I’ve always been a class clown. But in India, where I grew up, being funny isn't cute. When I hit puberty, I realised I needed to make a choice – I could behave pretty, or I could be a joker. I chose to be funny.
Still, although I loved performing, I never thought I would end up in the entertainment industry. Bollywood didn't have funny women. I’d never seen a successful funny person who wasn’t male. Instead, I got a degree in economics and business management.
That changed when my boyfriend decided to leave India for New York. I wasn't going to let him go. By 2001, I had moved too, seeking life and liberty and in pursuit of marriage. In this new, rather overwhelming city, I had few friends and less money. I lived with the daily dread of deportation. I was depressed and I was being depressing. So one night, my boyfriend sat me down and explained that he had a goal. He was going to run the New York City Marathon in a few months. He would be training intensively for it. What, he asked, did I plan to do with my spare time?
The conversation was mildly humiliating, and the next day I began scouring the internet for a class I could take. Any class would do – who did he think he was with his stupid goals?
I considered learning a language, toyed with the idea of gourmet cooking and even thought about running the damn thing myself. It all seemed like too much work. Then, I remembered my first love – performing. I visited an acting school in the West Village. There, I noticed a poster advertising a free improv class. Being that it was free and I am Indian, I tried it out. At the end, I signed up for the term.
Around this time, I watched 9 to 5 and every other comedy movie and show I could get my hands on. Women, I realised, were funny. They had been so forever. So why were there so few women in Indian comedy – or comedy in general?
My own life gave me a clue. I loved comedy but allowed myself to be governed by the old ways. A Hindu male has four life stages. His female counterpart has two: marriage and motherhood. Any deviation from this prescription was accompanied with a giant dose of inadequacy. I had spent my life within a system that repressed women, that taught us that sex and relationships could only be addressed behind closed doors. Virginity was something women were expected to cling to. Sex was only to be talked about in regards to baby-making. And women were supposed to be, above all, quiet.
With improv, I suddenly felt unburdened. Here were regular women, like me, milking their own versions of guilt and shame for comedy gold. Divorce, abortions, breasts that didn't look like a Playboy Bunny’s, they would say exactly what they wanted – harnessing their femininity to make a point. Watching these women I learned that vulnerability is funnier than aggression.
More importantly, I realised that humour could question the status quo and shake things up. So I started writing comedic monologues that addressed some of the stuff I was thinking about. My first character was a housewife in a hijab married to an unsuccessful terrorist and cabdriver in New York. She wasn't a subservient, weepy Middle Eastern woman (the kind of part I was being asked to audition for). She was an incredibly smart, liberal ball-buster who didn't believe in tears.
Eventually, I came up with a full set about being female and I christened my first show Unladylike: The Pitfalls of Propriety. I told my audience that to me, oral sex was like cooking: I had no natural flair for it and was operating from a recipe handed down years ago by another woman who didn't know what she was doing either. I went into detail on my first bikini wax. I suggested that farting in front of her man is a woman's way of establishing long-term commitment.
The show debuted in New York on 10 Sept 2010. I followed it up with my second show Older. Angrier. Hairier, and my web series Shugs & Fats, which I created with Nadia Manzoor. Then, in 2011, I returned to India to perform Unladylike.
I was excited but nervous. New York’s comedy scene welcomes raunchy women. Not so much back home. Friends kept asking if I'd be tweaking the material to make it more chaste. But I knew Indian audiences, especially the women, would be able to handle it. I knew this because my idea of what was funny had always been the same, it hadn't changed at all. Like me it had been made in India – honed in New York, perhaps – but definitely Indian. It was a hit. Even men enjoyed it (though some came up to me afterward to argue for the patriarchy).
I travelled back to India several times the following year and with each trip home I became more aware that the feminist movement was inching its way into our collective consciousness. Women were talking about it all the time. My shows, I realised, could be a part of this conversation. That was when I decided I wanted to live in India.
I now split my time between the United States and home. And I don't regret it. It's not easy though. Comedians in India, male or female, face a big challenge. Raised to conform in schools and colleges where we are taught not by inquiry but by rote, we Indians are punished for questioning authority and rewarded for sycophancy at every level. This isn’t the most natural setting for a comedian whose job involves a lot of questions. So we face massive censorship, even online.
One comedian on a well-known show was arrested and moved across state lines for parodying a religious leader. Several comedians had cases filed against them for making jokes about being gay and having premarital sex, and one of the most viewed comedy events - a roast - was pulled off the internet because of the claims that it hurt religious sensibilities. The comedians involved were threatened with lawsuits and bodily harm.
But as dismal as it sounds, the outrage has a silver lining. Perhaps if we keep at it, the house of cards will eventually come tumbling down. Preferably in a gale of laughter.
On good days I know we are in the midst of a revolution. Women’s issues, gay rights and other personal freedoms have never been more at the forefront of the collective conscience than they are today, and comedy is at least in part responsible for that. My show allows me to connect with people; by making them laugh I earn their trust and so I can ask them to think differently about things that matter. Like a religious fanatic, I believe that every convert counts and that the rest of the non-believers will catch up eventually. It’s an uphill battle, but one I plan to fight, because women making jokes about women-centric stuff has power, and I intend to see that through.
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