Can Female Comedians Ever Make it in India
India’s gigantic showbiz sector, Bollywood included, has yet to throw up a single female comic celebrity, who headlines shows, programmes or movies, or has a popular fan-base. Why is it over the decades that men have monopolized this genre — from Gope, Johnny Walker, Kishore Kumar, Om Prakash, Dhumal, Mehmood, Rajendranath, Jagdeep, Asrani, Paintal, Shakti Kapoor …. Sometimes, Bollywood heroes have donned the comic hat — Amitabh in tons of corny films with Meenakshi Sheshadri and Jaya Prada in the 1980s, Dharamendra in Chupke Chupke, Amol Palekar in Golmaal and Meri Biwi ki Shaadi; Aamir and Salman Khan in Andaaz Apna Apna; Akshay Kumar and Salman in Mujhse Shaadi Karogi; Salman in Dabangg; Shahrukh Khan in Chennai Express; Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham in Dostana — in a desire to extend and expand their scope and range. Does the showbiz establishment believe that women cannot be as funny as men, or is it the old tried and tested misogyny on overdrive?
Film Critic Saibal Chatterjee attributes to the 500 year old parampara and Indian tradition: “This hallowed belief cuts both ways. While the richness is there, the fixation of women having specific roles allocated to them — mother, sister, wife, daughter — and the uncompromising requirement of playing them out in letter and spirit remains sacrosanct and breaking out of these roles to play joker is unthinkable! While thriving in social media times and hitting all the digital platforms with abandon is cool, as is naughty jokes among close friends, to be openly brazen, free n’ frank and exhibit comic flair physically on a public platform – theater, TV, screen – is totally chhee chhee territory! Politically incorrect and shockingly inappropriate … Log kya kahenge? Kaun shaadi karega? (what will people say? Who will marry them?”)
Ace script writer Apurva Asrani (Shahid, Citylights, Aligarh) concurs: “Chatterjee is spot-on. We have this Mother India complex and to either break free or cut loose is … blasphemy! Interestingly, it’s not that we lack female comic talent. Hema Malani in Sholay and Seeta aur Geeta, and Sridevi in Chaalbaaz, Mr. India and tons of other movies, even Juhi Chawla, Moushumi Chatterjee (Angoor) and Kangana Ranaut (Queen, Tanu Weds Manu) have exhibited fine comic flair garnering audience appreciation, but conditioned chauvinistic and tunnel-viewed values have disallowed this exciting track to come center-stage and embrace a new category. So these remain patronizing token also-ran tracks, not to be taken too seriously. Sad, but true.”
Also, Asrani suggests that in recent times, with cheap adult comedies (Welcome, No Entry and Kya Kool Hai Hum) making the rounds, female funnies are out of sync and have little space.
Indian-born, bred and buttered New York-based female comedian Radhika Vaz brings her own comic spin to the debate. Wowing New York’s male-dominated comedy circuit with sexually frank, irreverent, female howlers, Vaz seems to have cracked the glass ceiling and attracted fans galore.
Stalking the stage, she unleashes one gem after another … “I believe that the number one reason for a woman to walk away from a spontaneous sexual encounter is … untended body hair. Anywhere — and we all know we have loads of nooks and crannies for it!” This in-your-face, funny, naughty exploration of what it is like to be a woman, in a funny, ribald fashion, has drawn US audiences. Can it work here, in similar fashion? A niche, elite, anglicized and westernized, metro-centric audience, perhaps, but its appeal is doubtful across the wider spectrum of Indian society. Chhee chhee, ganda, so ghatiya! Kitni besharam hai, yeh aurat! (Tut, tut, dirty, so cheap, how smaless is this woman).
Vaz believes that it’s about “every behavorial pattern women have been told to avoid. Proving to the world that being funny is not ladylike and won’t get us a man; being demure, quiet and allowing them to think they are the funniest guys in the room, will.”
So, there you are. Be it the wisecracks in Comedy Nights with Kapil, where women are the butt of all jokes, not the driving force, and males (Gutthi) play women with crass, broad strokes to an audience begging for more — or the super-fat Bharati (shades of yesteryears Tun Tun and Manorama?) doing her number — comedy nights are strictly a men only affair. Ellen? Tina Fey? Sarah Silverman? Whoopee Goldberg? In mainstream Indian showbiz platforms? That would be a real joke.