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India’s Funniest Women: They’re Busting Sexist Labels, Talking Politics and Giving Us Serious ROFLs

Mallika Dua, Bharti Singh, Kaneez Surka, Radhika Vaz and Mithila Palkar, among others, are changing the face of funny in a nation where humor has been a male bastion

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[L-R] Mithila Palkar, Radhika Vaz, Kaneez Surka and Mallika Dua photographed for Rolling Stone India by Juhi Sharma and styled exclusively in Pepe Jeans India.

India seems to have a love-hate relationship with funny women on the big screen. If you look back and try to recall women comics you saw in mainstream Hindi movies from the past half-century, only a handful of names come to mind: the iconic Tun Tun and Manorama from the black & white era, frumpy-funny Preeti Ganguly from the Seventies (remember Freni from Basu Chatterjee’s 1978 laugh riot Khatta Meetha?) and Eighties’ eternal college bully Guddi Maruti, who apparently got her first big comic break only because Ganguly’s weight loss had rendered her ineligible for comic roles. The scanty number also made them some of the most recognizable faces in Indian cinema—women whose main role on screen was to be the punchline of a fat joke that would offend just about anybody today. In the Nineties, the chirpy Juhi Chawla, although not a comedian per se, won over kids and adults alike with her endearing, and often hilarious, roles. As did Upasana Singh, who is best known for playing a deaf-mute caricature in the 1997 potboiler Judaai.

Indian television, on the other hand, gloriously installed the careers of a bevy of actor-comedians, mostly due to the overall popularity of prime-time comedy shows. The heyday of post-liberalization television in India even saw trailblazers like Savita Bhatti, who produced and acted in the cult Doordarshan satire Flop Show with husband and director Jaspal Bhatti. Unlike their big-screen predecessors, Nineties TV actors like Shubha Khote, Bhavana Balsavar (Dekh Bhai Dekh, Zabaan Sambhalke), Archana Puran Singh (Shrimaan Shrimati) and the more or less entire all-woman cast of Hum Paanch were overall badasses, kicking misogyny in the bum even as they worked their comic magic on ROFLing audiences that couldn’t get enough of cable television.

Collage

[Clockwise from left] Manorama, Tun Tun, Guddi Maruti, Upasana Singh, Savita Bhatti and Preety Ganguly

The last 15 years have seen such comic characters reduce to a trickle, thanks to the overwhelming success of ‘K-serials’ that continue to project women solely in the binary of sanskaari saas-bahus and conniving vamps in their noodle-strap saree blouses. The only funny women on the small screen today are mostly loudmouthed caricatures (Daya Jethalal Gada in the TRP-sweeping Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah), bumbling damsels in distress (Angoori Tiwari in Bhabi Ji Ghar Par Hai!) or the butt of sexist jokes (Sumona Chakravarti and Sugandha Mishra in The Kapil Sharma Show).

VJ and television host Anuradha Menon, who played the utterly hilarious Lola Kutty in a number of vignettes for Channel V was a breath of fresh air, but with limited screen time and a short stint in TV, she couldn’t really capture the imagination of the nation.

Bharti Singh is possibly the only legit ‘mainstream’ woman artist to have made her mark as a comedian who is adored by a wide section of Indian audiences. Hailing from Amritsar, Punjab, Singh was the second runner-up in the comedy reality show The Great Indian Laughter Challenge (Season 4) in 2008 and continues to host comedy and reality television today. Hers has been a story of battling discrimination at every level—from misogyny in television to body-shaming—to emerge as one of the front-runners in mainstream Hindi comedy today.

 

Post-millennium comedy boom

It is not surprising that when stand-up comedy started putting down roots in India in the early Aughts (still well before the burgeoning comedy scene found its way into the mainstream), the face of funny was predominantly male. In that era, “you had your Sunil Pals and Raju Srivastavs, who did more slapstick,” says Sohail Gandhi, co-owner of part music venue part comedy club Tuning Fork in Mumbai. It was essentially a sausage fest, save for a smattering of women, many of who appeared on shows like Laughter Challenge but none whom you’d perhaps remember by name: Rajbir Kaur (Amritsar), Aarti Kandpal (Kumaon, Ut taranchal) and Seema Motwani (Mumbai).

