production and scripting point of view. The show had already been scripted and a large amount of money and hard work had been invested into it. If there was a new season, they would obviously not hire someone who had been accused. But what does one do when the work had already been completed months before the allegations surfaced?
“For me, with this whole thing, I know the law doesn’t always work and it’s very difficult to get things done by going through it, but there needs to be some due process because right now, it’s just everyone’s hands flailing all over the place. There is no due process,” Surka says. “You don’t always have the money or the bandwidth to go through the due process but I feel like even social media should have a due process of some kind.”
The interview with the comediennes end with two boomerangs of them hugging (‘Show them how much we love each other!’ Surka says) and a selfie (naturally). The four of them are hosting and judging Comicstaan 2 on Amazon Prime. The discussions and debate on equal representation of women following the #MeTooIndia movement can be seen in the difference between the first and second season of Comicstaan. While the first season had two comediennes (Suresh was a host and Surka was a judge), the representation in this season has doubled – Ashfaq will be hosting while Surka, Palta and Suresh will be the judges. The comediennes are also quite kicked about Palta’s #MeToo piece, though they aren’t allowed to discuss the details of how it goes.