By Ila Ananya
“Is there sexism in the comedy industry as well?”
Anupama Chopra probably knew the answer to this question before she asked the six comedians sitting with her, in an episode for Film Companion. Perhaps, Chopra expected what followed as well — five male comics talking over the only woman comic at the table, discussing with irritating obliviousness the details of this problem that made their work (and lives) a lot easier. The problem that most of them — to be clear — didn’t think existed.
It’s been a few days since a clip of this almost-manel conversation between comics Aditi Mittal, Tanmay Bhat, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Kanan Gill, Vipul Goyal and Zakir Khan started doing the rounds. Unsurprisingly, women sharing the almost 10-minute-long video are a lot more outraged and cringing at its heavy irony, while men the around hissed feminazi in a sustained monotone. After all, it was a straight enough question, with a straight enough answer. So straight that you think these relatively successful, relatively young men would have some neat enough public spiel.
But no, this is what the scene looked like instead.
“Is this comedy space more sexist than other fields in this country?” Chopra first asked Mittal. She’d just made a reference to Amazon Prime’s unbelievable decision in January this year to sign up 14 male Indian comics and stream their content.
In case anyone had any doubts about sexism, you just had to see what happened next. Just when Mittal was about to speak, superman Vipul Goyal jumped right in to defend Amazon Prime’s decision. He was then followed by Tanmay Bhat (“Speak, sir,” Chopra irritatingly said to him), and then Biswa, all of whom, in their most roundabout fashion, said nothing in particular. At the end of the painful 10 minutes that this video lasted, Mittal had spoken for a little more than four. She was miraculously calm, sarcastically ripping into everything the men around her had said (“Oh, can I speak now, is it okay?” she began), while they remained stone-faced and passive.
If this conversation annoyed you for its predictable turn, then I suggest you don’t read the infuriating comments under Biswa’s Facebook post (from back in January) about being one of the 14 chosen comedians. Some men claimed women were just not funny, and their comments were liked. But the first woman commenter to accurately say that Amazon had played straight into “dudes privileging dudes to sustain dude-dom” was attacked. Men began to screech reverse sexism (I’m not sure how), arguing that it was “purely business”, while someone else claimed that “Akhilesh Yadav should make reservations in stand-ups his election plank”. (Actually a good point because, of course, you don’t see gender or caste in an establishment that favours you, the dudes.) The men commenting seemed convinced by the ‘truth’ of their argument — what did it matter that the sexism was present in large companies choosing not to invest in women comedians?
What’s really on display at the end of Film Companion’s video is this same ease and obliviousness with which male comedians seem to rattle off answers about sexism as though they’re on autopilot.
There’s no recognition of any kind of privilege. At the most, Bhat says he thinks there needs to be more representation. Oh, really? By this point you’re wondering why you’re even watching male comedians discuss rampant sexism in their industry when their first response is either to mansplain, or to conveniently wash their hands off it. So when Mittal sarcastically said, “Nahi nahi, tum sabke opinion bohot important hain [No, all your opinions are very important]; I’m listening and learning a lot about what it’s like to be a woman in comedy from this table,” Goyal continued right on with his so-important comments.
Like all the men on Biswa’s Facebook post, Goyal also conveniently blamed Amazon’s decision on a deal between them and Only Much Louder, an easy cop out, as one Twitter user pointed out. In all his wisdom, Biswa attributed the Amazon screw-up to “situational” outcomes: “The deal happened because these 14 people happened to have the same manager. And the female comics didn’t have an hour of material. It’s just a situational outcome, and it’s unfortunate,” he said. Perhaps, if they’d just let Mittal tell her side of the story before rattling off their responses, they’d see, as she pointed out, that it’s tougher for women comedians to get any kind of investment in what she called the “comedy brotherhood” — the “boy gang” that was always going to help “elevate” each other.
While this is one end of the problem, there’s also Mittal’s explanation of why she puts up very few videos of herself doing stand-up on YouTube. “I can’t see another 100 comments about how my camel toe is showing when there’s no camel in the frame. I can’t hear about how I’m shouting and being bitchy,” she said, and her description was met with uncomfortable silence from the men at the table.
It reminded me of Mittal’s interview with Times of India, where she described how she’s expected to be cool with sexist ‘jokes’ because she’s a comedian, like the time a host at the open mic made a vulgar comment about her breasts when her show wasn’t going well. Or how she was told she only got her opportunities because she was a woman.
In another interview, comedian Neeti Palta also said that there was once a man in the audience who thought it important to say that he could sleep with her 50 times in under two minutes. Essentially, everyone seemed out to prove that we are uncomfortable with women on stage, using a mic to take control of their narrative in the way that they choose.
After the first time Mittal got a chance to speak in this discussion, Biswa graciously said that it’s true that there are much fewer women comedians than men in the industry. Patronisingly, he followed this with, “I don’t know how to solve it because I can’t figure out why!” “Yes, why?” Chopra asked, and all the men at the table giggled in agreement. It’s what’s going to happen if you ask a boys’ club why it’s a boys’ club.
Co-published with Firstpost