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Three lead artistes tear apart the ‘bro-code’ in Indian comic scene

GenderAnd - Culture: Kaneez Surka, Neeti Palta and Radhika Vaz talk about how India reacts differently to comedy by men and women artists.

Written by Tarishi Verma | New Delhi |
Updated: June 2, 2017 4:11:26 pm
 Kaneez Surka, Neeti Palta, Radhika Vaz, stand up comedy, feminism, india feminism, indian express gender series Kaneez Surka, Neeti Palta and Radhika Vaz on the sexism in the world of Indian comedy.

Some middle-aged men ask them to ‘go more dirty’ with their jokes, some older uncles tell them ‘not to swear’. While men are found funny, women comic artistes are called ‘bold’. While the media covers the male artists’ achievements, the women artistes are only asked for comments related to their gender. No wonder when in January this year, Amazon Prime announced that it will stream content featuring 14 top India stand-up comics, there was not one woman in it. Hear it all from comic veterans Radhika Vaz, Neeti Palta and Kaneez Surka on the sexism, bro-code, corporate culture and Indian cultural hypocrisy. And they say it in style without mincing words.

Author of the brilliant ‘Unladylike’, Radhika is one comedian who doesn’t shy away from talking about her body. She recently won the Gotham Award in New York for her web series “Shugs & Fats”. The web series is a comic take on the lives of two women who don the hijab and go about their daily lives. Vaz has not only mastered feminism but made it all-inclusive.

Like most professions, stand-up comedy too is fairly male dominated. What kind of challenges did you face while establishing yourself as a comedian?

Actually, I think when women go into anything that they’re passionate about, they don’t think about being women. You just go, we want to do this job and we don’t think about this until much, much later. I have to say when I started comedy a long time ago, I was very lucky because first of all, I didn’t start as a stand up comedian. I was an improviser and a lot of the coaches and other really fantastic improvisers, that I had the pleasure of working with, were all women. So I was very inspired. I didn’t think for a minute that it was a problem. One of the things I still believe is that comedy really is for women. I mean I do think we are funnier. You know what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and funnier. And I think women have had to put up with that much more than men. So we are stronger, we are funnier. I also think that it’s interesting how you don’t have to be young, or thin or good looking. It’s one of those jobs like being a doctor. You literally don’t need to be pretty, or thin or young. You can be older, you can be not attractive by you know the standards of the world that are actually set up exclusively for women. Because we live in a world of patriarchy and misogyny.

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 Kaneez Surka, Neeti Palta, Radhika Vaz, stand up comedy, feminism, india feminism, indian express gender series

Were you seen as a female comedian more?

Yeah, of course. I mean you guys call me up and ask me about being a female comedian. I mean I wish we could change this. Honestly, if the media stopped doing it. (laughs) I don’t mind being called a woman comedian. It shouldn’t be a big deal one way or another. But I do believe that what’s been happening a lot is that we get approached a lot by journalists about being a woman in comedy. We rarely get approached by journalists to cover our achievements. Rarely. If you really want to know where the problems are, I would highly recommend you look into maybe where you guys are also coming from. The moment a guy does it, everyone is covering it.

What about the internal working of the industry? Do you think the ‘bro-code’ protects certain people in the industry?

My view of men, who have reached a certain level regardless of what job they are doing, is that they will typically only promote women, who they know, are not of their level. It takes a very big man, see it takes a very big person firstly to promote someone of their level. Because you are, that is your competition. So you have to literally be that kind of person who is looking at the industry at large, and your own tiny little di*k.. You have to be a visionary. And so, when you are promoting women or men who are not of your level, you’re not that person. If you look across the board of most businesses, you will rarely find men promoting women. You will rarely find them joining hands with women at their level. They’re very good at doing it for very junior, very new, then they are amazing at it. “Oh you’re the funniest person I’ve seen”, “oh she’s so amazing”, she’s so clever, she’s the best banker we have, but you don’t often see them doing that for women of their level and I feel like that’s something very deep in men that they can’t handle competition from women. They don’t mind promoting you so long as you’re beneath them. But the moment you’re of their level or above them, they know it. And they don’t want anything to do with you, because you are going to show them; and this is not a comedy thing, I just want to be very clear about that. This is my opinion of men in general.

