Culture

‘I Feel Like I’ve Let People See Me’

In conversation with Aditi Mittal about her love of comedy, the sorry state of sex education in India and her stance on period leave.

Aditi Mittal in a still from her Netflix show 'Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say'

Aditi Mittal in a still from her Netflix show ‘Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say’

On July 18, Aditi Mittal could be found in one of two states: “Oh my god, oh my god, my face is on Netflix!” or “Oh my god, oh my god, I have a show and I need to stop looking at my face on Netflix!”

As ‘Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say’ premiered on Netflix, Mittal was (supposed to be) preparing to debut her newest show, ‘Global Village Idiot’ that very night. Understandably, she’d had a difficult time focusing but by the following morning it seemed evident that both had gone down well with the audience. Her biggest moment of excitement had come much earlier though, when she found out that her perpetually unimpressed brother (“he’s always said I have no vocational skills”) was the first one to call and tell their father that Mittal had landed a Netflix special. Her first reaction at this display of sibling pride? “Whaat? Bhaiya gives a shit?!”

Mittal, who has been doing stand-up for over seven years now, is known not only for her comedy (which often tackles gender-based issues like street harassment) but also for having an informed take on various socio-political issues whether it is women’s rights or our right to privacy.

The Wire squeezed in a telephonic interview with Mittal the morning after her Netflix debut, a day before she left to participate in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Since Mittal can be relied upon to have an opinion of most things, the interview covered a a range of topics including comedy, sex education in India, authenticity and vulnerability on Twitter, her stance on period leave for women and much more.

Oh, and we only paused once so Mittal could buy fish from a lady passing by her window. (“This lady has the best bombil and prawns!”)

Excerpt from the interview:

How are you feeling about the responses to your Netflix show?

I think it’s awesome. It’s awesome. There’s this fantastic line that Sunita Rao said to me – “Do you want to see the world or do you want the world to see you?” Because if you let the world see you, then you will see the world. And I think the good thing is that I feel so happy, I feel like I’ve let people see me. I’m not panicked… Of course I’m going, ‘I could have done a million different things,’ but I’m not sad, I’m not happy. Which I thought are all feelings I would be feeling but it’s more like theek hai.

Ho gaya, achcha tha?

Haanji and people are being nice online and stuff so…

It was a pretty big buildup.

Haina?

Yeah, I think everyone was waiting for the show to happen, especially after the women in comedy panel discussion went viral…

Oh geez. But you know that’s the thing, we had been in conversation with Netflix since December last year and so… I don’t know, I mean, everyone trying to find a connection (between the two) is a bit bizarre to me frankly. But what are you going to do?

But in the end it worked in your favour largely?

Not really. I would have very much liked the success to be attributed to my own ability as opposed to this nonsense, but then again what are you going to do?

Since we’re talking about the panel, right after it came out, you had said that this wasn’t the first time you’d said these things about women in Indian comedy and the panel wasn’t the first time someone had voiced these issues, even though it was being treated as such. Did people’s reactions change immediately after it went viral? Were men suddenly treating you better?

No. But I’m also realising that half the time the world has nothing to do with what’s happening online. What caters to five minutes of outrage online or even three days of outrage online will translate to about three-six months of people just conversing in the real world. Before even acknowledging or changing anything, people will just have conversations.

And how do you think that impacts the world of comedy specifically? With online outrage and cases being filed against comedians, I think the role of the comedian in Indian society and politics is very contestable right now.

I’m writing my new show and the show’s called ‘Global Village Idiot’, and the reason I called it that is because I believe that comedians are that, right? We are the village idiots. We are the ones who say silly things to try and make people laugh so they come around and throw money at us or clap for us. And we are the first ones also to get dragged out onto the streets and be lynched (if we say something wrong). Now I’m starting to realise it is a function of the world that we live in.

Is there a personal line that you follow when you’re writing jokes? If you know a joke will definitely lean into offensive, do you dial it back a little?

I’m learning how to navigate it better, like the boundaries of what can and cannot be said. But I cannot say with any surety where that line is at any given point of time. I’m just feeling this through as much as the next person. I really do believe that the only way to find out if you can’t say something is to say it. And then that way comedy is the study of hope. It’s the study of ‘let’s see what happens.’ You take a protagonist in any situation, where we are stacked behind insurmountable odds that we have no control over – comedy is something that gives us temporary relief when we are laughing and clapping, collectively acknowledging that the world is f#!$ed up and we have no control over it.

We’re all equally screwed.

Yes. And that’s what a laugh is right? When someone says something inspiring like a quote or whatever, what inspiration means to different people will be completely different, but laughter is the only thing, and comedy is the only thing that can be judged by “funny tha ki nai? (Was it funny or not?)” So comedy is one of those professions where everything is subjective.

Speaking of protagonists, your Netflix show technically has two. There’s you and then there’s Dr. Mrs. Lutchuke and you’ve talked about using Lutchuke to voice things you aren’t comfortable saying as yourself. I thought it was really great that in this special you go, ‘Oh you know what, it’s illegal to give sex education to people under 18’ and then you bring out Lutchuke and she does exactly that.

[Laughs] You know, can I be honest with you? It really started off as a thing because I was like ‘Yaar sex ke bare mein baat karni hai’ (I should talk about sex). I had a hundred funny things I wanted to say about sex. And of course I had my remembrance of what sex education had NOT been like. The truth is that we need to be having conversations about sex, even if it’s in jokes or whatever because we are not in the best position sexual health wise.

