‘I’m blind. So is love. Get over it!’ Disability and stand-up comedy in India

Three persons performing to an audience. The person on the left is holding crutches. Text above the door on the top-right of the image reads "Comedy Night".

Audiences are used to looking at certain types of bodies on stage – primarily young, abled male comedians. So when they see a person with a disability perform, especially a woman, they are already looking at the performer from a gaze of pity. Getting them to laugh at their jokes in such a situation is a challenge.

By Madhavi Shivaprasad

‘Mujhe na stand-up karne ke liye bulate hain dus minute ke liye, paanch minute baithne mein lag jaate hain.’ (People call me to perform stand-up comedy for ten minutes, but it takes me five to just sit on stage.)

This is how comedian Sweta Mantrii begins most of her stand-up comedy routines.

Based in Pune, Mantrii is also a freelance writer, filmmaker and disability rights activist. She was born with spina bifida and uses crutches. Mantrii is one of the few comedians in India talking about disability through the medium of stand-up comedy.

Stand-up comedy in India today is booming, with people thronging to comedy clubs and cafés to watch their favourite comedians perform. The material tends to revolve around the performers’ lives as city dwellers — experiences of dating, life in college, or working corporate jobs.

It is a context in which ‘issue-based comedy’ or comedy that addresses a larger cause or has a political angle is still nascent.

I decided to find out what other kinds of comedy that could also be defined as ‘political’ is being performed in India — specifically on the subject of disability.

In the course of this research, I found a handful of people like Mantrii, who actively identify as disability activists outside of their lives as comedians. And I also found a few others, like Aakash Mehta, who talk about disability (in Mehta’s case, living with depression and anxiety) without necessarily identifying as activists or making disability central to their acts.

For Mantrii, talking about disability on stage is about having control over her own narrative in that moment, in defiance of a social context which has been overprotective of her.

‘When I perform what I write, I own even those five minutes that I am on stage. People are listening and reacting to my opinions and jokes,’ she says.

Scholars have conceptualised prevalent attitudes and perceptions around disability in the form of models. Three of these models are the most widely known.

The medical model looks at disability primarily as a disease, that is located within the individual. It is seen as a ‘defect’ that requires medical intervention. Naturally, this model has been severely criticised by advocates for disability justice.

The social model of disability developed as a reaction to criticisms of the medical model. According to this model, it is society and its focus on abled people that causes disability. It looks at how inaccessible environments cause barriers and locates the problem with them rather than with the bodies of people with disabilities.

A third model looks at disability as culture, which argues that attitudes around disability are shaped by cultural practices.

Using this third lens, and looking at disability as culture, we could place the work of comedians like Nidhi Goyal, Aakash Mehta, Sweta Mantrii and Pooja Vijay as turning the gaze back to audiences when they make jokes about their disabilities because their material is centred more around how society perceives them as opposed to how they may feel about themselves personally.

Goyal, a feminist disability activist, often begins her sets by saying, ‘Hi, I’m Nidhi Goyal, and I’m blind. But so is love. So get over it!’

Goyal gradually lost vision in both eyes due to a congenital condition that manifested itself when she was 15, and is the founding director of the non-profit Rising Flame, that works on the rights of people with disabilities, especially women and youth.

She first performed at an event organised by a non-profit, at the encouragement of a colleague, but kept going because she saw that audiences were able to understand what she was driving at. ‘For me, it wasn’t even that people laughed but that they became more aware and reflexive about their behaviour… that encouraged me to do this more often,’ she said.

An episode of ‘Bad Girls with Aditi Mittal’ featuring Nidhi Goyal

Comedians are also exploring psychosocial disability in their work. A few are making conscious attempts to talk about living with mental illness, and are being vocal about accessing therapy.

Recently, comedian Tanmay Bhat came out about his struggle with depression and the fact that he is on medication for it. However, he was criticised by some, including fellow comedians Aditi Mittal and Mahima Kukreja, for seeming insincere — the context of his disclosure was in the aftermath of #MeToo, and Bhat’s complicity in cases of sexual harassment. (Bhat himself is not accused of harassment, but of not doing anything even when alerted to a former colleague, Utsav Chakraborty’s, harassing behaviour.)

Pooja Vijay adds that it is not so much mental illness but women talking about sexual harassment that is unwelcome. ‘If a woman comes up and says her mental health is deteriorating because of being sexually harassed, she is seen as an attention-seeker, or as the stereotypical “hysterical”, “emotional” woman who is always “whining” (by both audiences as well as fellow comedians). But when a man does it, especially after he has been accused of sexual harassment, it is like, “Oh, we need to forgive him for all his trespasses because he has so much courage.”’ In other words, mental health cannot be used as a shield to excuse unacceptable behaviour.

Aakash Mehta has been vocal about his anxiety and depression on stage for quite some time. He recalls that the first time he spoke of mental health on stage was when he talked about his own suicidal thoughts. He finds both the on- and off-stage spaces within the comedy circuit relatively safe when it comes to opening up about mental health as opposed to with family members and friends outside comedy circles. ‘It is easy to vocalise things in front of an audience that is comprised of people you don’t know, and more importantly, people who will think you are kidding anyway. Backstage, with fellow comics as well, there is an unspoken understanding that one will not pry into the details of what was performed on stage,’ he said.

Kukreja tells me that talking about her mental health on stage, especially since the #MeToo movement was ‘uncomfortable’ for the audience and fellow comics as well: ‘[They’re thinking] should we laugh, or should we nod sadly? For me, it’s catharsis, a coping mechanism if you will. And sometimes it’s good to hear uncomfortable jokes that make you come to terms with reality.’

