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Comedy can be a wonderful tool for social change. UnGendered, presented by Shenomics in Bangalore on 22nd May attempts just this.
From slapstick to satire, comedy comes in various forms and mediums. It can be silly, it can be hurtful, and it can be change making. Novelist George Meredith once said that the true test of a civilization is how comedic ideas and comedy thrive, and that the true test of comedy is if it “awakens thoughtful laughter.”
In the face of complex and entrenched social issues, such as gender roles and stereotypes, comedy is more than expression; it is dissent. At its best comedy forces us to challenge what is, encourages us to laugh freely, and makes us more ‘thoughtful.’
There are few social constructs as engrained in society and our psyches as gender. Outdated gender roles, expectations, and norms continue to affect both men and women. It’s not that all gender related traits are bad, or even wrong. The problem arises when society is rigid and dictates individual behavior based on ideas of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine.’
It’s this stereotyping that denies women opportunities and devalues them. The same defines manhood, and limits how young boys feel and express themselves. It makes anyone not straight cis-gender feel wholly other. For some examining gender can be very polarizing, so it’s important to engage all perspectives in non-threatening conversations. Comedy is an excellent way to open hearts and minds to perspectives.
Vasu Primlani, the ‘Deadpan Activist’ and India’s first openly gay comic explains “A comedian’s currency isn’t jokes. Our currency is love. First and foremost is our ability to touch the audience’s heart. No matter how brilliant you are, if you are not able to touch the audience’s heart, it is not going to work. So I am in the business of love.” She doesn’t just want to spread love however, she wants to create change.
Without pretence and without agenda, comedy simply presents ideas rooted in truth. As an audience, we either identify with that reality or we don’t; something is either funny or it isn’t. In this way, comedy is an amazing way to reframe what we believe and as accept as fact.
Primlani continues, “My goal is to promote positive change, bring people closer together, and work for the betterment of the society. At the end of my show people often have a change of heart. I give my audiences hope.” Primlani touches on several social issues within her act including the environment, gender, sexuality, and society.
She recounts one particularly moving moment for her. “There was a Muslim man who came up to me once in Delhi and he said, ‘What you are saying about the way men look at women, I admit that that is how I look at women. I am a grandfather. I have a daughter of my own. My daughter has a daughter of her own, and I admit I look at women exactly like this. Khuda Kasam, I won’t from tomorrow’… I provide a message that is so acute that not only will it be a topic that will be discussed but it’s remembered and will be executed.
That is how important the tool of comedy is in messaging.”
Vasu Primlani isn’t alone amongst comedians who break gender stereotypes and question society. Suman Kumar, Stay-at-Home Dad, simply speaks about his real life struggles as the primary care giver during his sets.
“When I go to a school to drop my daughter off all the ladies give me that look, ‘who is this guy?’ I make it a point to tell everyone that I’m a Stay-at-Home Dad, though technically I’m a writer; I have a book coming out in April and I’ve written movies and TV programs. But I never say that first, because I know that being a father is more important. When I tell people I’m a Stay–at-Home Dad people often ask me if I mean I don’t have a job. I’m like ‘brother you have no idea.’ For the first time in my life I have a job, a full job. I’ve never worked so hard in my life.”
In Kumar’s set he speaks about the challenges of being the primary care giver as well as all the stereotypes he has to face because of it. He not only normalizes men staying at home, but he helps bring a wider understanding and acceptance to the full workload that being a primary care giver entails.
For Punya Arora, the ‘South Indian Punjabi,’ gender has a very central role in her life and set. “I and my mother had a tough life while I was growing up. The man I was born to wanted a son. After I was born he refused to accept me, so my mom decided to divorce him.” Arora’s mother refused alimony and only asked Arora’s biological father give her full custody and not interfere with Arora’s upbringing. “When I tell people I was raised by a single mom the reaction isn’t great; it’s either very sad or shocked.”
Arora centres much of her act on the circumstances around her upbringing, her womanhood, and her family’s resilience.
