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PRACTICAL JOKERS

In the wake of the #MeToo movement, the male-dominated comedy industry is transforming into an inclusive space. Anuradha Menon, still recognised for her iconic alter ego Lola Kutty, spends an afternoon with Prashasti Singh, the show stealer from last year’s Comicstaan lineup, and the two women pull back the curtain on inherent biases and the evolving scene. Between generous doses of laughter and nostalgia, Sadaf Shaikh has a frontrow seat for this unexpected yet synergetic interaction

PHOTOGRAPHED BY SHWETA DESAI
STYLING BY AKANKSHA PANDEY
HAIR AND MAKE-UP: GUIA BIANCHI, ANIMA CREATIVE MANAGEMENT.  

I
hurry down the corridor of a photo studio in Andheri West in a frantic bid to locate one half of our duo for today’s shoot who, I’m told, is miffed at having had to trek to the suburbs in this inclement weather. It’s a sentiment that I can wholeheartedly empathise with, and I hope to placate her with my own tales of frustrating suburban travels. When I finally (after a few wrong turns) locate her, Anuradha (Anu) Menon good-naturedly extends her lipstick-applying hand to greet me, and I am bemused to discover that the woman I am facing is the polar opposite of Lola Kutty — the iconic character that she came to be synonymous with after the self-titled show first aired in 2004. The comedian’s actual presence is a far cry from the unfiltered and overly dramatic persona she had created for the now-defunct music channel, Channel V. As Menon said in a 2017 Tedx talk, Lola was the very “antithesis of cool” with her oildrenched hair, bespectacled eyes and kanjivaram-clad figure. The woman I meet is in a pantsuit, is gorgeous and eloquent, expertly assuming a British accent to mimic the officials at the embassy responsible for delaying her visa to the UK. All of a sudden, I hear the sound of breaking glass but soon realise that this interruption occurred only within the confines of my own brain; a carefully preserved childhood memory had just been shattered by reality. The 38-year-old comedian is not surprised by my bewildered expression, almost as if she is accustomed to shocking people when she meets them as Anu Menon and not Lola Kutty. “When my first standup video came on, some years after I’d pulled the plug on Lola, a girl wrote to me on Facebook and accused me of taking her entire childhood and throwing it into the bin. She said she used to adore Lola but seeing me as a lob-sporting, dress-wearing and articulately-speaking woman completely threw her off. I almost wanted to apologise to her for being well-put-together!” she laughs.

Menon grew up in Chennai and gravitated towards advertising after graduating from college, since both her parents had made careers out of it. But when the stage beckoned, she succumbed to its charms, even going as far as enrolling in drama school and moving to London for two years. As much as she enjoyed her time abroad, the plan was always to return to Mumbai and make a living out of the theatre. Disillusioned by the fact that that it didn’t actually do much for her bank balance, Menon then decided to make a foray into television while pursuing her passion for theatre with the money she made there. “When I started working at Channel V as a creative researcher, I discovered that people were very curious about my roots because I didn’t tick any of the boxes — dusky skin, buck teeth and faulty Hindi — to qualify as the stereotypical South Indian woman. I also believe I’m not cut out to be hip, so going on camera and saying, ‘Check it out, coming up next is this dope track’ wasn’t up my alley. But, what if I could actually create a character out of these preconceived notions and make people want to watch someone who went against the grain? Before I moved up to interviewing celebrities, I used to review music videos that I would invariably end up dissing. The producers used to call up my bosses and tell them that they would revoke the channel’s rights to air the videos if I continued that way. There were even boardroom discussions about how a character like Lola Kutty was an aberration on a youth platform like Channel V. The heads took the risk anyway, and it paid off. She was universally loved.”

The mainstream comedy scene, particularly standup, gained ground in India with the introduction of The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. It was a reality show/talent search, which first aired in June 2005 and launched the careers of pretend-dipsomaniac Sunil Pal, sing-song specialist Ahsaan Qureshi and imitation master Raju Shrivastav, among others. The Comedy Store (now closed) in Mumbai soon followed in 2008, after which the industry really took off, and it’s since been further propelled and diversified by a growing audience with wider access to digital media. Bollywood and TV sitcoms no longer had a monopoly on funny business.


