It’s an unusual sight at a popular club in Delhi – a woman tackling topics usually considered taboo. The stand-up comic artist is recounting a true-life incident about buying a condom for her brother who is getting married. As he’s too shy, he tells his sister Neeti Palta – who gives the incident a comic spin in her show a few years later.

Neeti is well known in India’s comedy circuit, a mostly boys’ club that dissuades women from joining in. ‘People got offended – how can a woman talk about condoms! They were not listening to the message, about the protection and the narrow mindset that prevails in our society,’ says the Delhi-based comic artist.

[Are men funnier than women? Big joke]

As it is, comedy is said to be the most difficult genre of acting, or writing. Stand-up live shows get tougher because you are always on the move, you are alone, most comedy shows happen late in the night, and most importantly when it comes to women there is a barrier of acceptance from the industry as well as the audience. It may have gotten better in the last four to five years, but the ratio of male and female comic artists still remains skewed.

Safety and stereotypes

‘Safety was a big concern when I told my parents that I wanted to do stand-up. Late nights you are in pubs in the midst of drunk people. My job is to be a smart-ass. You are being witty and if someone heckles you and you put them down, you don’t know how they will react. Since at the time Delhi was not considered to be a safe city as far as women were concerned, my parents would object, but now they know that I take necessary precautions,’ says Neeti.

Female comedians are aggressively pushing the boundaries, challenging biases, breaking the stereotypes and successfully fighting refrains that "women aren’t funny".

When the legendary Bollywood comedian Johnny Lever’s daughter Jamie started out by auditioning for a television show about seven years ago, the first thing she was told was that women weren’t fit for comedy as they were not funny. ‘The audience back then was willing to listen to a male comedian, whereas, for females the mindset was, she won’t be able to make us laugh. It was quite an unusual role to see females in. My other challenge was being judged on the basis of my father’s achievements. It would take a few minutes to crack that but finally it is your talent that takes over,’ says Jamie.

Johny Lever’s daughter Jamie had a tough start as she had big shoes to fill

Adds Neeti from her experience in the initial days, ‘In a line-up show, if I was the only female comedian and if a man wasn’t funny, then the audience would say the dude wasn’t so funny. But if I was not funny that day then the feedback would be, ‘‘Women are not funny’’. I used to fail my entire gender and that was a huge load to carry.’

Dealing with taboos

Most female comedians feel one of the reasons why this profession becomes more challenging for them is because growing up it’s drilled into their head that they are not supposed to talk about certain things in public, whereas men don’t face such limitations. That’s probably why female stand-ups who swear on stage face a hard time, in comparison to men who face no such objections.

‘Females struggle with cracking jokes because they can’t be censoring themselves. A family member once told me that girls don’t laugh aloud and because of that I developed a very loud laugh. I was like, ‘‘Really!! I will show you’’. Now I have a very distinct laugh,’ says comic artist Kaneez Surka as she laughs heartily. Kaneez conducts improvisation workshops, sketch shows and is a part of many YouTube videos.

‘Comedy as a concept is very truthful and honest and even if there is a gender bias in our industry, or among our male colleagues, it can be called out immediately. But how do you tell the audience?’ asks Sumukhi Suresh, who is a full-time comedian. ‘When I go up and perform and use some cuss words, or there is sexual content, there are women who come up to me and say, ‘‘Oh, I don’t think you should speak like this’’. I find it weird. Men get away with it.’

Sumukhi Suresh says being plus size gets her offers for supporting roles only, never the lead

From comedy sketches to acting in web series on YouTube and Amazon Prime to starring in movies, she has many laurels to her credit. ‘The scenario has changed a lot,’ she says. ‘When I started there would be 70 per cent men and 30 per cent women. But last year when I toured across the country my audience was 80 per cent women. In Noida, recently I had 210 people in the audience out of which 170 were women. Earlier, women would watch boys’ shows more but that bias is reducing.’

It may not have been very difficult for Neeti, Jamie, Kaneez or Sumukhi to get their family’s approval for their career choice, but not everybody is as lucky. ‘There are many who want to become a comic artist but their families don’t support that. They tell the girls, ‘‘What kind of a job is that?’’ says well-known stand-up comedian, actor and television personality Bharti Singh, who was born and raised in Amritsar, and faced a lot of opposition from her family initially.

The joke’s on you

‘Comedy is [considered] not a classy and dignified way to make money according to many and hence girls are not allowed to take it up as their career. It’s not like dancing or singing – you really go all out in comedy when you present yourself. We tell our personal details, about our lives, give our personal opinion to so many people out there.

‘I talk about sex a lot and it is not that I am trying to be edgy, my goal is to just talk about it and normalise it. It is not such a big deal. No one can take away my dignity from me if I do that,’ says Kaneez. ‘The rule of comedy is that the first observation should be on you. The obvious thing has to be addressed because then the audience knows that you are self-aware,’ adds Sumukhi.

