There’s a technique to the slap,” says Aditi Mittal, turning in her chair so that she can demonstrate the physics of an on-screen slap. It’s almost like a magic trick, sound and action must be in sync, but most importantly, it’s got to look real. “I know these things because I got slapped by a cop once on CID,” she says, flipping her colourful hair back in slo-mo. Was it the all-knowing ACP Pradhyuman? “No, it was a female cop. I played one half of the college basketball team captains, Jinny and Johnny, who were accused of murdering Natasha, by electrocuting her on a basketball hoop, when she went in for the final slam dunk,” says Mittal, her fake smugness wiped off by a series of helpless chuckles.
Dressed in a vibrant multicoloured striped dress, Mittal, 31, is gearing up for a long day of press interviews at the Four Seasons hotel in Worli, Mumbai. In about two weeks, her hour-long comedy special, Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say, will debut on Netflix, making her the first Indian comedienne, and the second Indian comic after Vir Das’s Abroad Understanding, to have their own show on the international online streaming platform. Mittal is brimming with excitement, but is quick to interject when any talk of “making it big” comes up in the conversation. “I think my breakthrough will come when I’ll be able to be consistent — when I’m able to produce a second, third or fourth show, and demonstrate growth in it. I’m a product of being in the right place, at the right time, and working in a certain direction, in a certain way. I don’t ever want to feel like I’ve arrived. I’ve seen this happen to people where they stop growing because they think the smell of their farts is delicious,” she says.
Mittal is keeping it real, but it’s only because comedy wasn’t even on the radar of things she wanted to do. Seven years ago, the girl from Mahim had dreamt of performing for an audience — just not a live one.
If things had gone according to plan, Mittal, arguably India’s most recognisable female comic, would have liked to have wrapped herself in a blingy sari, apply frosted lipstick and a triangle-shaped sindoor on her forehead. Night after night, her face would have appeared on our TV screens at dinner time, not once but in three quick close-ups — zoom, zoom, zoom! In 2009, Mittal, then 25, had just returned to India after graduating from Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, USA, with degrees in Mass Communication and Theatre; and she promptly joined thousands of other aspiring actors in the merry-go-round that is the audition cycle in Mumbai.
“I used to wake up at 8 am, apply makeup, reach the first audition at 10, and stand in line for two-three hours to get a chance to be ‘the chick at the back of the bike’ for a battery advertisement. Or, for a soap that wanted to promote ‘natural beauty’. I’d sit there for six hours and then they’d pick three people who were six feet tall with perfect skin,” says Mittal, who auditioned everywhere she could for 18 months and only got a part in CID because her mother was the executive producer of the show.
The months after graduating from Fairleigh had been difficult. “I got a job after I graduated but thanks to the recession, I lost it quickly as well. I returned to Bombay and wasn’t getting any work in showbiz. That’s when comedy happened to me,” says Mittal. It was no incredible discovery, though, she’d always known she had a sense of humour, obviously inherited from her grandmother and mother. “I’ve been raised in a half Punjabi-half Sindhi home where the women were outspoken and sharp. I’m the younger child, I hear that’s a symptom too. I went to a girls’ boarding school in Pune, and we did cool things like start a band called the Cool Cats, even though we were awful. So, the ‘funny female’ is my narrative, and has always been,” she says.
Back in 2010, the comedy scene in Delhi and Mumbai was nascent, with only a handful of organisers such as the Bombay Elektrik Projekt (BEP), comedian and actor Vir Das, and the Cheese Monkey Mafia promoting new talent. “It was a very different time. There were no regular open mics, so I started with screenings of Def Comedy Jam (an American stand-up comedy series) to give people an idea of what stand-up was about,” says Sudeip Nair, founder, BEP. Nair later started The Hive and now runs The Cuckoo Club, a performing space in Bandra, and a popular open mic venue.
To combat the dreariness of auditioning for roles she’d never be cast in, Mittal began to frequent open mic events. “The first set I ever did was for Vir Das’s ‘Hamateur Nights’ in 2010. I cracked jokes about how Punjabi my father is. I was terrible, but I’m grateful to places like BEP because they offered a consistent platform. I kept working on my material and going back every other week to perform,” says Mittal. She joined fellow comics like Rohan Joshi, Tanmay Bhatt, Varun Thakur, Sahil Bulla, Sapan Verma and improv artiste Kaneez Surka who cut their teeth at open mic events, before taking their craft to Twitter, YouTube, and live shows.
“When I started doing comedy, I had elevated ideas about what it was all about — truth, and that comics must not misuse their power, be cruel and hurt those who are disenfranchised,” says Mittal, putting on a quasi-British accent for effect. She shakes her head and says, “But I see it happening in comedy all the time. So, I wanted to talk about things that are disturbing to me.”
If, to quote American humourist Mary Hirsch, “humour is a rubber sword — it allows you to make a point without drawing blood”, then does it matter who wields it? As Mittal and her fellow comediennes would find out, it sure does. “The Indian audience is not always prepared to hear from women. For example, they’ll need no encouragement to laugh about sex, but there’s a double standard involved when a woman cracks the joke,” says Neeti Palta, a Delhi-based comedienne who isn’t afraid to joke about how female foeticide has made standing in a women’s only line easier. “What sets Aditi apart is that she’s such a performer, she’s impossible to ignore. Confidence gets respected on stage, and Aditi has loads of it,” she says.