On Prashasti: jacket, from Raw Mango; earrings, bracelet, both from Pipa+Bella; pants, rings, both Prashasti’s own.
On Anu: top, from Ted Baker, at The Collective, bracelet, from Pipa+Bella.

Part of the initial new wave was Kanan Gill and Biswa Kalyan Rath’s wildly popular YouTube show, Pretentious Movie Reviews (first aired in 2014), which saw the obscure pair become an overnight sensation thanks to bitingly funny and merciless film critiques. Last year, they were judges on Amazon Prime’s Comicstaan, a nine-episode series judged by seven of the top comedians in India to find the next big name in standup. The competitive show introduced us to the intrepid Prashasti Singh, whose segment from the show had over 1.6 million views online at last count. I watched her perform live at the St. Andrew’s Auditorium in Mumbai last December, and she, along with Sumukhi Suresh, shone brightly amidst the mostly male line-up. Singh’s appeal lies in the way that she mines her small-town upbringing and relatable, millennial experiences for material. I remember doubling up and clutching my friend’s shoulder in between wiping tears of laughter when Singh parodied a North Indian accent during her set, which was called Relationships and Fuckboys. Listening to her account of an unsuccessful stint on Tinder (in cleverly calibrated Hinglish) made me realise that Singh is a woman who can make self-deprecation seem endearing and empowering at the same time, because in taking control of her sexual narrative, she is declaring autonomy over her body. In India, selfcensorship is widely prevalent thanks to the ingrained patriarchy; many young women have to live dual lives in order to keep the peace within their traditional families while practising their modern ideologies. This issue can become exacerbated in smaller towns where parents haven’t been exposed to internet culture as much and, especially, if their daughters were to speak about sexual experiences in a public forum. A dichotomy presents itself when I compare Lola Kutty with Singh’s onstage act in my head; the former had a chaste, asexual even, demeanour — stripped of desirability — to drive home the point that she was supposed to be a ‘funny woman’, and the latter, while also performed for laughs, is a proud declaration of sexual liberation. I have a hard time imagining how Singh’s parents, who live in Amethi, deal with it. “My mother is in denial,” the 32-year-old laughs. “I used to be really sceptical of performing in front of her. In the beginning, my Comicstaan bits would only be shared on Amazon Prime, and not many people back home had subscriptions to video streaming platforms. So, I wasn’t too worried because, in all likelihood, nobody from my family would even watch it. But then the video went up on YouTube, and all my cousins shared it. I remember sitting in my room and just staring at my phone, expecting it to ring any time with my mother on the other end waiting to ask me if I had completely lost it. But nobody called, and my mother even shared the video on Facebook! Another time, I invited a friend to a show I was doing in Lucknow and, later, asked her if she found it strange that I was discussing my sex life so flagrantly in front of such a traditional audience (who, in fact, laughed the entire time). She thought about it and said it was normal for a performer to make up stories about their life for people to laugh at. To her, I was an author who was creating scenarios to provide comic relief. You don’t have to be having sex to talk about it. And this was surprising because she’s a teacher — I expected her to have a more liberal opinion.”

“It will take some time to reprogramme inherent biases; the fight to make audiences take female comedians seriously is far from over.” – Prashasti Singh

When Singh tells me that she used to have a crippling fear of public speaking before she became a comedian, I dismiss it as her modesty talking, but when she explains that it was because of a language barrier, I ask her to elaborate. Stand-up comedians in Mumbai usually cater exclusively to an urban English-speaking audience; in Menon’s case, as Lola, she deliberately disguised her Queen’s English under heavy South Indian pronunciations as part of the whole ‘uncool’ package, for an audience that woke up each morning with a colonial hangover. But for the 32-year-old girl from Uttar Pradesh, speaking fluent English was a skill that she only acquired during the arduous process of preparing for her MBA entrance exams. A hint of ‘the accent’ lingers when Singh is speaking to me and it gets increasingly pronounced as our conversation progresses. “When I perform live, people listen to the jokes, have a good time and don’t really give me any feedback afterwards. When I upload videos on YouTube, viewers sometimes leave comments saying they love the accent that I put on. I used to wonder what they were referring to because that’s just how I speak — they had assumed that I was creating a character. It was only when I watched the videos later that I realised. When I’m having a formal conversation with someone I don’t know, I present a very controlled side of myself. But when I’m narrating a story based on my own experiences, I tend to get carried away, and that’s when the Amethi local comes out. I think people appreciate the rawness though. Once, I uploaded a story on Instagram where I was speaking in refined English and someone commented saying, ‘What’s with all the English? Bring the attitude down a notch.’ It humbled me and made me smile at the same time because I realised that the youth has stopped associating English with coolness. That’s a big deal for an outsider like me.”