And then, in a series of rapidly advancing trends in the past five years, comedy turned into the next big thing in Indian entertainment, marked by the rise in popularity of the stand-up style propagated in the West: “conversational, situational, idea-based comedy,” as Gandhi describes it. Watching a stand-up show on a Friday or Saturday night has more or less become the thing to do. “Usually when people turn out for music gigs, they don’t just go out for just the musicians. They come for the bar too, and the food,” says Gandhi. “But with comedy, because of the comedy boom, people just head over in droves no matter which comedian is playing.”

And it wasn’t just stand-up. The so-called comedy boom in large part coincided with the rise of comedy collectives such as East India Comedy and All India Bakchod (AIB), among others, who laid down an infallible web presence, turning them into the digital behemoths they are today. AIB’s platform paved the way for one of modern Indian comedy’s first female faces: Aditi Mittal, who was the only woman on the panel of comedians at AIB’s famously controversial roast, All India Bakchod Knockout in 2015.

The new wave of comedy has provided a platform for several more powerful new women on the scene, and a second wind for some of the more established women comics who’ve already been around. We’ve come a long way from the patriarchal humor of yesteryear—no more sandwich jokes to be found, thankfully; and even if some had lingered, our cover star Lilly Singh aka Superwoman’s recent viral video, satirically titled “How To Make A Sandwich” probably put a quick end to them. That being said, gender discrimination exists on every plane in India today, which raises the question as to whether comedy has remained impervious to systematic misogyny, or whether the environment mirrors the rest of the entertainment industry, where it runs rampant.

 


“‘Female comedian’ is as idiotic as saying ‘female doctor.’ It is sexist to the core.” – Radhika Vaz


 

What’s in a label?

Discrimination or otherwise, women in the comedy industry are powerhouses across multiple platforms and genres, but many are extremely resistant to the ‘female comedian’ label. Radhika Vaz, popular stand-up comic and author of Unladylike: The Pitfalls of Propriety, says: “It’s as idiotic as saying ‘female doctor.’ It is sexist to the core.”

Radhika Vaz

Radhika Vaz photographed for Rolling Stone India by Juhi Sharma. White formal shirt with pleats, light wash wide leg denims with pocket detailing—both by Pepe Jeans; Shoes by Rosso Brunello; Ring by Shazé

The animosity towards the term is not uncontested, however. Stand-up comic Sonali Thakker takes no offense to the label. “I am a female. I am a comedian. If somebody wants to call me that, well by all means, please do so,” she says, adding, “It really depends on what context it’s been said [in]. Comedy is not a female-dominated industry… If someone calls me a female comedian, I would just give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it’s been said [because] it’s still a novelty factor in their minds.”

Sumukhi Suresh, a stand-up comic who has appeared in a bunch of sketches with online platforms AIB, Vagabomb and Them Boxer Shorts, feels otherwise. She says, “I did not choose to be part of this industry to be the best in my gender. I chose to me a comic to be the best comic ever. The struggles maybe more for us, but the moment you brand a girl who is a comic as a ‘female comedian,’ it takes double the time for her to break out of that and be a good comic.”

Kaneez Surka, who is one of the best-known faces in Indian comedy today, blames sloppy media for propagating sexist labels. “Journalists ask us about being a female comedian, but they don’t talk to us for the work we’re doing, you know? No one really sees Kaneez as an improv artist— just that label of female comedian. And that’s the biggest challenge. People think my brand of comedy is ‘female comedy’ but that’s not a brand of comedy… Everyone defines me as a ‘female comedian’ and I do so much more.”

 

Online comedy: The real playground?

As we enter the era of YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram, the Internet reigns as one of the key sources of entertainment to anyone connected to it. In addition to the sheer volume of content, the freedom the web grants has opened gates to not just new mediums of expression, but also new audiences.

“A few years ago, the only thing we were used to watching online were sketches by AIB and short videos,” recalls Marathi actress Mithila Palkar, who initially gained viral attention for her cup song “Hi Chal Turu Turu” inspired by American actress Anna Kendrick’s famous track. In the past two years, she has become a regular face in a series of mostly comedy videos produced by online media firm FilterCopy.