Even in terms of infant mortality and maternal health we’re lagging behind on a global scale. That’s why I don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed when people are like ‘Wow that’s pretty bold’. I’m like, ‘You know, there’s much worse going on that we’re not talking about’. And so Lutchuke was the result of this thing – ‘mereko isko bolna hai uh but how do I say it?’ And I realised that’s the point of a character. Society’s problems and all – the moment you wrap it up in a stupid sari and this ridiculous accent, you’re like arrey, now I’m asking you not to take me seriously as a comedian. This is it. This could be a pun, this could be an actual thought, this could be whatever, I get to do it with impunity.

Do you think sometimes the point of the joke can get lost because people are too busy laughing at the character?

At the end of the day, our job is to make people laugh. I find it a little mind boggling when people go ‘The solutions of life are in comedy’ and all.

That’s a lot of pressure to put on comedy.

Haanji, really. And also I think that our job is to make people laugh. If they go home thinking – even better. That’s why I love slapstick comedy, I love stupid puns. They are fulfilling their purpose of highlighting incongruity whether it’s in the spelling of a word, whether it’s about someone calling it ‘that’ and not ‘that’. I think every form of humour is pretty much on the same level.

The words ‘highlighting incongruity’ really seem to sum up your approach to your jokes about advertising, sanitary napkins and periods in the Netflix show. And since we’re on the subject, what’s your take on the recent period leave debate? Should employers give women the first day of their periods off each month or no?

I think it’s important to have a discourse (referring to the debate between women on whether period leave should be instituted across the country). I think constitutional discourse leads to constitutional changes but then turns back into cultural change. Having said that, we also have to acknowledge that the place that we are functioning from is not an ideal one. We are not starting in an equal world and saying ‘Oh! by the way, we want leave on the first day of our periods.’ We’re starting from a point where already the odds are stacked against us. And you know, it is up to us to not exploit this leave and not turn it into something that can deliberately be used against us. And even if it’s not exploited, opposition will come.

I mean what’s the problem if we’re living in a slightly more empathetic world? I may meet X, Y, Z people who exploit the leave, but I’m looking at A, B, C people who really need the damn thing. That’s what intersectionality is all about. Women are not one homogenous mass. Some women have endometriosis and some don’t. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a more empathetic base ground for everyone to exist from.

I was struck by the argument that men will stop hiring women if women are given period leave.

Haan, that’s connected to the fear of consequences right? (Firms could only get away with such biased hiring practices if there were no harsh consequences to them discriminating against women). Those working towards feminism are working on the both of these (better work conditions and pay for women) simultaneously. The cultural conversation has already started around the gendered pay gap and it has already started around biased hiring practices. Adding something like period leave is, in fact, highlighting the need for tackling biased hiring practices.

And it doesn’t detract from the fact that some institutions are shaped in a way that women find it hard to get into them.

Haanji, exactly.

We know that you use Lutchuke to talk about certain things, we know that there’s a persona that goes on stage to perform. But when you’re on Twitter, do you modulate what you’re putting out?

That way I think I’m very lucky, I joined Twitter in 2009. I came into social media at a time when I was thinking as an individual and not thinking about being a brand or whatever. I think there’s a desire for authenticity right now which we value very much, and I think social media allows that to be more in your hands at any given point of time. I really didn’t consciously work towards any brand per se. Twitter is my stomping ground, it’s my foot in the mouth ground.

We all don’t give ourselves permission to be. I think we are always worried about being wrong or being seen a certain way, and we can’t just be. (But the things is) You might have a hard time for six weeks in a row, but week seven onwards it’ll be okay.

Is that how you deal with trolls?

I’ve realised that authenticity comes at the cost of vulnerability, which means being open to being trolled, misunderstood, harassed, whatever. Worst case scenario I’ll close my app. That’s literally the distance I need. It also just takes time and energy and practice.

Do you have a much thicker skin now than when you started off?

Yes, yes. But you know what, I’ve realise that mai ghar chala rahi hoon, kha rahi hoon, pi rahi hoon, save kar ahi soon (I’m running a household, eating, drinking, saving). Everything else, like this interview and people saying things about me is above and beyond when I think about the fact that I get to eat and drink and do something I love.

Since you’ve performed abroad a lot and are about to head out to another festival, are there any clear differences between audiences in India and abroad? 

To a very large extent, stand-up comedy audiences abroad are almost trained to respond to the crests and troughs of stand-up. Indian audiences and I have grown up together, we are growing together. Indian audiences are simultaneously the most caring and also the most uncaring. Sometimes its like ‘naach bandar naach’ but sometimes they pick up on your emotions so quickly and they’re so empathetic and open – I think that’s what it is – so open that the performer’s mood is something that audiences pick up on. They will literally all as a group respond. And that I think it absolutely fantastic. And the dichotomy of that is something that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to comprehend.

Are the kind of jokes that people react to changing with time? Say, is there something that audiences would have definitely laughed at seven years ago that just isn’t funny anymore?

Yes. I can’t think of anything specific to illustrate what I’m going to say but here goes. I think what’s funny will always keep changing, and I do think that a robust joke about being Punjabi, Gujarati, Sindhi – we love those. We love being told that we are silly or the other person next to us is silly and so I don’t think that’s going anywhere for a while.

I feel very lucky in terms of the opportunities I’m being afforded in terms of the amount of time I’ve been doing this. I’m really really happy and I’m really excited.

So as a final question, is comedy a stepping stone for something else? Or do you not know yet?

No, I really like this. I really like this. I feel like right now I’m in the prime position to be able to have my own thoughts, write them down, express them and get feedback on them in the span of a day. And I think to be in that position is really intoxicating. And it really forces you to become sort of your own worst critic and best friend. Woh mujhe kaafi enjoyable lagta hai. 

There’s this fantastic joke that ‘comics should die young,’ the older they get, the more they reduce the quality of their obituaries. I think that is so funny, and I do believe that might be the case but I think I want to live long enough to find out if it can not be.