When 14 comedians were signed on by Amazon Prime Video in January to produce hour-long stand-up specials, the absence of female comics in the list stood out. The next month, the who’s who of the Indian stand-up comedy scene got together for a round table discussion about the industry – the lone female comedian in that group was Aditi Mittal. At one point, the conversation veered towards the lack of women in stand-up. And before Mittal could answer, the men stepped in to do the honours, leading to the charge that Mittal’s compadres were mansplaining.
Four months on, in what looked like a well-timed coup, Netflix announced that Mittal’s hour-long stand-up special Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say was going to premiere on the streaming platform. This made Mittal the first female comic from India to have her special featured on any web-streaming service. For Mittal, the deal felt like a jackpot. “I remember eating poha for breakfast before going to meet the folks at Netflix,” Mittal said. “After it got finalised, I walked out of the room and wondered if I had really eaten poha because it got digested so easily during the conversation.”
The Netflix team headed by Swati Shetty and the special’s producer-director Fazila Allana promised Mittal that they would not cannibalise her content and urged her to do exactly “what makes me funny”. The result doesn’t really push boundaries – you still wonder what things Mittal hasn’t said. But there are a few moments that stand out.
In Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say, Mittal talks about sex, menstruation, and everything in between. She mentions penis several times, and the audience responds warmly to her humour. Not always, though: Mittal is often heckled for her jokes on sex. “One time, I joked about periods, and a guy shouted, ‘Excuse me. We don’t want to know about this’. I replied back, ‘Maybe you should know about it because a period is how life begins.’”
Who are the “they” in her special’s title? “It’s everyone and everything,” said Mittal. “It is silly to act that there is a specific ‘they’ in the world we live in which has a problem with what we say or wear.”
One of the stand-out moments in Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say is when Mittal turns into one of her characters – Mrs Lutchuke. Mrs Lutchuke is an old Maharashtrian woman who walks with a hunchback and doles out idiosyncratic advice about sex. As Lutchuke, Mittal has always been a riot and her eight-minute appearance on the special is no different. Mittal created the character as a foil to hide behind and say things about sex she would otherwise feel hesitant to say “with impunity”.
“If an old woman says something about sex, it appears non-threatening but if a young woman mentions sex once, people will say ‘Arey yeh to sex-obsessed hai.’” Mittal said. The sari-draped, foul-mouthed, irreverent Lutchuke was inspired by Mittal’s Marathi teacher and her best friend’s grandmother who she called Ajji. “I remember that after school, me and my best friend would go to ajji for her jokes as she was very funny. We would show her a bowl and ask what it is, she would say bowl, and then we would shake it and ask again, she would say ‘bowel movement.’”
Despite being one of the leading stand-up comics, Mittal is slotted as a “female comedian”. This does not matter to her because, as she says, everyone is within their rights to mention her gender. What does rankle her is the false difference created between male jokes and female jokes. “Nobody tells male comedians that they are making male jokes,” Mittal said, “and female comedy is not a genre anyway.”
Mittal explained that she doesn’t let the tag of a female comedian dictate the themes her humour explores – sexism, predatory men – but at the end of the day, her material is inspired by her experiences. “I cannot tell you what it is to be a Russian spy in Agartala,” Mittal said. “I can only tell you what it is to be like Aditi Mittal in Mumbai in 2017.”