Of course, these are the things we all experience daily at our respective workplaces.

Correct! My thing is this bro-code can only be as powerful as we let it be and I honestly think that if women from across different industries, if we all start to be very clear that we are all supporting each other and no one else, and not be ashamed of it. I’m still to see 50 per cent representation of women. We have not done our job as feminists. Backing out just because 2-3 women are getting a chance, our job is not complete. I think, a lot of times, we are made to feel almost like we are the sexist [ones] for saying that we will only promote women. How are we sexist? Women are so far behind that if you only promote women for the next 100 years, we still won’t defeat patriarchy.

I love my comedy brothers but they don’t need me. Women need support and I feel like if I can only support X number of people then why would I be trying to support anyone else? And it is not sexist until we have 50 percent representation.

We use comedy as a specific example but I don’t feel this is only a comedy problem but this is a cultural issue and we can’t expect comedians to have higher standards. I was pretty surprised when that Arunabh Kumar sexual harassment case and everyone was like ‘haw, this is so shocking’. I am just like, ‘Really? Because the boys are no longer wearing cringy bell bottoms?’

Maybe the shock comes from the content that they sell, you know. A lot of feminist content is now coming up and a lot of these men are at the forefront of it.

Because that’s what is selling right now. Because there are male comedians who make clips about feminism and then you watch them saying things like some women are feminazi. Like, are you kidding me?

 Kaneez Surka, Neeti Palta, Radhika Vaz, stand up comedy, feminism, india feminism, indian express gender series

One of the oldest players of the game, Neeti started out in an advertising agency then writing for TV and now, finally, stand up. Unabashed and not always politically correct, Neeti is indeed a ‘bold’ comedian, a phrase she loves to hate. She brought the female perspective to Indian comedy long before feminist videos and web series came that now populate the internet. She was the first Indian comic to perform at the Melbourne Comedy Festival in 2013.

How did your stand up career start? What was life like before that?

I was in advertising for the longest time. Stand up actually started as a hobby. I didn’t know that stand up actually existed in its current form until I attended an episode of ‘Who’s Line Is It Anyway’ where I participated and Colin suggested I should try it out. You would write every week, do five minutes or something, I started getting good at it.

How does your comedic personality bear on your real life?

A lot of it is a reflection because a lot of what I speak on stage is stuff that I have experienced about. I honestly had a good childhood. I had no trauma per se and my parents pretty much brought my brother and me up equally. But society would step in and not let them do that equally. I think all of us grow up with those realities. I used to take DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) bus to get to college and I have experienced the experiences of an Indian woman. When I started to do comedy, suddenly, all this stuff started coming out of me. And I’m like, kahan se aa raha hai,(where is it coming from?). I have had a good life. Where is all this angst coming from? Clearly it has all been stored inside.

Like most other industries, comedy is male dominated. Were you initially seen as ‘the female comedian?’

I was always such a tomboy, so not really. I remember, though initially, they couldn’t help but announce me on stage as ‘the woman with the balls of steel’. I used to initially find it funny but over a period of time, I got a bit jaded. This was still not as bad as, ‘Oh and next act we have is a female’. I was like ‘woh dikh jaega, yaar hopefully’ (hopefully, they will be able to see that). I know I have short hair but they’ll be able to make out. They used to be fellow comedians so they didn’t realise honestly, God bless them. Then I pointed out, you don’t have to specifically mention my gender. I feel like you’re saying, ab race mein ek viklang. you’re making me feel handicapped. They were like, ‘oh, sorry. We didn’t realise.’

Are there any challenges as a female comedian?

Everytime someone asks me, what are the challenges you face as female comedian, I’m like male comedians dressing up as females are stealing our jobs. What if I come on stage, wearing a coat and tie then I’m stealing their job.

Well, Kapil Sharma has two women and the rest of them just cross-dress.

