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Technology’s Not All Bad: How The Internet Is Bringing Honest, Provocative Comedy To Women In India

The proliferation of smartphone usage has been a boon to women, providing them the autonomy and privacy they often need to access boundary-pushing comedy online.

I said two words — vagina and sex,” says Anshita Koul, “and everybody in my home town, including my family, was shocked.”

Koul was talking about her participation in Queens of Comedy, an India-based reality show for female comedians. “At least I have an equation with my family,” she adds. “There is always dialogue, even when it gets really awkward.”

On social media, though, it was made clear to her that she had crossed an invisible line by joking about her sexual frustrations in a long-distance relationship. Her largely Kashmiri audience on Instagram and YouTube was surprised and shocked to see her speak about her private life.

“There is no sex education in school,” she explains. “So talking about it is a big deal.”

Especially when women are doing the talking.

Female comedians being underrepresented and heavily content-policed is, of course, hardly limited to India. But there are some distinct circumstances in the country, including a censorship board that often influences what women can do onscreen–and who can make the jokes.

Movies in India need to be certified by the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), which contributes to reduced female representation, particularly when a woman’s sexuality is not created for the male gaze. Most recently, we saw this with the banning of Lipstick Under My Burkha, a black comedy on sexuality and oppression, which was released to worldwide acclaim but was heavily delayed and censored in the country in which it was made.

In light of these regulations, the internet has become an important vehicle for female comedians to be heard, even when their humor falls outside the bounds of conventional acceptability. Because there are no official censorship guidelines for video-streaming websites, online platforms are finally bringing about a way to tell women’s stories that are not conceptualized and approved by men.

This lack of censorship is happening at a time when more people are accessing online video content than ever before. In the past two years, high-speed internet connections on smartphones have become affordable for a large section of the Indian population. In 2017, India had more than 300 millionsmartphone connections and over 80 million users for video-streaming applications. The market was valued at $280 million in December 2017.

This proliferation of smartphone usage has been a boon to women in particular, providing them the autonomy and privacy they often need to access boundary-pushing comedy online. And that comedy, in turn, is expanding at an exhilarating rate.

In December 2016, Amazon launched Prime Video in India and signed up 14 stand-up comedians to create original content for their platform. When a talk show host asked a panel of comedians about the complete absence of women in the line-up, the men suggested that it was simply a result of women not having one hour of content.

It was a while before the lone woman on the panel, Aditi Mittal, got an opportunity to speak. Mittal was later offered a stand-up special by Netflix, which she titled The Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say. Her routine included sets on buying bras, street harassment, and breast cancer awareness.

Mittal is among a growing cohort of Indian women connecting to an increasingly-online savvy audience. For her part, Queens of Comedy’s Koul has focused on changing the narrative of her hometown of Kashmir, which is largely only in the news as a contentious flash point between two nuclear neighbors — India and Pakistan. In her comedy, Koul talks about the region’s street food, Kashmiri slang, and most parents’ deep desire to turn their children into engineers. One of her more popular videos is a satire on the excessive attention given to a son-in-law when he visits his wife’s home.

Another groundbreaking comedian is Prajakta Koli, who runs a successful YouTube channel called “Mostlysane” with over 1.3 million subscribers. Koli creates content about dating, grooming, drinking, and college examinations.

Most of the material is simply a funny view of everyday life, but Koli comes out strongly in support of some causes. Last year, in June, she released a music video called “Shameless” that begins with the protagonist in the prison of body shaming. The song has been viewed over 3.5 million times.

A popular video by “Girlyapa,” meanwhile, offers a lighthearted take on periods in a country where menstruation is associated with a number of taboos. Conversations about periods are almost non-existent in most homes, and women are expected to hide their “condition” from the men in the family.

On International Women’s Day last year, Girlyapa also released a video about a girl telling her conservative mother that she isn’t a virgin. In the past year it has been viewed over 6 million times. Girlyapa’s video would have been deeply contentious if it had aired on television, or if the conversation had appeared as part of a mainstream movie.

Tellingly, major production houses are now starting to cash in on the action, too. The Y-films subsidiary of Yash Raj Films — one of the largest and most profitable Bollywood movie companies in India, which has made immensely popular movies propelled by female propriety and “family values” — recently released a comedy called “Ladies Room” online. The video features two female protagonists battling plumbing, pregnancy, policemen, landladies, bosses, and career changes in a series of six restrooms.

And it’s not just unknown performers who are changing women’s comedy: Well-known celebrities are finally getting involved as well.

In July 2017, a short film written by Radhika Anand and Akanksha Seda and uploaded on YouTube featured three women who regularly appear in Bollywood movies. Titled Khaaney Mein Kya Hai (What’s for lunch?), the video uses the allegory of cooking to describe sex and desires. It has been viewed more than 6.7 million times in the past year.

Most significantly of all, this openness online has seemingly inspired more provocative content in mainstream Bollywood. In February of this year, Pad Man, inspired by a social activist who introduced low-cost sanitary pads to his Indian village, was released theatrically on Valentine’s Day, starring Bollywood A-lister Akshay Kumar. One of the promotional events was a campaign on social media where celebrities posed with a pad — an attempt to help people shed their awkwardness about menstruation.

Bollywood celebrities pose with a pad to destigmatize menstruation. (YouTube)

These are all important steps forward, though as Koul is careful to point out, “Our conditioning is so deeply ingrained. It is not going to change overnight. But talking about it and being open to change are good beginnings.”

Meanwhile, female comedians push on. On Queens of Comedy, Koul and her fellow performers joke about about body hair, creepy attention on the street, religious stereotypes, unfair laws, body envy, sex-ed for suicide bombers, and more. Many of the episodes have quickly racked up half a million views on YouTube, including those with dark and controversial content.

Producers, Koul says, have informed her that the program may be censored on TV. But that won’t stop it from reaching a wider audience, for one simple reason: Online, the content will appear entirely unedited.