 


“It didn’t matter to me that I was the best girl performing on stage. I just had to be the best performer.” – Mallika Dua


 

While working on the satire comedy show News Darshan in 2015, Palkar and her colleagues at FilterCopy realized they were on the brink of a new species of entertainment, a hybrid between television shows and shorter online content that caters to millennials thirsting for quick but fulfilling entertainment. Since then, Palkar has gone on to star in web series such as Girl In The City (presented by youth TV channel and now portal Bindass) and Little Things (which aired on digital production house Dice Media’s YouTube channel).

Snapchat superstar Mallika Dua is perhaps the biggest success story that online comedy has witnessed in India of late. While her content is largely observational and women-centric—we can’t thank her enough for the filter-fueled caricatures like Makeup-Didi, Smylie Jenner and Shagz Di—Dua explains it was never about proving her mettle as a ‘woman comedian.’

“I had never planned that ‘Oh, I’m going to build up on this particular medium and now I’ll make sure that people follow me here,’” she says, adding, “I literally just saw it as, ‘I need to be someone that people know.’ Even when I used to perform on stage, it didn’t matter to me that I was the best girl performing on stage. I just had to be the best performer,” says Dua, who studied theater and dabbled in copywriting in New Delhi before moving to Mumbai last year to take up comedy full-time. She is now signed to India’s premier media enterprise Only Much Louder (psst! OML has dropped some of its biggest bands from the roster and is currently focusing on comedy acts).

Mallika Dua

Mallika Dua photographed for Rolling Stone India by Juhi Sharma. Cotton top with bow detailing on both sides, denim dungarees —both by Pepe Jeans; Shoes by Clarks

Dua might want to stay away from gender labels but a quick Google search reveals that she is almost always the only woman on online stories listing must-follow Snapchat profiles. Usual suspects Varun Thakur, Tanmay Bhat and Kanan Gill pretty much rule all such recommendations.

Also See  Watch: 'Makeup Didi' Mallika Dua on Shaadi, Sex and Career

In spite of inadequate representation in media, for women artists, the Internet offers a bigger space than that of television and film simply because there is no waiting around to be given an opportunity. “There is no one monitoring the upload button,” says Superwoman, whose formidable position on YouTube (11 million subscribers!) makes her one of the most influential players in online content globally.

Apart from the freedom and democracy, the Internet also facilitates an easy interaction with fans that helps craft better content. Says Surka, “I personally have all the analytics at my fingertips so I can see what age group is watching my stuff online, what gender, from where in India or from where in the world.” For the audience, comedy on a digital platform is definitely more relatable. “It’s not the faraway land of television or movies. Those people are unreachable, they’re unattainable; where there’s digital comedians and stars, you get to interact on a personal level,” she adds.

But for artists who started out as standup comics, writing for digital audiences can be a whole new ball game. Transitioning from monologue-style writing to structured screenplays requires a whole new skill-set and getting used to. Vaz describes it as a “night and day” process. Plus crossovers don’t always work and not every kind of comedy can guarantee success when adapted to television or vice versa. “There’s an assumption that anyone big on YouTube can be good onstage and that’s an incorrect assessment,” says Vaz. That being said, there’s no denying the power of online platforms. “It gives you the opportunity to reach a wider audience, to try new things,” she adds.

 


“In digital comedy, you get to interact on a personal level. It is not the faraway land of television or movies.” – Kaneez Surka 


 

Gender discrimination is no joke

More freedom of expression is not necessarily considered a good thing by everyone; more traditional viewers could bristle at women taking bold and progressive stances, or cracking lewd jokes. “There’s a lot of foul words when you’re trying to make a joke, and a lot of people do think that’s funny,” says Palkar. “But also there’s a belief in India that women can’t be swearing.” Online exposure has provided comedians a way to grow their audiences without compromising on their material, which would likely be necessitated by a television network or film producer. That same freedom can be a double-edged sword.

Trolls reserve extra ammunition of hate for women artists. “It all possible thanks to the mask of anonymity that some people enjoy,” Suresh says about why she prefers live audiences. “The same person will not be able to throw muck at us live.”

