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  • Published 12.08.12
Aditi Mittal loves to poke fun at the Indian media and entertainment scenario
Pix: Gajanan Dudhalkar

The joke’s on comedienne Bharti Singh — even if she’s cracking it herself. “I’ve been offered a job in Hollywood. The in the famous ‘Hollywood’ sign has broken off. They want me to stand in its place,” she says with a deadpan expression on her face. That’s followed by another weighty offering: “I was about to jump into the swimming pool. People held me back. They were scared of being caught in another tsunami.”

At the other end of the weighing scales there’s lean and tomboyish 34-year-old Neeti Palta. “The great part about me having small breasts is that men actually look at me in the eye when I talk,” she chuckles. Touted as Delhi’s first stand-up comic, Neeti’s busy getting laughs at about seven or eight gigs a month.

And you might catch Vasu Primlani, 39, former model and environmentalist, say with an arched eyebrow: “A slap is equivalent to foreplay in Delhi.” Vasu, with her salt-and-pepper hair , invariably has the crowd in splits during comedy nights in Delhi, Mumbai and even the US.

Welcome to the brave world of female stand-up comics where the punch-lines flow thick and fast. They’ve trained their rapier sharp wits on men, gender battles, weight issues, dirty jokes and the world around them.

Aditi Mittal
Today they want us to buy an ocean breeze deodorant. This would be like bottling a fart

And no, none of them has had any formal training in spewing their comic lines — they just have a natural flair for it. They write their own scripts and are inspired by everything and everybody around them.

Pix: Fotocorp
While Bharti Singh made her debut with the TV show The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, Neeti Palta (below) came into the limelight performing at open mic events
Pix: Gajanan Dudhalkar

Comedy and the art of being funny is also taking them places. Sugandha Mishra, 27, who did stand-up comedy for the first time in 2008 with The Great Indian Laughter Challenge on Star One, says: “I do a lot of live shows today and I travel so much that there’s nothing like a body clock anymore. I can drop off to sleep anywhere, anytime.” It’s an unusual life in other ways too. “Though I have travelled all round the country, I know nothing beyond what the auditoriums and hotels in the cities that I have performed in look like,” she adds.

Sugandha, who is also a singer, does eight to 10 shows a month and charges Rs 3 lakh per appearance. But a part of her earnings are pocketed by Zee TV as she has a tie-up with the channel since she appeared on its long-running show, Sa Re Ga Ma....

There are perils to being a woman funster with celebrity status. Bharti, who also made her debut with The Great Indian Laughter Challenge and later did Comedy Circus on Sony, talks about her encounters with enthusiastic fans. “Anywhere I go — perhaps to catch the 4am flight — people expect me to be funny and behave like Lalli, the character that I have created. But because I’m so groggy at that time, I’m not even aware of who I am let alone the character that I impersonate,” says the much-in-demand Bharti wryly. Bharti’s the living example that a hard life can push a person to comedy — her father died when she was two and she’s had many other hardships along the way, until she made her TV debut as a comedienne. She now has a packed appointments diary.

So, what’s setting the brigade of comedy queens apart from their male counterparts? “Men normally take up themes like Bollywood or politics. But for women the themes centre on life around them — the way people speak, new mothers and even the oddball characters that they encounter,” says Padmini Harchandrai, 26, who has been performing since 2009.

And what about sex and off-colour jokes that are the safest bets for keeping audiences in splits? The female comics performing in Hindi insist that they stick to what they perceive as ‘cleaner comedy’. Bharti says that she’s cautious about the content of her act whether on TV and or live. “Naughty jokes are a strict no-no for female stand-ups. There are self-determined boundaries which we don’t cross,” she says.

When it comes to performances in English the rules are a bit more relaxed. But the women insist they treat sex differently from men.

Bharti Singh
(Playing an airhostess) You will be served food — if there are any leftovers after I have eaten

Each of these women has her own brand of comedy. Padmini, who worked till recently as a website producer and does comedy as a hobby, got into the act after she watched a stand-up comedy show in Los Angeles in 2009. Today, she writes her own songs and her favourite is ‘I Can Lift Your Dumbbells’ which is dedicated to a nameless guy in her gym on whom she says she has a crush. Her shows — she does two to four a month — are laced with funny songs that she’s written.

Meanwhile, Neeti, who has put in 16 years of regular jobs — 11 in the advertising industry and five with Gali Gali Sim Sim, a children’s educational show on Pogo channel — takes on Everything. She’ll have you in splits with her male bashing and jokes on fat Indian weddings, the sad Indian political scenario and even the pressure on women to have babies. And she can laugh at herself too. One of her favourite one-liners goes: My chin is divorced; it’s single again.

