Radhika Vaz interview: She unforgettably bared it all for a performance art daringly called What The F**k Should I Wear. It was just a funny idea that came to her and she was not too concerned with the expectedly radical reaction her cleverly nude exhibition would generate. Because Radhika Vaz has always been what she calls “unladylike.”
She was in her early 40s at the time the two-minute standup piece premiered as part of an advertisement campaign. And her thought back then was, ‘Well, this is what I look like.’ The audience could either accept it or continue being miserable about it. “People think you’re being brave but you’re just doing what you have to do,” Vaz says wisely, nearing 50 now, in an interview with SheThePeople.
Vaz says she never goes looking for trouble through her jokes, even as she is considered by a section of people among India’s most ‘troublesome’ standup comics. The label is courtesy the range of content she picks to present; these could touch upon menstruation, women’s safety, contentious religious traditions, sex – all topics that to our society are taboo despite the progressivism that should define the 21st century.
Her nude act in 2015 had drawn the anticipated outraged reaction, especially on social media where the video sparked a furore. A more recent instance of controversy to envelope the comedienne was in July 2020, when some old jokes of hers were pulled up to accuse her of poking fun at a certain religion.
That was a heated, tense period for Indian comedy, with female comics, in particular, being actively targeted for their content. Agrima Joshua, whose bit on Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj had prompted rape threats against her, was the poster face of the controversy.
What does she do about the backlash that comes her way through the channel of her jokes? Nothing, Vaz says, “because they are looking for a problem even when there is none.”
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Radhika Vaz Interview: A Backward Journey Into Feminism
Vaz, a senior comic and a writer, is regarded as a feminist figurehead in the Indian comedy scene. But ‘feminist’ is not how she always described herself. “I wasn’t raised with any consciousness of what sexism even is… I wasn’t categorically told ‘no’ being a girl and it didn’t occur to me that there were problems associated with being female… I could smoke and drink whenever I wanted,” she says, marking the ideas of liberation from her early youth as “stupid and narrow.”
Middle-class society did not engage with daring ideas like feminism when Vaz was in her 20s. It still doesn’t but the digital age has ushered in a new-era narrative that at least encourages open discussion on the subject. Feminists are still branded ‘feminazis,’ ‘man-haters,’ ‘aggressive,’ on the internet dare they talk of equality. But that conversation, despite moving at a snail’s pace, is moving.
It was only when Vaz moved to the United States for work and began experimenting with improvisational comedy, meeting women from all walks of life who were “intellectually more equipped with the language of feminism” than she was, did she chance upon a realisation.
All the pieces she wrote and performed tended to look at one or the other shade of gender inequality. “It was a backward journey for me,” she says, having begun with creating content that mattered to her without knowing it was particularly feminist and later reflecting on what it truly stood for.
She calls that a watershed period in her life as a feminist, likening it to when people attune themselves to religion or spirituality.
The Hard Fights To Fight In Comedy
The comedy arena in India has always been a volatile zone. Of late, it is far more turbulent than ever, with comedians being threatened or jailed for jokes they do or don’t crack on stage. In the wake of a highly inflamed communal atmosphere in the country, the future of any standup artist’s joke is forever in limbo. Which is why ‘safe comedy’ seems to be the trend of the hour.
Vaz, however, never self-censors her content. She finds that it’s the worst thing one can do. “The page will be blank!”
“I think the job of a comedian, male or female, is to write the truth of their experiences and make it funny as shit. What is funny as shit is subjective – what is funny to me today may not be as funny tomorrow,” she acknowledges. A number of comedians, for instance, were called out this year on Twitter after their old jokes – now widely panned as politically incorrect and problematic for their evident sexism or casteism or discrimination – were dredged up for public criticism.
Vaz is of the opinion that while a comedian cannot exercise control over audience reaction – “I’ve killed it on stage with the audience laughing at all my subversions of feminism but the next weekend, same show, it’s all crickets.” – she makes sure to throw out a joke that is not fully formed and may get unnecessary attention.
“I would like my joke to be fully formed so I can stand behind it in every way. It should mean something.”
Women writers have always been thrust into a more vulnerable position than their male counterparts. That has been true historically and in every profession and therefore, as Vaz puts it, is “not new news.” The harder fights to fight are those where within comedy circles, gender creates a power imbalance.
When the #MeToo wave hit India in 2018, it prompted a landmark exposé of male comics who were otherwise secure and venerated in their seats of seniority and popularity. Tanmay Bhat, inarguably the most influential name to be called out, was named in the Utsav Chakraborty case, which ultimately brought down his comedy group AIB. Bhat more or less retreated from mainstream comedy post the controversy.
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But three years on since #MeToo first blazed, the movement is compelled to question the consequences and accountability powerful men allegedly involved in harassment cases face. The issue was raised most recently when Bhat made a return to comedy on a major OTT platform. The uproar on social media was massive. Read here.
“Seniority is irrelevant, power, unfortunately, is relevant,” Vaz says, adding that with that power, one can afford to be “protected to some degree.” So does that make harassment of women in comedy circles common? “I can’t give you instances of it (harassment) because I don’t know. But my sense is it’s happening. It may not be that a girl is being raped but there may be a plethora of other things that are putting her down or making her uncomfortable.”
“There are many little power centres (in comedy) and most of them are male,” Vaz says. And these comedy clubs, like all others, gatekeep too. As Indian English comedy explodes on OTT, the recurrence of the same faces over and over is not hard to miss.
This reality often puts a break in what truly is and what the audience holds to be true with regard to standup comedy. Here is a bunch that people believe are pushing for social reform and modern ideas through their art; is it really possible they are walking on the other side of the fence? Are their comedic preachings of women’s emancipation and inclusivity only empty words?
Vaz thinks it’s not just unfair but also not very smart to hold comedians to some higher moral standard. “For comedians to be above the fray on a moral level or to be all liberal people or feminists who will never harm a woman… Living in the climate that we are today, that is an unrealistic expectation.”
“It’s almost then like comedians are a microcosm of perfection. How can we be? We’re constantly making stupid jokes that get us into trouble… Hold us to a low bar.”