Vaz you like it!
Popular English stand-up comedienne Radhika Vaz talks to ANANYA BORGOHAIN about how she uses humour to undermine gender proprieties for women
Leading Indian comedienne Radhika Vaz is not only a stellar performer of English stand-up acts in the country but is also a strong voice that subverts conformist stereotypes and proprieties women are subjected to. At a time when stand-up comedy has still not filtered into the mainstream, Radhika’s humour particularly her play, Unladylike has succeeded in dislocating regressive social and gender taboos among many urban youths. In an interview, the artiste, born in Mumbai and raised in Bangalore, talks about her way of thinking.
Your memoir (Unladylike, Aleph Books) chronicles your early life in detail, but you have not narrated much about your foray into a career as a stand-up comedienne. Why so, since most of your readers will (probably) pick up the book essentially because they identify you for your comic acts?
I would like to think that the readers just want to laugh, and my life childhood, adolescence and adulthood is rife with ridiculous anecdotes about me hoping that one day I would become a ‘feminine’ woman. That said, I did intentionally leave out the whole career bit mainly because I needed something for book number two! And I find I need some emotional distance from a subject before I write about it. I want to write about the good times and the pain — but I need to get over the pain, so I wanted to take my time.
How do you create a funny scene? Or in other words, what triggers an idea in you?
I have to think it’s funny, I have to have laughed at it myself otherwise I won’t write about it. Any writing class always tells you, “write what you know” — it’s the same for jokes. If it affects you personally in any way, whether it makes you angry or amuses you or even if it’s just something you are curious about for some reason, then it’s probably worth exploring for material. Sometimes it’s an immediate reaction like we all have towards stupid things some politicians or other public figures say or do, and sometimes it’s issues that you live with every single day like gender inequality. And sometimes it’s your own personal experience marital problems, kid problems, bowel movements. It’s a long list.
What narrative or writing techniques do you use to keep your acts original and fresh?
Wow! “Narrative” that’s a big, writer-ly word! Now I feel slightly stupid! I came to all of this with no formal training, I put myself through writing and comedy ‘school’ by taking night classes and weekend classes, so you have to ask me questions with real simple words in there!
I guess I keep things fresh by reading a lot. Reading what other people write is an amazing way to broaden your own horizons. It gives the mind new directions to go in. When I am with my friends, I am never the funniest person in the room. I think who you hang out with is important too. I am also lucky to be surrounded by very smart, funny people their opinions, whether they agree with me or not, have helped me form strong ones of my own. So essentially, what I am saying is I steal other people’s ideas!
I’m assuming there may have been times when your audience may have found you unfunny or even offensive. Could you share an anecdote about a disappointing reception of your performance?
Me? No! That’s some other comedian you are thinking about. Just kidding. Of course, I have eaten it on stage more than a few times. I once had a client who assured me that the crowd was “super chilled out”. That’s a pretty stupid thing to say to a comedian like myself unless you are absolutely sure about it. But he did, so I jumped in with both feet and talked about the issues young women face like having to remain virgins until they are married. Suffice it to say the middle-aged, predominantly male and so not “super chilled out” audience almost had a stroke! I then made it marginally worse by talking about how parents hate talking to their kids about safe sex. I think I may have hit too close to home on that one!
In that case, are Indians mature and democratic enough to understand your humour?
Well, it would be a bit much to expect all of us to be mature and democratic. We aren’t democratic enough to allow people to eat beef or watch James Bond kiss for more than six seconds (refer to Pehlaj Nihalani’s now infamous censorship of the last Bond film)!
Having said that, I do get audiences who are with me from start to finish, men and women who enjoy my style of story-telling and so I try and enjoy the ones that appreciate my big mouth rather than the ones who think I go “too far”. Plus, you can’t please all people all the time, right?
Right, but how would you improvise if things go awry in the middle of your act?
I usually don’t. My act is set in stone because I am making a point not just telling a series of jokes. It’s not for everyone and I can live with that. I feel no fear or pressure once I am on stage. It’s not the most conventional stand-up format, but then again I don’t care much for convention.
What are your opinions about the Hindi comic shows that are either slapstick or in the roast format?
Some people do love them. I love slapstick personally actually, it can be very funny depending on how good the performers are. The one thing I am not a fan of is men playing women. Every time I see that on TV, I wonder to myself, “Come on, they couldn’t get a fat, funny woman to play that?” It’s just weird to me and very old-fashioned. But then again the audience that watches that type of thing loves it and I guess that matters more than my jealousy-laden opinion.
Abroad, while people absolutely love Tina Fey, Amy Poehler etc, they love to hate Lena Dunham. Do you think Lena’s brand of comedy is a little extreme and self-appropriating or is she a ‘feminazi’ as many claim her to be?
Oh please! Extreme according to whom? That’s the thing, isn’t it? It’s always going to be extremely something to someone. And that is probably why I think she is fantastic! She just goes ahead and does her thing without worrying about the reactions. I don’t think she is trying to offend people — people just take offense because they have nothing else to do! I love Lena and everything she attaches herself to. I love women who know they are in your face and have no fear. It’s a life lesson. In fact, I would say my style is way more Lena than Tina or Amy.
Speaking of ‘feminazi’, that sounds like a word an old man made up because his khap panchayat got taken down! So old school! But I suppose brave women will always be attacked. They change the status quo, they try to shift the power. That’s too much for some sexists, I suppose.
As a humourist who has performed in different parts of the world, is what people find funny universal? Meaning, although your audiences differ culturally and geographically, is there any one joke which everyone imminently finds funny?
I think human beings are all the same really and most of us have a gut reaction to a few things. I think people always find other people’s bad luck quite entertaining. There are the standard things that are amusing: Mothers-in-law, awkward sex stories, jokes about powerful people, jokes about powerful people who also happen to be overweight. I notice it’s never OK to fat-shame unless the person you are shaming is powerful then it’s allowed. This is a universal truth. Personally, I find anything unexpected or risky very amusing. And, of course, fart jokes!
Why is the standup comedy scene in Bangalore stronger than in rest of India?
That is probably because Bangalore audiences are enthusiastic supporters. You can’t have a popping scene in a dead city, no matter how fantastic a comedian is; if the city is uninterested, there will be no show. Add to that the equation of the Bangalore comedians themselves — all amazing, cool performers who have worked hard to put the city on the map. They do it all — improv, sketch and stand-up. And they are super supportive of travelling comedians such as me.
Which Indian female comedians would you recommend to our readers?
I have watched (and so recommend) Neeti Palta, Aditi Mittal and Sonali Thakker. Kaneez Surka is a hot improvisor, Anu Menon and Sumukhi Suresh do sketch and stand-up, and there is Vasu Primlani who I have not watched but I have read some of the things she writes about and so I imagine her act is funny and different.
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