By now, most women artists are used to comments and remarks like ‘She shouldn’t be saying all this’ and ‘She shouldn’t be talking about her bra in public’ and ‘She shouldn’t be talking about her period in public.’ Palkar believes that more exposure is likely the solution to that kind of backlash. “People need to get over [it] and I think [that’s] what comedians right now are trying to do,” says Palkar. “It’s not just boy-centric humor.”

Palkar’s thought about “boy-centric humor” raises the point that comedy is an industry that has always been centered around men, and by default, hostile to women. Even on an international level, women are constantly criticized for not fitting into some mold—for example, American comedian Ali Wong, whose comedy continues to be described as “lewd” and “raunchy.” Hollywood actress Melissa McCarthy has been the target of several misogynist attacks in her career, with one unnamed critic even declaring in a review of her 2014 film Tammy that McCarthy was only good at acting when she looked attractive. The actress was later quoted in several interviews as saying that sexism in the media is “an intense sickness,” and that as an artist, she was “trying to take away the double standard of ‘You’re an unattractive bitch because your character was not skipping along in high heels.’”

Bharti Singh

Bharti Singh’s clean, ‘family entertainment’ brand of comedy made her a hit among the middle class. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Closer home, Singh recounts the passive aggression she’d face from her male counterparts while competing on Laughter Challenge. “A lot of men would say, ‘Abhi chhoti ho. Lekin ek episode toh nikaal hi logi. [You’re a novice. You’ll last one episode max]. Funnily, those guys were the ones that got eliminated first.” Today, Singh is one of Indian TV’s highest-paid artists and it
amuses her how her overwhelming success has changed the attitudes of people that previously branded her as “woh moti ladki [that fat girl].” “Now they call me ‘cute’ and say how wonderful I am on stage!”

Back home in Amritsar where gender based violence continues to plague society, Singh is a inspiration to many. But it irks her no end that more women don’t want to pursue comedy. “I know so many talented girls who can have a career in comedy but all they want to do is either model or act. They think comedy is all about making faces and being the butt of jokes!”

Singh’s comedy is hardly political or provocative by any standards—it is rooted largely in small-town experiences and borrows heavily from her own household issues. It is her clean, ‘family entertainment’ brand of comedy that has made her an instant hit among the middle class.

But every time women comedians have attempted to incite people to talk about touchy issues like, say, female sexuality, they have faced a severe backlash. “[We’re expected to] sit at home and wash bartans [the dishes]. And that’s where they want us: barefoot and pregnant,” says Vaz.

In an effort to progress the conversation on female sexuality, several comedians, including Dua, Surka and Suresh, released a video on AIB’s YouTube channel, titled “A Woman’s Besties.” In the video, Dua stars as a woman who suspects she might be pregnant, while Surka, Suresh and others play the role of her personified body parts: her vagina, clitoris and breasts. While Suresh notes that the response to that video was “mostly positive,” she says, “I had some followers send me messages online that they don’t want me to do ‘such videos.’ That they like me cute and clean and not in ‘cheap’ videos.” Her response? “I did them a favor and blocked them.”

 


“A lot of men would say, ‘Abhi chhoti ho. Lekin ek episode toh nikaal hi logi. [You’re a novice. You’ll last one episode max].”- Bharti Singh 


 

Live audiences can be equally harsh, especially if they arrive at a comedy club expecting an all-male bill —which they often do. “It’s that shock element and a certain amount [of] preconceived notions they’ve come along with that leads to the difference,” says Thakker. “But hey, if you get over that and make them laugh, they’re with you through and through.”

Thakker has the optimistic outlook that if you can make someone laugh, they’re on your side. But, as Suresh notes, you can’t always make them laugh—and it’s not because your jokes aren’t funny. “The judgement and discrimination creeps in from the audience,” says Suresh. “I have had my fair share of great audiences to enjoy my sets, but there have been times when a certain joke or a certain remark has not gone down well thanks to my gender.”

Audience judgement is an immediately apparent evil, but does more insidious discrimination seep into employment and opportunities like it does in other career paths? In India, the comedy scene is in its nascent stages, which makes it even harder to compare the treatment of genders, but some women are already seeing an uneven playing field.