We continue chatting, but I keep catching Singh dart nervous glances at the door of her room. I turn around to inspect the cause of her distraction, and she apologises sheepishly at being caught. “I’m just really excited to meet Anu. As a kid, I used to watch Lola Kutty religiously. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I loved VJs because they were cool, but Lola was cooler because she embraced her eccentricities. Today, it’s surreal that I’m going to do a shoot with her. Anu was so dedicated to her art that I had no idea that she was not actually Lola in reality. I think she was brave for taking the risks she did. Traditional sketch comedy isn’t too popular in India these days because people rely on relatability to make content go viral. Even the sketches that BuzzFeed or AIB (now disbanded) used to do had to connect with audiences on some level — it was always on the lines of ‘What you do after a break-up’ or ‘Things only Indian parents say’. According to me, there isn’t a single character in Indian television right now that you can rely on to be inherently funny; someone who could make you laugh with anything they say. Maybe if Anu is up for it, she can show me how to be a cross between a UP Lola and a Mallu Lola!”


Top, from Zara; pants, from Massimo Dutti.
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Top, from Massimo Dutti; jacket, pants, both from Zara.

When I introduce Menon and Singh to each other, it doesn’t take long for them to sideline me. I keep trying to inch closer, hoping to be privy to some part of their chat. Both of them are extremely soft-spoken, so I try to read their lips instead. But I can’t say I mind too much; being shut off from the conversation makes me more observant of their individual personalities. Menon comes across as a complete extrovert, gesticulating passionately while speaking and she is full of fervour. Singh, on the other hand, is bashful; her hooded eyes betray little emotion. She has, what one could call, a mysterious smile, and she speaks 10 words for every 14th sentence that comes out of Menon’s mouth. They notice me skulking nearby and finally let me in on their têteà-tête. “We were just comparing the days of Channel V to the route comedy has taken now,” Menon says. “When I used to interview celebrities as Lola, many of the male guests flirted with me and got away with saying sleazy things, the kind that they couldn’t have to an ‘attractive’, sexualised woman. But a lot of that content would’ve had to be edited out in today’s climate. On the other hand, there were a lot of roles I didn’t book because the producers told me I wasn’t flirty enough with the men in power. I was told to make men believe that they had a chance with me, even if they didn’t, but I always had this inherent ‘you’re not going to get anywhere’ air about me. People from the industry have tried telling me that I would’ve had a more successful career if I hadn’t been smart. Sexism was rampant even back then but I think we simply side-stepped it. Today, individuals are hyper-aware of what they can or cannot say, which is great. I watched Chak De! India after many years because I wanted to introduce the movie to my son. There’s a scene where a group of men and women are in the middle of a brawl, and Shah Rukh Khan stops a guy who is about to ambush a girl and says, ‘Peeche se nahin, mardon ki tarah aage se ladho. Woh kya hain, hamaari hockey mein chhakke nahin hote’ which translates into ‘Be a man and take on a fight from the front. Our team doesn’t have hijras’. A movie under one of the biggest banners blatantly promoted transphobia, and nobody batted an eyelid — in fact, that scene received thunderous applause and loud whistles in theatres. I think we are all learning from our mistakes, but that being said, we have a long way to go before men — even women — begin to pass their thoughts through a filter of inclusivity and sensitivity. A few days ago, I was introduced to someone as a stand-up comedian and the person said I did not ‘look’ like a stand-up comedian. Even as Lola, I was told to wear glasses simply because I would look pretty if I didn’t and then people wouldn’t know I was meant to be a funny character.”