Bua ji ko kya stereotype kiya tha. Binbyahi bua. ((How did they stereotype the aunt? As the unmarried aunt) Therefore she will be desperate to hit on anything that moves. That’s bullshit, man. You are strengthening a stereotype. Tu moti hai, tu kaali hai. Pls yaar. (You are fat, you are dark. Please!) At least, itna toh responsibility rakho. (Be, at least, little responsible) Look, you can’t take away from a man’s talent. but sensibilities should be kept in mind.

I see that the green rooms always have only men. What is the culture exactly?

That’s the reality. But it’s changing, because recently, I was at an open mic in Hyderabad, I had gone for my own show. They had an all-female open night and there were a lot of funny women, I was very impressed. I don’t know dilli mein kyun nahi hai. I don’t want to stereotype but the one I went to out here (Delhi), they were all shrill, angry poetry for some reason.

There was an open mic talking about women’s safety and rape and issues of gender…

Which is fine, you need to address your issues but at least be funny. Honestly, we should do everything to encourage female artists but I am against the idea of an all female open mic because we are not less than boys. We are not. So why do we need a special platform. My point is, dude, walk into an open mic. Say, you want to participate. There are 16, 17, 20 people vying for spots, if you are good, you will get it. You will be rejected once, twice. Being a stand up, you have to be able to face rejection, a lot. You have to have a thick skin and if you are saying you are equal to them then why special platform. These are questions that I raise, that are not very popular.

How has your content been received – talking about ‘women things’?

There is that thing going around, ‘oh! female comedians will only talk about their boobs, bras, menstruation.’ If guys can talk about their boyfriends and the size of their juniors, then why can’t we talk about what we go through? This is something I’ve actually said. What we do is called chick comedy. What they do is not called d*ck comedy. It’s not fair. They have actually made us conscious of that fact now that ‘oh! they’re only going to be talking about their period.’ Which is not true. We talk about everything we experience. If periods is one of them, then so be it, man.

Each time, when you talk about an issue, how does the audience receive it?

I have a joke about being middle class, and I say that is why my grandmother hates my underwear because she is like, yeh kaisa duster banega, (What kind of a duster it will become?) I’m like that is why Indian households prefer male children because their underwear makes better dusters. I am making a point, connecting different dots. I talk about how women expected to have children and the whole pressure is on women. How women are only asked, good news kab hai. (When will we hear the good news?) I have brought all this up and a lot of times women have come up to me and said you’re saying things that we think we think but can never say. I’ve had, funnily enough, older people react well to me.

What would they say?

A lot of older people are very kicked by the comedy. Because they’re also like, ‘Finally! smart comedy. She is at least making a point.’ But I have also had people judging me. Like when you are on a line up with two guys and everyone’s been funny, but more often than not people will pass up the file and tell the guys you were really funny and tell me ‘you were really bold.’

I will always be equated with bold. And I ask bold thi, but funny thi? (Bold is fine but was I funny?) Like aapko hassi aayi? (Did it make you laugh?) Then it gets irritating that why is there a different adjective for me. Either you get bold or you get a comment on your looks. And I’m still like was I funny or not? Ticket meri shakal dekhne ke liye li thi? (Did you buy the ticket to look at my face?) It drives me nuts.

A lot of comedians, they rely on a lot of sex and abuse, to sell their comedy. Is there a soft pressure on women to do that?

Radhika Vaz does, she talks about her vagina, pussy, periods. The way that she does, she doesn’t come across as crass. There’s a point to it but no soft pressure. In fact, a lot of times, corporates reach out to us, they think female comedian will be clean. I remember doing a 45 minute show, it was very well received. In the end, I did one bit about Punjabi weddings where I talk about Punjabis. I did a sentence about a character, and it swears. One uncleji, comes and says, ‘beta, tum gaali mat diya karo, achha nahi lagta.’ (Child, please dont swear. It is not nice) And I’m like 45 mins mein ek gaali yaad aaye. Mere aage peeche jo comedians aaye the unhone maa behen aunty uncle sabki leli, usse fark nahi pada aapko, meri ek gaali yaad hai. Uncle aapke dimag mein sirf ek hi gaali kyun thi.(I replied that in a 45 minute show all that you choose to remember is a swear word. All the male performers before and after me swore but all you remember that a woman used a swear word) He didn’t know how to react to that.