Vaz, for one, sees the gender imbalance as an extension of the film and entertainment industry. “They may not think you’re as good and that general attitude, even in the entertainment industry, is the same reason Ranveer [Singh, actor] gets paid more than Deepika [Padukone, actress], his own girlfriend,” says Vaz. “Because the producers have decided that the audience they’re looking at will come to watch him and not her.”

Other comedians disagree with Vaz. “I’ve never faced discrimination in comedy,” states Dua. “Firstly  one year is too short a time to even know where you stand, and in an industry where there are only 10-12 women, and most of them are friends with each other.” Dua, along with her peers at AIB, Surka and Suresh, believe that within the community, they have faced no challenges. “There are no men stepping on our shoes, and in fact a lot of men have helped me get far,” says Dua. “Be it Tanmay [Bhat, AIB Co-Founder], be it Vijay Nair [Founder & CEO, OML].”

Sonali Thakkar

Sonali Thakkar takes no offense to the label ‘Female Comedian.’ Photo: Courtesy of the artist

As Dua points out, there aren’t that many women in the Indian comedy circuit yet. Right now, they all know each other—and get compared to one another constantly. As a result of the close quarters, a tentative community has emerged. Thakker lets on that there is a WhatsApp group made of the women in comedy. “It’s always a delight to see more female comics in the green room and on the line-up with you,” she says. “But eventually, whether male or female, you’re responsible for your own progress.”

All of the women echo Thakker’s thoughts: there is a community, but at the same time, comedy is a business, and in business, it’s every woman—and man—for herself. “The number [of] women in the comedy space is increasing and we have each other’s back,” says Suresh. “But I also think women believe in being the best at whatever they do and thus sometimes wish to consciously fend for themselves. As long as we all know that we are there for each other!”

Earlier this year, video content streaming platform Amazon Prime Video came under fire in India for its recent partnership with OML. The deal involved 14 comedians on OML’s roster receiving hour-long slots on Amazon Prime Video for special segments. Not one artist on the lineup was female.

“How does that happen? How does your development team for such a big platform ignore completely the fact that there are no women on the lineup?” questions Vaz, who had discussed the topic in detail in an interview with NDTV earlier this year. Mittal, who chose not to speak with us for this story, too expressed her disappointment about the entire thing in the same interview. Regardless of whether or not it was Amazon Prime’s conscious decision to avoid women artists, the damage has been done with the reinforcement of a ridiculous notion: that only men can be really (and lucratively) funny.

Also See  Kaneez Surka: ‘Everyone Defines Me as a ‘Female Comedian’; No One Really Sees Me as an Improv Artist’

Surka, who is signed to OML herself, presents a different side of the argument. She states that it wasn’t about exclusion but more about content. “The thing is, OML represents three female comedians; Sumukhi, Mal lika and myself,” she says, adding that while she and Suresh are working on stand-up, neither of them have a one-hour set, and Dua does not do stand-up at all. She does, however, agree that perhaps Amazon could have been more inclusive in its approach by attempting to reach out to more women in the scene, but since it was a deal with OML, it couldn’t be helped. “I don’t think it went to, ‘No we can only put men on the roster,’” she says.

 

Indian comedy breaking class, language barriers yet?

Leaving aside the Hindi and vernacular comic performers that have risen to popularity thanks to the mainstream comedy boom on TV, one factor in particular unites the current crop of comedians, male and female alike, that perform mostly in English: many come from places of educational and economic privilege. This is not like India’s other burgeoning entertainment scene, hip-hop, which has heralded the rise of artists from working class backgrounds, and in some cases, literally the streets. Comedians doing the club circuit today, by comparison, are a mostly sheltered lot—although you’ll be hard-pressed to find one who admits to it.

“I wouldn’t say all, but most [comedians] do come from educated backgrounds, but I wouldn’t use the word privileged so loosely,” says Thakker. “Because every stand-up comic… has had a day job running parallel to him or her doing stand-up for at least the initial years of them doing stand-up.”