“It’s not always something people will find funny. It’s actually a very unfunny topic that I’m talking about in stand-up comedy and making people laugh at. But the truth of the matter is, there is a little funny in everything, and there is some funny in this situation as well.” Her motivations aren’t just to make people laugh however.
“We still have a girl child problem in India. It’s nowhere close to gone. It’s something I talk about in terms of changing mindsets in society, as I know it’s a mindset that persists. There is nothing that girls can’t do. I genuinely feel if you give girls equal opportunity they can do anything.
I was totally rejected because I wasn’t born a son, but look at me now- I’m killing it. It’s 100% his loss. I feel if you give your daughter the opportunity to succeed, she will. You don’t have to get them married right away or cry about having a girl, just give her the same opportunities as a guy, and see what she can do. I’m not saying men are better than women or women are better than men, I’m saying give everyone equal opportunity.
My mom and I had a great time making our lives again. So I talk about it that way, and hope I can leave it in people’s head: single parents aren’t bad, it’s okay if they choose not to get married again; and girls can do anything. In my own way, through comedy, I want to open minds.”
In terms of breaking away from gender stereotypes, these comedians don’t compromise their work or their values. By speaking their truth, each comedian is contributing to a larger conversation and broadening mindsets across India. In this way Primlani says, we can all be change makers. “Everyone has a passion and a talent of their own. Whoever you are speak your truth. However you speak it, speak your truth.”
Gender norms and stereotypes persist and exist around us. We are inundated with expectations and rules from the moment we are born. It’s a complex and at times divisive social issue; it’s one that deserves thought. Using laughter as a tool to better understand the ways we limit others and ourselves is an excellent starting point.
See our change making comedians Vasu Primlani, Suman Kumar, and Punya Arora along with Sri Gaddam and Kelsey William this Sunday May 22nd at UnGendered: comedy night in Bangalore, presented by Shenomics, along with outreach partners Women’s Web, YourStory, and BHIVE Workspace. It’s a night sure to be a ‘thoughtful’ laugh riot. Do visit the event page here for the details. You are in for a great experience!
So join us for Un-Gendered: a gender bending comedy night as we delve into and break harmful stereotypes with some of India’s favorite comics. Somewhere at the intersection of complex social issues and entertaining narratives, let’s laugh at ourselves!
Originally published here.
Image sources: Punya Arora here, Suman Kumar here, Vasu Primlani here, Ungendered poster here.
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Chetan Bhagat had no business slut shaming Uorfi Javed or any other woman. If he wants to 'guide' young men in the 'right direction' then he should take accountability for his words.
Chetan Bhagat, one of India’s bestselling authors, thought it was an ingenious idea to slut-shame Uorfi Javed, an Indian actress and influencer, at the Sahitya Aaj Tak literature festival.
“Phone has been a great distraction for the youth, especially the boys, spending hours just watching Instagram Reels. Everyone knows who Uorfi Javed is. What will you do with her photos? Is it coming in your exams or you will go for a job interview and tell the interviewer that you know all her outfits? On one side, there is a youth who is protecting our nation at Kargil and on another side, we have another youth who is seeing Uorfi Javed’s photos hiding in their blankets.”
Uorfi Javed responded with a video on her Instagram stories calling out Bhagat’s bluff. She shared the screenshots of his previous chat conversations with Ira Trivedi, author and yoga instructor, which came to light during the #MeToo movement.
While boys are taught to naturally own the space they enter, girls are taught to give up, to accommodate, to adjust since "it is their primary responsibility to keep families and relations together."
Yesterday, I was watching these 4 young girls around 16 – 17 years old play badminton. They were having fun, goofing around with all 4 of them equally involved in the game.
In some time two of their male friends joined them, and as part of round robin, the 2 boys replaced two of the girls. All good.
As the play continued, I started noticing a change in the way the game was being played. The shuttle was played most of the times between the two boys and there was a sense of competition and aggression brought in. The other 2 girls playing soon starting losing interest in the game as they hardly got any game time. Even if the shuttle came towards them, the boy in their team would move and play that shot. They soon moved to the sidelines as the boys continued to play.
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