Culture

The Indian women breathing new life into comedy

On the myths, challenges and stereotypes of this world

When it comes to the comedy, timing is everything. There's never been a better time to be a stand-up comic in India; digital entertainment and social media have opened up previously unheard of avenues, making comedy in India a viable career option. The industry is also more inclusive than it has ever been; from being completely male-dominated, the Indian comedy scene today is marked by the work of hilarious women who can crack you up and smash stereotypes in the same sentence.

Like Kaneez Surka and Prashasti Singh. 

Honing their talent and breathing new life into comedy, they spill the beans on what it takes to tickle the Indian audience’s funny bone and how they shaped their careers in the industry.

Kaneez and Prashasti are part of Levi’s #IShapeMyWorld campaign.

KANEEZ Improv artist, comedian, and YouTuber

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Kaneez Surka is a popular face and name in the comedy circuit. Initially seen on the show, The Week That Was, Surka is well-known for her online game show, The General Fun Game Show, and has been a part of various YouTube sketches. Here’s how she shaped her world:

ELLE: How and when did your relationship with comedy and performing begin?

Kaneez Surka: When I was in High School - grade 12, I was in a musical called 'Nunsense' and we were performing a week before my matric finals. On the last night during my solo song I had an out of body experience and was completely in my element—it was this brief moment where every single thing aligned perfectly and I knew then, this is what I want to do. I got a standing ovation.

ELLE: What were the initial challenges that you faced and how did you overcome them?

KS: It was and it's still hard being a woman in comedy—people believe comedy is a male art in this country. The hate is scary and it gets to you, and sometimes hinders you from putting yourself out there—which is something I am working on slowly.

ELLE: There is this sudden surge of the term "female comedians", which a lot of people are opposed to. What's your take on this?

KS: It's because there are so few of us. When we aren't a minority anymore, people won’t distinguish us based on our gender, they'll just think we're funny or not funny based on our jokes.

ELLE: Are there any stereotypes about this industry that you'd like to break?

KS: Women are funny—anyone can be funny. With women you won’t just get a laugh per a minute, you'll get a holistic experience where you will feel many emotions, which I believe is a more fulfilling experience!

ELLE: In terms of comedy as an industry, how has it evolved ever since you started?

It has evolved so much. There are way more women now, which is a great thing as it is normalising our presence in the industry. I'm not the token woman anymore in videos, or shows—I'm there because of my talent. Thanks to the women, the comedy industry is way more woke than other industries and we don’t put up with as much shit as we use to.

ELLE: What was the best piece of advice you received growing up? And how did it shape your world?

My dad once told me that when you have to choose, choose the harder path. When confronted with a choice, I go with the one that scares me the most.

PRASHASTI SINGH, Engineer and MBA graduate, Never dreamt of choosing comedy as a full-time profession

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Prashasti shot to her fame for her performance on the Amazon Prime reality show Comicstaan. Eight months in, she's a household name, Singh recounts her career switch and what it took to break into the industry.

ELLE: When and how did your relationship with comedy and performing begin?

Prashasti Singh: I was doing comedy along with my job as a way of maintaining sanity. It started with a weekend improvisation class where I met a bunch of people many of who were also doing stand up. I finally found the courage to do my first open mic about one year after this class. I knew then that I loved stand-up but could never dream of taking it up as a full-time profession. I finally took a 2-month sabbatical to participate in a comedy hunt in 2018 and it was only during this time that I realised that I would be doing a grave injustice to myself if I didn't give comedy a proper shot.

ELLE: What were the initial challenges that you faced and how did you overcome them?

PS: I was at a stage in my life where I couldn't afford to experiment with my finances. I am paying a home loan; my mother is nearing retirement, my brother is a musician. I was in a well-paying job that anchored me in many ways. My mother was already super stressed about me being 31 and unmarried; I couldn't imagine how her reaction to me being 31, unmarried and unemployed. I think the amazing thing about finding your calling is the clarity that comes with it. In my head the decision was already made. I only had to sort the logistics i.e. figuring out money flow, convincing my mother etc. Once the problem statement changes from 'what is to be done' to & 'how to do it', the control comes back. I had to juggle two careers for some time, make comedy financially viable, have painful conversations with my mother but eventually it all fell into place.

ELLE: There is this sudden surge of the term "female comedians", which a lot of people are opposed to. What's your take on this?

PS: I am a female and I am comedian. The term is not technically a problem, the attitude is. It makes us sound like the exception and not the norm. We want more girls to sign up for open mics and explore this field if that's their interest. For that, we need them to see that their gender doesn't matter on stage, their jokes do.

ELLE: Are there any stereotypes about this industry that you'd like to break?

PS: I get the impression that my friends from outside comedy see this industry as a bunch of kids who just got lucky because of the internet and are now riding the wave. There are actually some really sharp and hard-working people at the core of this industry who take well calculated risks, read the market, think four steps in the future and are constantly reinventing themselves because they are hungry to learn and present the best version of this art form to the audience.

ELLE: In terms of comedy as an industry, how has it evolved ever since you started?

PS: Comedy is still a very new industry and I think it’s evolving pretty fast. There are so many more women doing comedy today than two years ago. OTT platforms like Amazon prime and Netflix have provided new avenues for us to reach a very specific audience and also expand into content creation that is not strictly stand-up. These players have also changed the economics of the game.

ELLE: What was the best piece of advice you received growing up? And how did it shape your world?

PS: Always chase excellence. Never settle in mediocrity. Do your best and leave the rest for the universe to take care of. I get really restless every time I feel like I am stagnating or getting too comfortable in one space. I push myself extra hard then to chase something new and this, I feel, is what shapes my world.