Neeti Palta
The plus side of female foeticide — shorter queues for me

Aditi Mittal, one of the best recognised faces of English comedy, loves to poke fun at the Indian media — current news and serials are at the receiving end of her humour. And she’s taking potshots nowadays at an advertisement for an underarm whitening cream. “After fairness creams now there’s one for the underarms as well! When will this fixation with colour end?” she says rolling her eyes. Her alter ego, 55-year-old Mrs Lootchuke (a play on the word chutkule or jokes), cracks bawdy jokes.

Her training in classical music helped Sugandha Mishra to sharpen her mimicry skills

For the past six to eight months, Aditi has been averaging 10-12 shows a month, not just in the metros but in smaller towns like Hubli and Kochi.

Vasu, who has performed in New York, San Francisco, Mumbai and Delhi, loves to joke about the differences between the political and the commercial capitals of India. She carries home Rs 1 lakh for an hour of keeping the jokes flowing. Vasu points out that Mumbaikars hate Delhi-wallahs and jokes that show Delhi men in a bad light or depict the city being the rape capital usually go down well in Mumbai.

Besides her weight, Bharti’s impersonation of Lalli, the young girl with a permanent foot-in-mouth disease, is an act that’s found favour with audiences on TV and at live shows.

As a participant on Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, a reality dance show on Colors, Bharti says she’s picking up dope for future acts. “Despite the vigorous dance moves, I am yet to lose even 100g of weight,” she says.

Sugandha Mishra
(Pretending to be a character in a daily soap) God protect my 3 husbands, 6 lovers, 4 legitimate and 3 illegitimate children

Sugandha, the pretty singer-cum-comic from Jalandhar, found that her looks were a deterrent when it came to comedy. “People don’t start giggling when they see me on the show as I am not overweight nor funny-looking,” she says with a grimace.

Her training as a classical singer has enabled her to mimic different voices. Sugandha can switch from one to another — animals, machines, of an operator at a customer care centre — at lightning speed. In fact, she can do 60 different voices in 4 minutes 45 seconds. This forms the core of her acts.

Vasu Primlani has performed in New York and San Francisco apart from Indian metros like Mumbai and Delhi
Pix: Gajanan Dudhalkar

Sugandha’s lines for telly (which she also uses for her live shows) are scripted by Optimystix, a film production company. Like Bharti, she too performs in Hindi and steers clear of sexual innuendo.

For most English stand-ups though, their gender gives them the excuse to push the sexual envelope. Aditi, who along with Vasu, Neeti and Padmini was a part of first all women’s stand-up comedy show that was recently held in Mumbai’s What The Frock restaurant, says: “I have a seven-minute act on sanitary napkins. I really want to see a man who attempts to perform that.”

Talking about women in general and the male anatomy in particular also comes easy to English female comics. “I can get away with talking of a guy’s penis in derogatory terms and manage to sound funny and not cheap,” says Neeti, who started by performing at open mics events that are held in pubs and restaurants across the country to give amateur comedians a platform to perform three-minute stand-up acts.

Neeti who does six to seven shows a month charges about Rs 40,000 for a corporate gig.

Vasu Primlani
A Mumbai boy cannot get along with a Delhi girl because she is not used to the word please

But the ladies have had their nightmare moments — when their jokes have fallen flat or the audiences have been totally unresponsive. And there are times when inspiration doesn’t strike or they aren’t pleased with their own jokes. But each of them has their own way of getting round the situations.

Padmini Harchandrai’s acts are peppered with funny songs she writes herself
Pix: Gajanan Dudhalkar

Aditi tackles an unresponsive audience by taking the bull by the horns and announcing conversationally that the show isn’t going well at all. The audience more often than not, she says, responds with a nervous laugh. “Things often get better after that,” she says.

Sugandha treats a deadpan audience with a variety of quips and punch-lines. Neeti, who has performed in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, switches topics and tests if the audience reacts any better. “But sometimes the audience just refuses to respond. When that happens, I just perform out of my skin and keep my eye on the cheque,” she says with a wink.

Hecklers don’t really bother them as all it takes is a smart line to put them in their place. “I single out one person and deliver a really sharp line — and the rest of them immediately pipe down,” says the petite Sugandha, who often also works as an anchor at events. Neeti says a heckler is no match for her: “I am smarter than him, have better lines and also the mike.”

Vasu, Aditi, Neeti and Padmini write their own scripts and are constantly on the lookout for new material. Says Neeti: “At a performance people ask a singer to repeat songs which they have heard a zillion times. But woe befalls a comedian who tells an old joke.”

Aditi who has also appeared on TV shows like the Late Night Show with Sumeet Raghavan on Colors, tries to keep the content for the live audience fresh. She says: “For a ladies night, the jokes are women-centric, for a place favoured by the young crowd, the jokes are more on college life and love interests.”

Padmini Harchandrai
I think I am going to hell for all I want to do is lift your dumbbell

So, get your acts together boys, for as Harry Belafonte put it — de woman is smarter... and funnier too.