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‘Why Such Few Female Comics?’ Sejal Bhat Shares Her Experience of Sexism & Power Dynamics in India’s Comedy Scene

By DA Staff 23 April 2019

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Last month, standup comic and Comicstaan Season 1 contestant Sejal Bhat put out an angry comment in response to being asked, we imagine for the gazillionth time, why there are still only a handful of female comedians in the Indian standup scene.

Male comedians immediately rubbish this and insist things have changed; that nobody is sexist, nothing is toxic, women just need to lighten up and focus on being funny. But that’s standard fare, and no one is surprised. Men have always had the weakest defenses against accusations of sexism. But Bhat is trying to get them to listen.

While the last few years have indeed seen more safe spaces for women within the comedy circuit, a lot of this work is still being done by the women in the industry themselves (Jeeya Sethi’s women-only open mic Come-Set-Go in Mumbai, Bhat’s performing arts space Anderooni in Bangalore, Koval Bhatia’s Bedlam in Delhi).

“I can go on about this,” Bhat declares over the phone, following up with a promise to write a whole book about it one day as soon as she has time. Until then, here are excerpts from a quick chat we had with her about what she said on Twitter.

What triggered your statement?

I don’t want to get into the details because I know what kind of long term repercussions it can have. Also, more than a specific thing, I wanted to keep the focus of what I said on the universal subtext of sexism. And I knew people would get distracted by trying to figure out what the exact trigger is.

But one is that I’ve suddenly had more alone time to think about these things. Then recently I got an email from a college kid somewhere who wanted to write about women in comedy (there are a lot of these). The last question was “What is the scope of comedy for women?” This drove me crazy because it’s the same as for men…! You keep getting asked these questions, and honestly I don’t know. I don’t know other people’s experiences… I know some gender-based experiences, I know mine…

And what has your experience been, in this context?

This is true for men in general, but it’s most obvious with male comics because they are some of the most extroverted people you see around you; they’re used to stage time. You notice it most in green rooms. And it’s very obvious when it happens. Everyone’s just jumping over each other to talk… social dynamics and hierarchy come up, and people choose their roles depending on the group. One thing I had noticed and continue to see is that when a bunch of men get together, it’s really hard to get a word in, no matter how loud you are… and then that is a whole other problem anyway.

I’ve also noticed something else that happens at a lot of shows. Like this one time, a male comic was performing, and a girl in the audience was heckling him . The comic put her down. This is a normal thing that happens at a show—girl, guy, whatever. Not that the audience won’t applaud a good putdown regardless of gender, but when a male comic puts a woman down, there’s an extra WOOHOO! Like dikha diya types. Everyone’s collectively jizzing.

Another part of my brain’s questioning if I’m just imagining all this…

Classic.

<laughs> The thing about second-guessing yourself or thinking twice about something you feel—besides the general conditioning—is that it’s also for yourself… like, you really hope you’re wrong about this!

Also, it’s not just women—the larger discrimination is towards feminine qualities in general, because of which men also suffer. Sure, it feels like we’ve talked about this already, but even men get emasculated over feminine qualities… it’s very damaging, and ends up with these men trying to overcompensate for it in ridiculous ways.

How do you mean?

It’s like when a bunch of strange men are hanging out together, one of them always ends up saying something sexist to test everyone’s wavelength… by the agreement or laugh it evokes, they say “yeh toh safe hai, iss group mein bakwaas kar sakte hai”. This sort of phenomenon is something I’m both fascinated by and done with.

Ground level beliefs are something you have to work on long term. Most people are not even conscious of how it happens… it’s one of those things we’ve never really delved deep enough into. Anything we do in the fight for any minority, you try to see how many opportunities you can create for them, how you can better the outcome… but a lot of discrimination and oppression happens at a subconscious level. Which is why I also feel like you can’t expect others to understand instinctively what they haven’t themselves experienced.

As a contestant on Comicstaan, you were accused of resorting too often to “vulgar” humour, talking about “boobs and dicks”. So whether it was funny or not, it was immediately dismissed…

I think what actually happens is that when a man is doing a vulgar joke, no one is picturing him and being disturbed by the visual. But with a woman, people get thrown because they start imagining whatever body part you’re talking about.

What pissed me off back then was people asking why I’m choosing these subjects/talking about stuff only around this. Huh? No one goes up to [Kunal] Kamra and says “Ey, why only politics?” It’s anyone’s choice as an artist (whoaaa, that’s a bit of a fancy word … damn pretentious. PERFORMER! That’s the word!) As a performer, it’s your choice.

You even started your statement apologetically, with “I’m sorry if this is going to sound…”

<laughs> Yeah, like, “I’m sorry I’m going to ruin your day with this but I have to say it.” I can’t help it. It’s in my blood to go “sorry” every five minutes. But I’m actually happy with the way it’s been put, because I was talking to a friend this afternoon and he said something about how he didn’t feel attacked by what I said and therefore was able to understand it. And that’s what I was going for.

There are a bunch of men who really are trying to understand, and sometimes this sort of rant runs the risk of not being able to win over someone who’s actually trying. At the same time, our anger is justified. Then again, anger alone doesn’t solve things… I don’t know. I’m so torn about this. I’m still figuring it out.

You also said that you’ve learnt to minimise yourself—in what ways do you find yourself doing that?

Until I have stage time, when I’m assured no one’s going to interrupt or talk over me.

Because you know no one’s listening, because you know if you yell, yeh sochenge kya chilla rahi hai. I always visualise it like minimising a browser window. You’re there, but not drawing too much attention. You don’t want to ruffle too many feathers because you just don’t have the energy to go through the aftermath so many times.

And what sort of reactions have you had to your tweet?

I was writing for myself to make myself feel like I’m not alone. But immediately I was like, oh fuck, what if no one else feels this way? Comicstaan gave me a boost on social media—now when I talk, there are a lot more people listening to it. But there’s also that much more scrutiny.

In terms of the actual reaction, outside of my head, I think thodi zyaada clapping ho gayi. But I should just take it. It’s good. I also have a recurring imposter problem, so I have to actively fight it.

Sejal Bhat is currently working on her one-hour live special; trial shows begin next month. On 27 April, Bhat and fellow comic Khyati Raja will be performing an alt-comedy show called Chapter 2: Mental Issues in Bangalore. Stay tuned for details.

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