Mithila Palkar

Mithila Palkar photographed for Rolling Stone India by Juhi Sharma. Multi-colored light jacket in jacquard fabric, white cotton sleeveless tee, distressed denim shorts—all by Pepe Jeans; Shoes by Crocs.

Singh is probably the only woman artist among her circle who has broken class barriers. She recalls the time when she was offered the signing fee of her first TV show and she didn’t even have a bank account. “They said they would transfer Rs 10 lakhs immediately and requested for an account number. I didn’t know what to say!” Although her primary audience is the TV watching middle class, her humor has takers across age and socio-economic strata—from, say, an elderly housewife in a Tier-3 city to the Internet-crazy, English-speaking millennial in a metro.

Ask Singh about what she makes of the flourishing comedy scene online and she says, “Internet wala comedy toh padelikhe logon ka khel hai. [Online comedy is a playground for the privileged.] The real audience lies in their own homes, watching TV.” Singh doesn’t follow the stand-up scene closely but is happy to know from us that a lot of women are now seen on stage. “Mujhe bahut, bahut proud ho raha hai yeh sunke! [I feel a sense of pride!]”

For Singh, comedy is the best thing to have happened to her. Gone are the days when her family struggled to make ends meet—there’s a certain unassuming pride in her voice when Singh narrates how each and every member of her family is well-settled now thanks to her lucrative career. She even shares how her mother initially objected to her relationship with fiancé Harsh Limbhachiya because she felt he was no match for her high-income daughter. “I earn more than I could have ever imagined—I am living a Cinderella-life.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the audience you might find at a comedy club come from certain backgrounds—they may not all be Ambani-wealthy, but most have higher-level education and access to resources. Almost all are urban and based out of big cities. Vaz points out a similarity between comedy club audiences and an acting class she took once in the U.S. “There were only two women in the whole class and there was only one person who was not white and that was me, and there were two people over the age of 35 and it was me and another guy,” she says. “So it was a very particular kind of group, which is what you see in the comedy clubs here: a straight, male, of-the majority kind of profile.”

The rural and working classes are left out of the new, urban wave of comedy almost entirely—in part because comedy now happens online or in comedy clubs that have rights to admission and cover charges, and in part because most of the comedy scene is rooted in an understanding of English.

Vaz explains, “I think there are a couple of barriers that I face. Number one: language. Hindi is not my first language and I think in English.” She adds, “I feel like I am in a niche with an English-speaking audience. Whether you’re urban or not urban, that’s not really an issue. It’s just the language for me.” At the same time, while Vaz admits her English-only comedy does provide a barrier to non-English speaking audiences, she also says that she hadn’t previously considered expanding her audience. “To be honest, I’ve never tried to appeal to anybody outside of who I appeal to,” admits Vaz .

Palkar, whose mother tongue is Marathi, has actively tried to bridge the language gap via Marathi-language content. She’s currently associated with a Marathi YouTube channel called Bharatiya Digital Party, which seeks to provide the Marathi community with an online entertainment portal, partially in an effort to soften the class divide. “I’ve learned very recently that in fact South Indian projects online are picking up quite fast,” Palkar adds. “Somebody told me Telugu web series are doing quite well, so the regional space is really, really picking up.”

 


“Most comedians do come from educated backgrounds, but I wouldn’t use the word privileged so loosely.” – Sonali Thakker


 

Bollywood dreaming?

Dua has got to be the one person in her comic circle with the widest array of work in the shortest span of time. In the past few months, she has officially endorsed films on Instagram (Noor, starring Sonakshi Sinha and fellow comic Kanan Gill), walked the ramp at Lakme Fashion Week, appeared on an online kids’ art and craft show (Mad Stuff With Rob) and interviewed Bollywood A-listers for a fashion magazine, among other projects.

This month, she will make her Bollywood debut with a cameo in the Irffan-starrer Hindi Medium. Is she actively auditioning for film roles at point in her career now? “Absolutely,” she says. “I don’t go to just about any audition, because there’s no point doing that. But I generally do for the ones I’m called for. That too just specifically called for, not like a general audition call, I don’t show up for those ones.”

