A little after Kangana Ranaut got people, in and beyond Bollywood, debating on the word nepotism, popular comedy collective AIB got the actor to feature in a song called the ‘Diva Song’. A sarcastic take on everything Ranaut has taken a stand against — yes, nepotism, portrayal of female characters in Bollywood and double standards in the industry — the video, with 7.5 million views today, added to AIB’s image as a conversation-starter and a changemaker. The group addresses important issues like the industry’s role in propagating ideas about sexual harassment, stalking and consent, about women as sexual beings, etc. and even bolstered Queens of Comedy — a real-life show featuring eight female comedians. Their promotional video for the show was a parody on how female comedians have to have a sad story and/or be melodramatic to get attention or be called funny. Which is why, when Aayushi Jagad and Sumedh Natu made a concept video on ‘How AIB portrays feminism’, it got a lot of us thinking, including AIB itself, which has put up a response to the video on their Facebook page.
Jagad and Natu’s eight-minute long video shows how the collective, looked at as being vocal about socio-political matters, gender equality and sexism, has, in fact, itself been using women as fillers in their videos, when the sketch in itself is not about women and largely targeting that particular audience. While they set the premise of their argument by stating instances mentioning AIB, they point out how it is the Indian comedy scene in general that they are talking about, which largely comprises SnG, East India Comedy, Filter Copy, etc. They bring to our attention to how one of the Filter Copy videos on “Things women are tired of hearing” had five writers — ALL MEN and their “female friends”, who earned a mention as what seems no better than a footnote in the credits’ roll.
Talking to indianexpress.com, Jagad said the intent was never malicious from their side. “We just wanted to address that as the default setting of anything, our first thought is a group of men, and not women,” she said. Instead of portraying women as girlfriends, mothers or sisters, we wanted to point out that there should be more gender-neutral characters for an “inclusive representation”.
The duo added a clip from the making of AIB: Chindi Crime Patrol of Kaneez Surka, one of the popular comedians in the scene right now. About the character she is playing in the video, in a tongue-in-cheek manner — the brand of humour that Surka is most known for — she says: “I am playing a sexy teacher because that’s what I do in AIB videos. I either have an orgasm or play someone sexy. I am very excited. Can you not see from my face?” she asks, before her face breaks into well, what we thought, was clearly not excitement.
Talking to us, Surka said she feels responsible because “although I have been complaining, I was also not doing anything about it.” So when she saw Jagad’s video, Surka realised that this is how she has been feeling this whole time and was just not able to put it into words. Specifying that she was just talking on her behalf, Surka said that when AIB brought a large crowd together on Valentine’s Day this year to shout out “Pyaar ek dhoka hai!”, while male comedians like Kenny Sebastian and Zakir Khan had solo gigs, the scripts for which they wrote on their own while Tanmay Bhat had called Surka to inform that AIB had a script written for her and Sumuki Suresh. “That was like a moment of awakening for me because I realised then I had passed the onus of preparing scripts for me to them,” she said on phone. She told Bhat that she will herself write a script to perform on.
She was, however, a part of Kanan Gill’s ‘How Insensitive series’, in which she hangs out with him like “buddies”. When she suggested to him that it would have been funnier if she played the role of his girlfriend, Gill had, consciously, asserted otherwise, because it is “normal for men and women to hang out as friends and not always a couple”.
They also highlight how most of these videos (with a few exceptions, of course), failed to pass the Bechdel test — Whether a work of fiction that features at least two women talking to each other about things other than men.
Talking to Indianexpress.com, Supriya Joshi, pointed out one of the comments on Jagad’s video and explained that the “overarching perspective of men who are not part of the comedy scene” is that women comedians are better off talking about sex, boobs, etc. than discuss politics, sports, et al. Joshi says she has not encountered any exceptions in the industry, where women are not just “table lamps” or “background, background and more background.”
Mallika Dua, who has worked with AIB in many of their sketches, including If Apps Were People, A Woman’s Besties, told indianexpress.com that she refused to be a part of the collective’s “every Bollywood marketing meeting ever” because she had been “brutally clear” that she won’t play “sidekick/table-lamp in any AIB video”. “They were accepting of it and we went on to do more work together that benefited both sides just how it should. Point being, it’s tempting to do small things with big names in the hope of better things coming your way, but it’s absolutely okay to know your worth and make it known to others. You don’t have to be popular/followed to demand dignity in representation and you don’t have to be a big star to demand a script from a casting person when they call you,” she said further.
AIB responded to the duo’s video by re-sharing it. This is what they wrote:
“So we just saw this superb, very well-argued video by Aayushi and Sumedh. If you haven’t seen it, here’s the link. If you’re not going to watch it, the TL;DR is we don’t cast enough women in our sketches, and if and when we do, they’re either in a decisively “feminine” context (e.g. mother,sister), or put in situations that seldom pass the Bechdel test. We want to say that we hear you, we really do.
We will actively work to fix this across our content, not just for the sake of social currency or likes, but because representation matters. We’d like to think we try hard to be inclusive, but we recognise that we fall short in some ways, and also that our own privilege stops us from seeing it. So thank you Aayushi and Sumedh for calling us out about this and forcing us to confront it. Creating more inclusive content is a constant process of evolution, and we’ll work much harder to tell stories that are representative of more.”
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