A funny woman is a dangerous thing — more dangerous than a woman who speaks her mind — because laughing with her somehow makes one complicit in the wrongs she’s taking a jab at. From Sarah Silverman to Ali Wong to Amy Schumer in the US, to Mittal, Palta, and Radhika Vaz (one of the first women to do stand-up in the subcontinent) in India, female comics spare no one — not even themselves. “One of the early sets I used to do was about how fat I am, and how there is no euphemism for fat girls, as opposed to fat boys who get called ‘teddy bear’. Sometimes, people don’t even allude to his size and just say that he’s got a ‘heart of gold’. They don’t say that for women, do they?” says Mittal. In her live shows, while she may begin with low-hanging fruits such as community differences and the battle of the sexes, Mittal’s jokes include segments on musical eve teasing on the streets, sanitary pads, gender discrimination in the advertising industry, products such as vaginal tightening creams.
In Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say, she combines the best of her work over the past few years in an hour-long feature. “I’d been in talks with Netflix for a year and in December, the deal came through. I’ve compiled a bunch of old jokes and pepped them up in the show. That was the best part of Netflix: they didn’t make demands on me. I have slaved my ass off for so long and I didn’t want to have to do things just to prove that I can do this,” says Mittal.
Stand-up is storytelling live, and on stage, Mittal is funny, charming, energetic and bold. She jumps from topic to topic, and is one of the few women to display a natural ability for physical comedy. Not all her jokes have a punchline — Mittal often uses her face to make a comical expression, signalling the end of a joke — but the take-home is almost always the subtext: in a man’s world, if a woman must work twice as hard for everything, the only way she can survive is by laughing twice as louder.
Her themes are not unique to Mittal; most comediennes in India take on the patriarchy, exposing the inherent sexism and misogyny in Indian culture. In a conversation with Daniel Fernandes on his comedy podcast You Started It, Mittal says, “I’m more often a ‘bitch’ when I’m being sarcastic, than a fellow dude comic who gets ‘Arre, kya joke maara, kya insightful, incisive’…Hello, where’s my ‘insightful, incisive’?”
Sometimes, Mittal uses comedy to highlight sombre issues as well. In one of her recent sets, she talks about bra shopping in India — an embarrassing experience that almost always involves a man called Chhotu scientifically measuring cup sizes with a single look; or going to a high-end store to buy a brand called Enchanté, which, as Mittal says, “is pronounced three thousand rupees”. Towards the end, she talks about breast cancer awareness — the transition is well-executed and effortless, and the original joke remains undiluted by the serious turn the conversation has taken.
Mittal has previously spoken about how, given the skewed ratio of male comics to female comics, a brotherhood has emerged in the Indian stand-up landscape, leaving women comics to work in spaces that don’t necessarily invest in them. “After seven years of performing consistently and making a living off it, I don’t care. It’s only in the last year or so, I’ve been able to make some money from comedy and pay rent, bills and have savings. Doing comedy or the Netflix show is not a ‘eff you’ to anybody — I’m just living my life,” says Mittal.
It is a stormy night, but all the seats at the Independence Brewing Company in Andheri West are taken. On the day Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say premieres on Netflix, Mittal performs a trial run of Global Village Idiot, a brand new show written for her debut performance at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. She will be on stage for 26 nights in August, before heading to London for a few shows in October.
Armed with a red binder, Mittal cautions the audience that this is a work in progress and they’re free to leave when they want. “I wrote ‘Trial’ for a reason, this set is for the goras, okay,” she says. There’s an easy vibe in the room, as Mittal begins. Some of the jokes work, others don’t quite hit the spot; Mittal quickly makes notes in her binder. The whole event acts as a group effort between the comedienne and her audience to make sure our desi girl puts her best foot forward at the Fringe.
Sadly, it won’t be possible for Dr Mrs Lutchuke to make the trip to Blighty —Mittal’s alter-ego of a slightly hunchbacked, middle-aged “psychologist-sexologist-fekulogist” who offers sex education is far too Indian for the West. “Lutchuke is a combination of my first Marathi teacher and my best friend’s grandmother. By giving her an accent and dressing her up in a sari, I can create a distance between myself and the character,” says Mittal, who wanted to joke about sex but was very uncomfortable when she started out. “There are older women everywhere who command more respect and have more authority. So, I was very drawn to playing an older woman,” says Mittal. Lutchuke’s side-splitting advice include telling men not to stress about the direction their penis points at because “it has to go into one place only”; or how being touched by a man does not make another man gay because “beta, if you touch the biryani, do you become the biryani?”
“Somebody recently asked me why I’m talking about ‘bold’ things. Comedy is a potent weapon, so shouldn’t we be using it to talk about potent things as well?” says Mittal. So, is there any subject that is untouchable for a comic? “I don’t think so,” says Mittal. What about rape jokes, since they are a known taboo in comedy? “You have to examine a joke in the context that it is cracked, because 90 per cent of the joke is context. When you talk about people who talk about what women should wear in order to avoid rape, or somebody saying that chowmein is an aphrodisiac, then you’re punching up. At the end of the day, it is still a rape joke, but who is the target now?” says Mittal.
The early reviews of her Netflix show have been trickling in as we chat. Some of the responses praise her “flair for self-deprecating humour”; others rue the lack of new material. “If the reviewers have seen my shows before, that’s fine. This is my first Netflix show and I put the best of my material out there, that was my aim. I’m not averse to criticism. I want to entertain people, but comedy has represented too many wonderful things to me for the criticism to constantly matter. I don’t care so much about having the last laugh, you know? I just want to start a conversation,” she says.