In a clip that went viral earlier this week, entertainment journalist Anupama Chopra presented this question to a panel of professional comedians: “Is the comedy space more sexist than other fields in this country?” The context was Amazon India’s recent announcement of 14 specials, not one of which will star a female comic.
The question was addressed specifically to the only other woman at the table – Aditi Mittal. But the rest of the panel immediately began to rumble with responses – notably, with dismissals like how women comedians don’t have enough material for full shows, and the euphemism “situational outcome” (sure, if the situation we’re talking about is structural oppression). Much has been made about the mansplaining in that clip, but what stood out for me was how when Mittal finally got a word in, there was the palpable sense that the anger held in check in her voice and even on her face had silenced the rest of the table.
It wasn’t necessarily anger toward the panel in attendance – to them, she breezily threw shade by taking large, leisurely gulps from her mug as they proffered their opinions, making clear to the camera that she knew talking wasn’t expected of her. It was anger accumulated over working her way up through her industry, and how she ultimately found that her best strategy was in doing things solo (“I wouldn’t be [here] if I hadn’t distanced myself”), because solidarity was absent. These are things Mittal articulated without mincing words, sitting alongside her colleagues. She had never been a part of the brotherhood, no matter what they claim. In fact, as an industry insider pointed out to me, much of this boys’ club is even represented by the same management. And at that table, it was Mittal who had to represent. Sometimes a token becomes an envoy.
And that anger – deeply familiar. Because, really, Chopra’s opening question was inane. Any woman with a career, even in a field that is regarded as “acceptably” female (like nursing or teaching), knows: no, the comedy space isn’t more sexist than other fields in this country. It’s probably just as sexist as other fields in this country, but certainly not more.
For Indian comedy’s sexism problem to be largely a numbers game right now indicates that all of it (field and fault both) are in a fledgling state. It is only when more women are in the industry that we’ll begin to see more deeply-entrenched forms: from sexual harassment to the glass ceiling and more. In short, the everyday sexism that all working women encounter. As for sexist “jokes” – well, ironically, the comedy business doesn’t have a monopoly on that. Every corporate office in this country is full of those.
This brings back to mind something I’ve done often in professional contexts: drinking water so as to rein in emotional tension. Maybe that was what Mittal was doing too. Not throwing shade so much as telling her body to remain calm, to hold it together so she could say what she had to as clearly as possible. Because for once in her line of work, laughter would not be a compliment.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 1st 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.