The inaccessibility of venues is still a problem both hindering comics and audiences with disabilities from participating in the growing culture of stand-up comedy in India. Places like Canvas Laugh Club or The Cuckoo Club in Mumbai, which are coveted by comics for the open mic performances they host, are completely inaccessible to people using wheelchairs.

Mantrii performs at open mics across Pune at least twice or thrice a week. But this is not always easy because she has always to check for the accessibility of a particular venue before she agrees to a performance there. Comedy producers have tried to be accommodating of her by sending her pictures of the washrooms at the venue so she knows what facilities are available.

Access to these public services, which should be available to everyone, and not just the abled, are even more of a challenge during monsoon. Something as basic as this sometimes means that Mantrii cannot make it to some open mics. ‘I tell producers, who generally require advance registration, that I will make it to the venue if it doesn’t rain that evening. They usually keep a spot open for me in that case,’ she adds.

Fellow comics have also assisted Mantrii in case of unforeseen accessibility issues, such as leaks in washrooms. But sporadic individual action can’t take the place of infrastructure that is designed and maintained in a way that everyone can use it, not just people without disabilities.

If physical access is one barrier, then social access is another. After making their way onto that stage, these comics are often performing material that stretches most audience members beyond their comfort zones.

While Indian audiences may have taken to political comedy a la Kunal Kamra or Aisi Taisi Democracy, the Indian landscape is currently conducive to popular (read: status quo) comedy that does not ‘ruffle too many feathers.’

The comedians I spoke to believe that the audience is the final judge on whether a certain kind of joke will work or not. Mehta says that sometimes the audience ‘pulls back’ when a joke about suicide is cracked. ‘There are different kinds of silences as well. one is the silence of reflection, when you may agree or disagree with my opinion. But the problem is when they will simply not even give it space to be expressed,’ he said.

Both Goyal and Mantrii also sometimes find audiences pulling back because of both gender bias and ableism. According to both comedians, audiences are used to looking at certain types of bodies on stage — primarily young, abled male comedians. So when they see a person with a disability perform, especially a woman, they are already looking at the performer from a gaze of pity. Getting them to laugh at their jokes in such a situation is a challenge. ‘Earlier, I had a joke that talks about how fat I am, which I would mostly share with my friends. But while they would laugh, the audience I performed to would not. It was then I realised that it is important to make the audience your friend for that brief moment if you want your jokes to work,’ said Mantrii.

For Goyal, setting the context is key when it comes to talking about disability. Telling them about her context requires her to spend more time with the audience. ‘People with disabilities have only just begun performing comedy. The audience needs more time to get used to us,’ she said.

The signature punchlines both Goyal and Mantrii deliver at the beginning of each set is therefore crucial to their performance on stage, making sure the audience is with them in the ‘first 40 seconds of the show’, as Mantrii puts it.

‘Communicating is a complex process involving several intersecting identities. It is not so simple as to say that one is pandering to the mainstream narrative by talking about their disability as a joke. As a performer, it is important to acknowledge diversity considering there were other kinds of bodies who may have performed before you or will perform after. As a person on the street, you are not obligated to address your disability, because it is none of their business whether you are blind or not. But as a performer you are. It could also be called the basic principles of communication — connecting with the audience,’ says Goyal.

Goyal finds that people laugh the most when she talks about her experiences as a woman, especially about dating, marriage, and relationships. But it is also in this realm that she faces another major barrier. ‘In fact, even disability is acceptable in some situations. What is not acceptable is sexuality. Even when I tell them I won’t crack sex jokes but want to talk about sexuality, they refuse. Sexuality is not okay in any context — disabled, non-disabled, whatever. I am told to keep the content “decent.”’

Goyal has been vocal about the intersection between sexuality and disability in much of her work as a disability activist in the past. Through her activism, she tries to break the assumption that people with disabilities are asexual because ‘they have more important things to worry about than sexuality.’

Criticising the Modi government’s push to call people with disabilities ‘divyang’ (divine-bodied), Mantrii says, ‘Our need to glorify anything we pity is high. Calling me ‘divyang’ does not change the reality that i have to navigate treacherous streets, which have led me multiple times to have severe injuries,’ she said. ‘These terms are only used to make able-bodied people feel better about themselves.’

This same attitude leads people to ask her inappropriate, prying questions. And it is humour that she deploys to respond to these. Once, when she was asked whether she could shower alone, she said that she showers ‘with a boy from the neighbourhood every day.’

Vijay, who has a stutter, also makes similar jokes. ‘I would say that during sex, by the time I say his name, he’s done,’ she quipped.

Both Goyal and Mantrii are pushing boundaries to redefine what the purpose of comedy is, blurring the line between their work as activists and their art, as performers of comedy.

Mantrii organises a show called ‘With This Ability’ where in addition to performing stand-up, she first asks questions of the audience to address the stereotypes they believe in about people with disabilities, followed by an ‘Ask Me Anything’ session at the end. ‘The idea was to-break psychological barriers that people have built around disability,’ said Mantrii. She is now performing corporate shows to raise awareness around inclusivity.

Comedy is an integral part of their identities as feminist disability activists. However, while they wait for audiences to catch up, they continue to actively campaign for the rights of people with disabilities.

Madhavi Shivaorasad is a PhD scholar in the Women’s Studies centre at TISS, Mumbai working on stand-up comedy and gender for her doctoral dissertation.

Featured image credit: Upasana Agarwal