Then you hear the sound of the Indian value judgment, which is ‘sssssh, tch tch tch.’. Conversely, there is pressure if you do private parties. They say, ‘go dirty, go dirty.’ I say, ‘Dude, tu pole dance manga lena. kya chaah raha hai?’ (Dude, why dont you call a pole dancer?) In one of the Rotary shows, the whole proceedings were preceded by the National Anthem. Everyone stood up. Then they called me on the stage and a woman whispered to me on stage, ‘go dirty, go naughty’. I was like I am not here to titillate old men. This lady at the back kept doing this. Action. So, I finally said, ‘You really should watch some porn. I can play it in the background if my jokes aren’t funny.’ They think it’d be cool to hear dirty jokes from a female, it will be titillating.

Would women be able to enter the bro-code in the Indian stand up scene?

Question is would we want to enter? Why on earth would we want to get into some place we’re not wanted? We can create our own world. We’re smart enough, funny enough.

 Kaneez Surka, Neeti Palta, Radhika Vaz, stand up comedy, feminism, india feminism, indian express gender series

She is most vividly remembered for her brilliant play acting in CNN-IBN’s The Week That Wasn’t. Kaneez Surka, however, wants to be known as an improvisation artist in India. She doesn’t want to be part of comedy collectives but really just wants to build her own brand.

What kind of challenges did you face as a female comedian?

Improvisation came really easy to me. I think I had a natural talent for improvisations that I did not have for stand up comedy. Initially, I was with a group with a very strong male energy. They were aggressive and loud. Thatis not a good or bad thing but I just found it very hard to compete with that energy on stage. I found myself too loud and shouting to try to compete with them. Female energy is a little more subtle, I believe, on stage. That kind of disappeared as my confidence in my skill grew. I went to the US to learn more improvised comedy. I think people in the comedy circle appreciated that I went outside to learn. Like ‘this is something she is taking seriously.’ I saw myself growing confident in my skill. Then I started with my improvising in 2013 with Kenny, Abish, Kanan. It was a beautiful group and the chemistry just worked. As a group, they were not aggressive, they were very giving. They are more on the fun side. With that, I stopped seeing myself as a female and started seeing myself as someone who knows improvisation in India. My confidence came from there. I didn’t have to compete with a male energy. I’m confident in my skill. Now, it doesn’t matter if I’m black or white or female or male.

Has the audience reaction been different to you and to your male peers?

The lovely thing about improvisation is that because it’s on the spot, people are judging less. And they are also curious to know what’s going to happen next. The judgements kind of fall aside. They are more involved in the process. I’ve never found the audience judging me. I play characters that are gender neutral, like a librarian, a doctor. I play male parts, female part – because if I don’t pay attention to that, then the audience doesn’t either.

A lot of comedy that we see on TV or online is either sexist or with a focus a lot on sex. Is there a soft pressure on women to talk about sex as well?

That’s the thing with sex. As a comedian, that’s the first area you explore. You are given this voice in public, bring jokes to them. Sex is something all of us have grown up with seeing a taboo. You can’t talk about it. Finally, when you have the freedom to talk about it, people really embrace it. They’re like, ‘Ah, I get to say boobs, balls, on stage. It is a liberating feeling.’ It’s such a basic human activity. It is the first thing that we go through as comedians. Explore sexuality and what sex is to us. I know there is a lot of opinion on sexual content but I think it is also a good thing because of the kind of society we live in.

In the Indian comedy scene, there seems to be no rivalries. All of you work together, appear in each other’s work.

AIB is a collective but I am building my own brand. I work with all collectives but I’m not a part of them. In my case, everyone says there is no competition. We are working together. It is too small to start competing just yet. It’ is only 120 of us in the whole country. But I think, there is a bit of a partition in the comedy scene already starting but nothing that is really affecting the scene.

What kind of partition do you mean?

There are certain comedians that work together more. I don’t think it is a negative partition. People are just like, ’I click more with this kind of area.’ I think it is more like these people have more my kind of vibe.

You’re a brand of your own. But when it comes to ownership, it resides with the men. What about that?