If you wish to be taken seriously as a stand-up, you need to play down your appearance, says Kaneez Surka

Bharti, who started her career in stand-up with popular shows such as Laughter Challenge and Comedy Circus, says she found success when she decided to "play on myself". She has survived in the industry for 12 long years, which is quite a rare achievement. ‘When I came to Mumbai for Laughter Challenge there were so many successful male stand-up comedians competing with me. They were great poets, whereas I was just out of a municipal school. They would recite such deep poems on our country, on mother, on inflation, and I was completely blank on these topics. So I started doing acts on my obesity, my clothes, my dressing, my less knowledge of English, disadvantages of living in a big city, problems that I faced living in Mumbai where you find fashionable girls everywhere – and I found myself ranked in the top three in the show. I realised that people want you to be as natural when you go in front of the camera,’ says Bharti.

Today, Bharti is counted as one of the most successful comic artist in the country, and someone who has also made inroads into the mainstream, which isn’t easy for many of her peers. She no longer feels insecure among male comic artists. ‘Earlier, I used to feel that men were so brave. There were many things that only males could talk of in stand-up shows, but now it is said that what Bharti can say other comedians can’t. When huge Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan, Aamir Khan come on a show, I can afford to flirt with them, hug them, and all that passes off as cute. Earlier I used to feel bad about my own body, about being so fat. I felt it was a big disadvantage, but my obesity has become a boon and people don’t find me shameless. I’m not sure if I could get away with it if I was thin,’ says Bharti.

In humour size matters

Being plus-size may be a ‘bonus’ for quick-witted and hugely talented Bharti, and working with huge stars may have helped her in her career, but many female comedians feel it is patronising and adds to the stereotype that already exists in our country. ‘Even in mainstream Hindi movies it is always the big girl who is the best friend. She is either quirky, or she has a successful career but she is never the female lead – she doesn’t get the guy,’ says Sumukhi. ‘Every day I get a call for these auditions, and they say, ‘‘We are looking for a very cute big girl’’. I refuse these offers. My body frame doesn’t let you cast me as a mainstream lead and I am not too comfortable being the best friend yet. At some point I will do it for money but right now I have the skill and interest to be the lead of my own show. I write for myself.

‘Bharti Singh is clearly using the stereotype that exists to her advantage. It is the society that has given her that. If you look back, there were actresses like Tun Tun and Manorama, overweight women who were cast in movies to be laughed at and not laughed with. But that is gradually changing,’ says Neeti.

Neeti Palta feels female comedians have to face innumerable roadblocks

This brings us to the physical appearance of a comic artist, and for the women in comedy, there is an added burden of having to anticipate how an audience might react to their appearance, based on pre-existing notions, or perceptions of femininity. Hence, a lot of female comedians prefer dressing down, at least in the initial years of their career in stand-up. ‘I don’t dress feminine. I try to dress more masculine and look more gender neutral. I dress in a way that doesn’t catch attention. I want people to listen to my jokes, not look at me. Personally, I feel this is unfair. I should be able to wear a short skirt, wear lipstick and everything, and you must still listen to what I am saying,’ argues Kaneez.

‘Initially I was dressing down like crazy. I would only wear jeans and baggy shirts. I was trying to be asexual purely because I wanted the audience to focus on my comedy rather than my looks. Over a period of time I gained confidence as a performer and now I wear what I normally wear,’ adds Neeti.

Miles to go... one step at a time

It’s often said comedy is a serious business, and it is surely getting serious, a viable career option for women. With so many platforms for artists to perform on, and comedy becoming mass based and accepted as an art form, gender discrimination has been reducing rapidly in the last three to four years. ‘We do a lot of brand deals and that is where majority of the money comes from,’ says Surka. ‘We are also seen as influencers because of our following on social media. With the OTT platform coming in we are constantly writing, ideating, pitching stories...Then we are also thinking about our own content, making and creating characters.

I have now become very observant.

‘Before I became a comedian, I used to be this girl who was the life of the party. But now, in the last four years I sit quietly in a corner at parties and observe people dancing, or a couple fighting in a corner. I pick up 5-6 ideas on a given day and it is all content for me. I have stopped being the life of a party. Now I get my validation from being onstage, not from being the life of a party.’

Neeti says she has started getting a lot of corporate shows, repeat clients and more visibility since she is on an OTT platform.

‘Now it is not such a huge eye-opener for people to see that there is a female on stage. That is a very big difference from then and now. In any line-up with multiple comedians there will be a bunch of females,’ says Neeti, who, however, also feels that a part of the audience that’s sexist still refrains from calling her a good comedian. ‘When I’m getting off-stage, inevitably people tell the male artists, ‘‘Hey you were really funny’’, and even if they have genuinely enjoyed my show they will say, ‘‘Hey, you were really bold.’’ Humour is being seen as bold even as it is completely clean humour. Or they will admire me for my confidence. So, even here they are being slightly sexist. But you can’t blame them because the rules have changed so fast, they haven’t caught up with it yet.’