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Monday, May 23, 2022

She’s Funny, Bai the Way

How does a former cook and domestic help become visible to her middle-class employers? By tearing into their classism the way Deepika Mhatre is doing in Mumbai through stand-up comedy.

Written by Anushree Majumdar |
Updated: August 19, 2018 7:00:03 am
Deepika Mhatre Unmade in India: Deepika Mhatre with her daughters. (Express photo by Nirmal Harindran)

In the week following an interview she had given to an Indian website, the phone has not stopped ringing. Deepika Mhatre has received calls from all over the country, and beyond. “There have been calls from abroad — London and America. My daughter and I manage two numbers now — we never imagined one interview would lead to this,” she says. “This” is a sudden flash of fame for the 43-year-old stand-up comic from Nalasopara, who, till very recently, worked as a maid and cook in several homes in the western suburbs of Mumbai. Every publication worth their salt has jumped into the fray to chat up the vivacious “mother of three, and one husband only”, and Mhatre finds herself telling the story of her life to reporters, over the phone or in person, at least twice a day.

“It all began last year, you know,” she says, “I worked in five homes in Rustomjee Elanza, in Malad. One of my employers, Sangeeta Vyas, came up with the idea of having a talent show on Women’s Day for all the female staff who work in the complex. She asked me what my performance would be about, I said I’ll do comedy. But the truth was that I didn’t quite know what I was going to do!”

On the evening of the show, when she took the stage, she saw that hardly any residents of the apartments had come to cheer them on; Mhatre wasn’t the least bit surprised. “I started worked in people’s houses about eight years ago, when my husband’s asthma got worse. He worked as a security guard but had to give up his job. Since I got married in my early 20s, I’ve worked as a home nurse, started small businesses such as pickle-making and selling imitation jewellery on the local train. But I didn’t have the money to invest in any business for the long run,” says Mhatre, who signed up with an agency that provides domestic help for people living in residential complexes.

The first time she entered Rustomjee Elanza, an upmarket apartment complex, Mhatre’s eyes took in the four looming towers, the manicured patches of green — and the separate elevator for the staff. It’s one of the highlights of her six-minute set: Mhatre tears into the classism of her employers who think nothing of the light untouchability they practise daily. “There’s a special lift for people like me, special utensils that are separate from what they use. But when a madam needs a massage, whose hands does she call for? When she eats her roti, with very little ghee since she’s on a diet, who made that for her?” asks Mhatre, with a smile. In a clip that has now become popular online, she begins her set by saying, “I’ve noticed how stand-up comedians talk about their maids, but today I’m going to speak, and you’ll listen, okay?”

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Can the maid speak her mind? Yes, no, maybe — depending on where she is located. According to the Delhi Labour Organisation, over five crore domestic workers, mostly women, work in India. In real life, they keep their heads low as the rate of attrition in their line of work is higher than most, and cases of violence, even when reported, meet a dead end soon enough. In literature, non-fiction such as Tripti Lahiri’s 2017 book, Maid in India, and Payal Kapadia’s Maidless in Mumbai, a fictional take on the maid-madam relationship, have both addressed the unique inter-dependence between the two classes. In recent Bollywood history, the maid can either be Kantaben from Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), whose homophobia is played for laughs; or she can be Sayeeda, the nanny in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…(2001), who gets sent to the UK so that a grown man played by Shah Rukh Khan doesn’t feel the absence of his mother’s love. “If I ever make a film, I’ll make the maid the hero! The villain can be the madams,” says Mhatre, with a laugh.

The space that has consistently offered the help a platform to be known is comedy. Whether it is sketches performed on YouTube (Sumukhi Suresh’s Parvathi bai, who takes the mickey out of her middle-class employers), or at open mic events, the maid is fodder for humour. But no platform has capitalised on the maid as much as iDiva, an online property that generates viral content.

In the past year, Shibani Bedi, 32, who works at iDiva, has played Prabha, a north Indian maid who has appeared in editions of “Every Indian Maid Ever” and “Maid VS Millenials”, two premises that have gained popularity online. “Prabha’s character was inspired from my hilarious conversations with my massage lady, and her ideas about everything happening in and around her. Initially, I feared brickbats for being elitist. But Prabha takes a dig at the absurdity of those in privilege, and how they usually mask their dysfunctions as being ‘chill’ sometimes,” says Bedi. Prabha is not the only maid in the site’s sketches — in the incredibly popular “South Delhi Aunties” editions, one is well acquainted with Sunita, who must remember that TT means Tarun Tahiliani and not table tennis, or Lulu Lemon is yoga wear and not a fruit. But one never gets to meet her — she remains invisible and mute, and nothing more than a figment of an entitled life.

In this space, Mhatre’s act is nothing short of revolutionary. She doesn’t just call out her erstwhile employers, but also the aspiring middle-class who are happy to pay a fixed rate inside a mall but will haggle with her for a few rupees on the train. “That first evening, last year, even though the madams didn’t show up, a reporter from a national daily came to the show; Sangeeta madam had invited her. She liked my set and told the comedienne Aditi Mittal about me,” says Mhatre. “I contacted Deepika and we met at my house. Her material is original and hilarious and hers alone,” says Mittal, who then encouraged Mhatre to attend open mic events in the city.

For nearly a year, Mhatre would wake up at 4 am to take the first trains to hawk her jewellery, reach her employers’ homes in the morning, return home for a short nap in the afternoon, cook and then head out to perform at a venue. “I wasn’t fazed by a full house — I take the train, I can deal with crowds! I spoke up about the inequality at my workplace because I am not afraid of what the madams thought. They want the work done but they want us to be invisible,” says Mhatre.

In February, Mittal featured Mhatre in an episode of Bad Girls, a show on her YouTube channel, which focusses on women who “are doing what they aren’t supposed to do”. “A fellow comic, Rohit Shah, and I have worked with Deepika to help her write down her material. What you see in the video are skills that have been honed by performing at least 40 open mics in the past year,” says Mittal, who has struck up a friendship with Mhatre and supports her efforts to make it in comedy.

Open mic outings have come to a halt now; Mhatre is receiving offers to perform at various events, including awards and game shows, and she’s been given a slot in India’s Got Talent in October. “I’m thankful for the opportunities, but there’s no pay so far. Everybody does it for the exposure, but I need to pay rent, educate my three daughters, pay my husband’s medical bills,” says Mhatre, unsure if she can sustain this adventure for long. “One of the things about funny people is that we smile and smile, and people can’t tell how we really feel inside. I make people laugh all day, but I keep all my sorrows for god,” says Mhatre. She quickly smiles and says, “I’d like to work in shows or movies, if I’m given the chance. Give me a funny role, or better still, a villainous one. After all, I play one at home. Ask my daughters!”

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