I own all my content. Whatever I make, it is my stuff. Where I choose to put it is different. Same is the case with Sumukhi (Suresh) and her behti naak videos. Whatever else she is doing, she owns that. We have our own personal brand.

But there is no enterprise like AIB.

No, it is not. Maybe it will come up. I also chose not be part of a collective. I think I worked to make my own personal brand.

And what about building your own enterprise?

I just hired someone, the other day. I have got an editor who I pay and who works with me for my videos. I’m hiring a writer – one of the female open mic-ers, for helping me write stuff. In my own way, I’m building my own work. Because I do need all this help, for my content. I don’t know editing and I need someone to help me write because I’m doing so much now. Sumukhi is also doing the same thing, you know, hire some writers, have a team to shoot her videos. We are all building our small little enterprises. It just has five people instead of 35. It’s happening naturally. I didn’t think, ‘oh, I need to start something.’ It’s happening in a very organic way. As of now, it is working like ‘ I’d like to hire you and here’s a salary.’ Let’s see how this works out.

You said there is now a partition. Could that be the reason for the Amazon Prime line up of 14 male comedians?

I’ll tell you the exact reason. OML, the managing company, manages around 20 comedians. They have three women on their roster- Mallika Dua, Sumukhi Suresh and me. OML and Amazon entered into a discussion about producing content for Amazon. OML told Amazon saying we want to do some content on your channel. So Amazon said let’s do some stand up specials. OML was like, ‘Great. So we’ll just go back to our office and see who is interested.’ Now, Mallika doesn’t do stand up, I barely do stand up and Sumukhi is working on her stand up. None of the girls had a one hour special. When they asked us, we were like, ‘we can’t do anything.’ I know it is a big deal but it really was just a business meeting. And I guess Amazon could have taken it on themselves that we need to go outside and hire and approach female comedians. But it is their deal with OML. I know we totally would have gotten it. We would have totally gotten it if we had a one hour special ready.

Yeah, but like you said, Amazon could have gotten out of their way to balance this line up.

I guess they forgot to think about that because they were just dealing with one company. So, yeah, maybe, and then they got the backlash. So, maybe after this, they will approach these female comedians. There are females with a one hour- Neeti, Radhika, Aditi, they have one hour specials. Mallika, Sumukhi and I were asked but we didn’t have anything.

There are these cliques, but do you think there is a bro-code especially among male comedians?

What is this bro-code, I’ve never been asked but suddenly now everyone is asking me about this! Honestly for me, I feel very comfortable to speak to the boys about anything. If I feel uncomfortable about anything, I say it and it’s taken care of. I don’t feel disrespected by my male counterparts or I don’t feel less than them, they respect me for the work I do. I am not a part of these collectives, and so for me, the bro-code really doesn’t exist. If someone else feels like that, sure but as for Kaneez Surka, no.

As someone who doesn’t want to join these collectives, as an outside observer, do you see the bro-code functioning, especially after the TVF case?

When I’ve been uncomfortable I’ve said it. I’m not worried about being cool anymore. I am not interested in being the cool chick who plays video games and drinks beer with the boys. Like, my focus really is on my career so I am not trying to get in with a cool gang. Like I kind of already feel like a dadi of the whole comedy scene, I’ve been here too long. But I would like to think that if some girl has an issue, if something came up, I would not say why the f*ck did you say that he did that. Again, I’m not the law so I can’t make judgements. But I would like them to know, that they can come to me. Maybe, I should go and tell them that they are free to talk to me. Of course, there is a fear [of losing on your career], there is a fear for men as well. I don’t fear losing too much right now, but I can imagine those who just joined not being able to voice their opinion, thinking I will never get another sketch, I’ll never get another gig, you know.

And this is when a whole lot of feminist content coming from these same people, you know?

I know, and people are milking it while they can. It is a hot topic, you can do any content. Everyone is going to pick it up, share it, have an opinion on it. But I am also questioning you as the content creator. Do you also believe in it? Or are you just saying the right words to get people to watch your content. Feminism is the new sex.
All of June, will put out special stories with a gender lens, each looking at these intersections critically to assess how gender sensitive/inclusive anything in India is. Help us find more such stories using #GenderAnd in your conversations. You can read our reportage, here.

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