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On Prashasti: sari, blouse, both from Raw Mango; glasses, shoes, both Prashasti’s own.
On Anu: sari, blouse, both from Raw Mango; glasses, shoes, both Anu’s own.
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Shirt, pants both from Zara.

 Singh adds, “When I entered the comedy scene two years ago, the green rooms used to feel very intimidating and judgmental; sometimes there were 10 men and I was the only woman. Gender becomes a lot more pronounced in a setting like that, and it felt like they were part of a team and I was on the bench. I would hyperventilate at the thought of bombing because the odds were already stacked against me. Women like Kaneez (Surkha) and Sumukhi had already created a space for themselves in the industry, and by the time I gained a foothold, there were rules in place to ensure women are treated fairly. Even during Comicstaan, my seniors had made it clear that there needed to be more women in comedy and that they should feel as comfortable in the green room as the men do. When I quit my job to return to comedy full-time, I started to notice that in a line-up of 10 men, there were at least four women. Suddenly, people were being a lot nicer and making a conscious effort to be more welcoming. But it will take some time to reprogramme inherent biases; the fight to make audiences take female comedians seriously is far from over.”

“People from the industry have tried telling me that I would’ve had a more successful career if I hadn’t been smart.” – Anu Menon

Menon and Singh exchange some more titbits over lunch, and I leave them to it, hoping that it will help their growing camaraderie for what’s to come next. The stylist brings out an almost-matching pair of stunning silk saris that are reminiscent of the ones Menon used to wear while shooting for her segments as Lola Kutty. Singh catches on quickly. “Are we really doing this then?!” she asks, beaming. When they emerge from the changing room, the chattering amongst the crew comes to an abrupt halt. Lola is back, but this time with an identical twin. Singh has taken to the character like a duck to water and Lola’s familiar glasses, loose curls, gajra and bindi are quite becoming on her. Menon teaches her how to execute the trademark namaste and introduces her to a few signature dance moves. In between shots, Menon thoughtfully says, “Today, Lola would had to have taken the digital route because television is far riskier than it used to be. In my time, you had to work really hard to even be considered for a role on TV. Now, thanks to the internet, that struggle is cut out. You can shoot a video, edit it yourself, and if you have the talent, you will do well. Back then, you had many levels of producers that you needed to go through, and they had their own opinions about what was right and what was wrong. I think if I were to play Lola today, it would be on a YouTube show. But I’m not too sure whether it would fare well because sketch comedy has lost its novelty factor.” Singh takes a minute to mull over Menon’s words before saying, “As an industry, it’s quite nascent. My seniors, who have been in comedy since its inception, have only had seven to eight years of experience compared to those in the US, who have around 25 to 30 years on them. The advantage for us, here, is that we can be a lot more experimental because there are no set rules. But, I have my concerns regarding the shelf life of stand-up in India, given how the digital landscape is in a constant state of flux. Time will tell whether live comedy will be relegated to smaller towns. The challenge right now is to convince audiences in tier-2 and 3 cities to come watch us perform in person instead of watching a video online. There’s just such a different energy to performing live, and I’d be really disappointed if we lost that.”

A few years ago, Menon stepped out of the spotlight to bring up her son, but now that he is older, she has been able to devote more time to her career. This allowed her to host TLC’s Queens vs Kings last year, a show that claimed to level the playing field between male and female comedians. “There were subconscious sexist stereotypes even there. If you were to pay careful attention to the styling process, you would see that all the boys were dressed to represent certain characters. There was an ex-corporate guy, a college jock, that sort of thing. Women were simply assigned clothes on the basis of their body type; the ones who had toned legs were given dresses. The stylist may have not been aware of this, but it tells you something about the society we live in, doesn’t it?”

The two astute women continue their discussion and discover that they both recently starred in comedy specials that were part of Amazon Prime’s roster — Wonder Menon released in mid-June and Comicstaan 2 premiered in July. Could this mean that they might soon end up working together on some new material? I only have to glance at the ladies (their uncanny resemblance still catches me off guard), laughing together in matching saris, to know I am on to something here. Are the producers at Amazon Prime and Netflix listening?