Kaneez Surka

Kaneez Surka photographed for Rolling Stone India by Juhi Sharma. Off shoulder top in cotton with embroidery detailing paired with light wash distressed denims—all by Pepe Jeans; Shoes by Vans

Dua is certain she won’t ever play an “insignificant supporting character. ”And being a comic means there’s the usual trap of typecasting that she has to avoid too. “I get typecast all the time. Every day I get at least one call for some kind of casting. I could have made all kinds of money and I could have just overexposed myself had I said yes to every opportunity that came to me.”

Palkar, who identifies herself as an actor first and foremost, already has a few films to her name, from 2015’s comedy Katti Batti where she played a support role to the Marathi short film Majha Honeymoon in which she was the lead. Come June she will appear as the female lead in another Marathi film, Muramba. “I was 12 when I knew that I wanted to act,” says Palkar, adding, “I would like to do a lot of films. I would like to do Bollywood, I would like to do Hollywood, though it’s a long shot.”

With Vaz, things take a different turn; stepping into acting on television or in Bollywood isn’t a goal she has in mind. “Not unless it’s an item number,” she deadpans before adding with a laugh, “I’m just kidding!” She says there’s no vendetta against Bollywood. “The truth is, I want to write for films and that’s definitely because of my web series [Shugs & Fats] getting an encouraging response—not in India, sadly, but internationally. I want to take that to the next level.”

She does add, however, that while many comedians are preparing to jump platforms, not everyone is made for multiple mediums. “I’m not entirely sure every stand-up comedian makes a good actor. I definitely know that not every actor makes a great stand-up comedian. But having watched a lot of the online stuff that’s happening in India, the writing is so good sometimes but the acting quality is not. And it’s difficult to get comedians to act.”

Surka, despite not engaging in the chase for Bollywood’s twinkling lights, is a comedian with one of the largest presences across several platforms. “I’m really living my dream. I know it sounds lame, but I’m doing what I want to do,” she says with a laugh. She already stars i
n a TV show [the satirical late night show The Week That Wasn’t], runs her own YouTube channel and collaborates (online and live) with fellow comedians. She cites her new game show on YouTube as the turning point of her career and life. The General Fun Game Show with Kaneez Surka is indeed special: not just because it is downright hilarious but it’s also the only show hosted by a woman that does not automatically focus on women centric comedy; it explores so much more of what Surka is capable of as an improv comedian.

 


“Some fans messaged saying they like me cute and clean and not in ‘cheap’ videos. I did them a favor and blocked them.” – Sumukhi Suresh


 

Fighting the good fight

When it boils down to it, most women in comedy agree on one point: there is a need to normalize their presence in what has so far been a male-dominated space. According to Surka, the only way to achieve this is to involve and encourage more women to get involved. “It’s good for all of us when more girls come into the scene because then we up our game. We start being seen as a cool bunch of people rather than a small group of ‘female comedians.’”

Both Vaz and Surka point out the effectiveness of platforms like ladies’ special open mics that give women who are new to comedy a warmer audience—online they face trolls and it takes experience to take on hecklers in live audiences. “I know a lot of female comedians who got into trouble for saying a lot of things,” Surka says, adding that women are often asked to stop doing comedy because their family or their boyfriend didn’t appreciate it. Safer spaces with more women present and encouragement from both women and men in the comedy community can do wonders. “I was so impressed with the level of comedy,” Surka says about her most recent experience hosting a ladies’ special open mic. “They had good jokes, more confidence; it’s a great sign.”

Having said that, there’s a lot more work to be done before women artists are seen as equals rather than the ‘other,’ with their hard work exoticized and shoved under one label. “It’s the reason why we’re all doing what we’re doing,” says Surka firmly. “It’ll take time, but I think we’ll get there.”

(With inputs by Nirmika Singh)

Click here to check out the story in the digital edition of Rolling Stone India. 

Check out what went on behind the scenes of our shoot with Radhika Vaz, Mallika Dua, Kaneez Surka and Mithila Palkar below:

 

Photographs by Juhi Sharma
Art Director: Amit Naik
Video: FULL TILT FILMS
Fashion Director: Kushal Parmanand
Junior Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva
Hair & Makeup by Jean-Claude Biguine India

Location Courtesy: G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture, Mumbai

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