Women and Stand-up Comedy in India: Performing Personal, Situated Comedy

Curator's Note

(This section is a small part of a larger chapter on the gender dynamics within the Indian stand-up comedy industry that is about a decade old at the moment)

Due to the limited time and space available for contextualising the slides used, I am going to use this space to individually, briefly explain the purpose behind each slide in a couple of lines.

Slide 2: (cis-)Female comedians themselves talk about how these reductionist labels are used to describe the comedy they do both in the media as well as by audiences.

Slide 3: Apart from the self-presentation of comics in public, news media including print and online sources influence how they are perceived. Most interviews are “manels” where only male comics debate the limits of freedom of speech and the “courage” it takes to do “political comedy” as they talk about governmental politics on stage. Women are not considered at all because they don’t do it “at the level of men.”

Slide 4: My argument in this section was mainly that women (here, cis-women) experience the control of the state through their bodies: the roles they are expected to play under the paternalistic, patriarchal state that holds them under surveillance perpetually. Therefore, they play out their relationship with the nation and the State through narratives of their bodies and gender roles.

Slide 5 and 6: Aditi Mittal is one of the earliest and popular female comics in India. This trailer from her Netflix special “Girl Meets Mic” is an assertion of her place within the comedy industry. Comedian Agrima Joshua’s clip (which is mainly in Hindi, with my translations in the slide) summarises my argument about the masculinist nature of political comedy in the Indian context. she demonstrates how the minute she makes refers to the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi in her joke, her comedy immediately becomes “important for the world” but not when she spoke of her own life.

Slide 7-11: Some theorists such as Caliskan have convincingly argued that even without the overt presence of challenging narratives in comedy by women, they challenge the dominant narrative simply through their presence. Here I take the argument slightly further here because a lot of Indian female comics like Sumaira Sheikh actively avoid “controversial” topics in their routines and still remain popular among audiences. Such narratives can be contexutalised by looking at them as “situated comedy.” The one thing that remains common in these diverse narratives is that they all stem from their personal lives and truths, however mundane or political they might be. “Situated comedy” includes any kind of force that propels, hinders or retains a person within the space they currently inhabit. Additionally, forces that hinder could perhaps be positive in that they may keep one grounded, and forces that propel could be negative in that they reinforce some of the beliefs one already holds while leaving little space for self-critique and awareness; or they may make no difference at all. I propose that looking at these narratives as “situated” accounts for and validates women’s personal experiences which may be the first step toward developing a more robust comedic persona.


Caliskan, S. (1995). Is there such a thing as Women's Humor? American Studies International, 33(2), pp. 49-59.

Haraway, D. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Femiinist Studies, 14(3), pp 575-599.

Konig, L. (2013). Cultural Citizenship and the Politics of Censorship in Post-Colonial India: Media, Power, and the Making of the Citizen. Ph.D. Dissertation.

Krefting, R. (2014). All Joking Aside: Ameerican Humor and its Discontents. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


Thank you, Madhavi, for introducing me to the work of these comedians and for your informative post. I like your concept of “situated comedy,” and agree that there is inherent resistance in these women inserting their bodies and experiences into these highly restricted gendered spaces and scripts. I imagine you’re familiar with the comedic web series Ladies’ Room, which features two such “unruly” Indian women whose bodily and discursive acts subvert (neo)conservative cultural expectations of traditional Indian women. If you’ll excuse the shameless self-promotion, there’s an insightful article on the series by Molly Bandonis and Namrata Rele Sathe currently available free access over at the New Review of Film and Television Studies. I’d be curious to know your thoughts on how the web series has been utilized by Indian women comedians.  

Thanks for recommending the article Maria. I read through it and watched the series as well. What is interesting about the comedy industry right now is that a lot of them who were primarily stand-up comics don't ever just do stand-up. In fact I may be wrong in using the word "primary" in the first place because all of them are producing web series and podcasts and endorsing brands etc. 

About the female comics in India they're venturing into writing web series themselves. For instance there's Sumukhi Suresh's Pushpavalli on Amazon Prime which is sort of chronicling the misadventures of a woman chasing a man across cities because she fancies herself in love with him. A lot of current Hinglish (Hindi plus English) comedy series being written now are giving engaging glimpses into the lives of millennials in urban, middle-class scenarios where the characters are realistic and women have an active role to play unlike regional daily soaps where women are simply cast to play decorative objects. In fact, they're unapologetic about being imperfect which is such a breath of fresh air for Indian women audiences as well. Shows like Permanent Roommates or Little Things which are quoted in the article are excellent examples. 

Having said that, there's a very strong upper caste bias in all these shows. Indian comedy whether stand-up or web series does not recogise or acknowledge caste privilege that runs as an unspoken theme in all their content. The women in Ladies Room or Pushpavalli are all Hindu upper caste people with very little diversity in terms of representing people from marginalised backgrounds. In Pushpavalli for instance there is this one teaseller who helps her stalk her crush. His name is just "T-Boi" and nothing else. There's no recognition of the vulnerabilities of daily wage labourers like him, whose labour is exploited in the guise of comedy. 

This is one of the reasons I decided to use the word "situated" instead of poltiical comedy to describe what these women talk about. Because they are also accountable for their prejudices, they're also discriminatory toward the lower caste man or woman. So saying situated  somehow helps keep that space for critique when what is gender sensitive isn't class and caste sensitive, for instance. 

Madhavi, thank you for sharing your work with us. It's interesting to see perspectives of women in comedy. When you say these women "challenge the dominant narrative simply through their presence" I feel that this is the same way women's comedy is perceived in Hollywood, and perhaps even outside the comedy genre. I specifically studied Melissa McCarthy's work and although movies such as Bridesmaids and Ghostbusters may not have been the greatest comedies of all time, the presence of the women in these films is something that was praised.  

CateB, I read through your post and thought you made a very good point about the homogenisation of female audiences as well. That's what is happening even with the female performers as well unfortunately. All of them are bracketed under "chick comedy", as one female comic notes. 

It is unfortunate that we still have to make the argument that just women's visibility itself speaks to the myriad structural biases they have overcome to be where they are even though they may not do much "politics" themselves by writing, performing or talking against such biases themselves. But also I feel like this argument holds good for those who are new to the field and are still trying to find their feet. After that, I suppose one could be expected to raise their voices actively and more prominently because they have significant reach and power themselves. I'm still thinking through this idea. Thanks for your comment. It was helpful. 

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