Shefali Pandey is disarming and genial. When she delivers a joke, it is with a low-key enthusiasm. Preeti Das is different. Her tone is professorial, and her humour often punctuated with local lingo. While one laments the lack of substance – figuratively and literally – in Ahmedabad, the other talks about contraceptive pills. Together, they make up Mahila Manch, an all-female firebrand stand-up collective that is pushing the envelope in Gujarat’s largest city with its takes on substantive issues.
No subject is off-limits for them. In their material feature the Kathua rape, Bollywood’s trivialisation of rape, childbirth, acche din, Make in India, even dating. “Dating is tough in Ahmedabad,” goes one of Pandey’s jokes. “Usually one can have three drinks, make out in the corner and blame it on alcohol. But what do you do in Ahmedabad after two adrak chais?”
“Stand-up is a good conversation starter,” said Das, 38. “The media is restrictive [and] neutral. In stand-up we don’t need as many filters. The reaction and feedback with stand-up are instant and we have most of the audience with us, laughing at our sets.”
Finding a voice
Pandey and Das met in 2017. Pandey, who runs her own digital agency now, had returned to Ahmedabad after spending nine years in New York and two in Mumbai. It was while looking for people to hang out with that she was introduced to Das, a doctoral student and journalist who teaches at a university. They hit it off immediately – and the idea of Mahila Manch grew organically.
“What else can one do in Ahmedabad [but stand-up]?” Pandey, 34 quipped. “But more seriously, stand-up is free-flowing. It is easier and more immediate than writing something and waiting for someone to publish it. The acts stay longer with people because they are so different from the ways we consume media through screens or headphones.”
In early 2018, they tested their material in a friend’s living room in front of 70 people. So effusive was the encouragement that they immediately knew there was no looking back. They have since been organising a monthly event, called The Period Show, at cafes and restaurants, where their stand-up is accompanied by a guest speaker sharing experiences and performing comedy.
“The idea behind having guest speakers is to sneak in thoughts that don’t get an urban platform,” said Pandey. “When snuck within comedy, it’s easier to consume. In the end, both performers and the audience leave feeling better.”
Among their 22 guest speakers have been Kailashben, a community health activist; a transwoman who “spoke about the confusion of security queues and frisking”; and Umesh Solanki, a poet from a family of Dalit manual scavengers, who talked about his “uncles’ and father’s life in the gutters”.
In their performances, Das and Pandey never sound angry, nor do they use profinities and absurdism. While Das has strong opinions on politics and policies, Pandey believes talking about personal issues can also be political, and her jokes are anchored in the social construct of being a single woman in modern India.
Mahila Manch prefers to use satire to highlight the ills of society. “We may [like] to believe [that we are] living in an equal and modern India, but polarisation and patriarchy are a reality,” said Das. So when she drops a joke on menstruation or Pandey does a set on dating and desi porn, they are attempting to push boundaries.
Despite the boom in stand-up in India in recent years, Das believes that sexism still runs deep in the industry. “Brain and power are usually associated with men,” said Das. “The moment women are on stage, they are looked at with empathy. Unfortunately, it’s ingrained in the society and a lot of comics who are social media influencers are also to be blamed. When Shefali talks about technology, people are surprised she can talk beyond dal-bhat-curry.”
National Award-winning filmmaker Mikhil Musale accidentally watched Mahila Manch’s show at the Gujarat Literature Festival in Vadodara in February 2019. In his words, he was “blown away”. “These women are breaking all stereotypes of comedy, not just because they are women, but because of the content and the craft they bring to the table,” said Musale. “It is not repetitive as some other comedians’ [material].”
According to Pooja Vijay More, India’s first stuttering comic, Pandey and Das are “definitely breaking barriers”: “They talk about issues which are very relevant and socially still taboo at times. It would be great to see them doing national tours.”
In a conservative society like Ahmedabad, Mahila Manch still runs into pockets of resistance. “Apart from getting embarrassed about the cheapness, our families don’t like the politics of it since we don’t share our ideologies,” said Pandey. “But somehow they are oddly proud too, because they see people listening and taking note of us.”
Das added, “My parents haven’t attended my shows. But I do get an occasional ‘please take care, people are watching you’ from them. My husband and son have attended every show and even helped with the arrangements. Sometimes well-meaning friends tell us [that] what we are doing [is] dangerous. People brand you as feminists, they use these labels as if it is wrong. There is truth in comedy – we use our real-life experiences.”
Pandey and Das’ shows have so far been free of charge. They don’t record their shows, create YouTube videos to make money, or have a strong online presence because stand-up is sacrosanct for them. After every show, a hat is passed among the audience “for people to contribute if and what they like and this usually is enough for mic kharcha”.
Comedy for them is an act of rebellion, a display of wit and creativity. They once organised a “Maa Behen show” to reclaim the words Maa and Behen – “we even had an all-woman lineup performing a parody of Gangs of Wasseypur songs written by us”. Their “Our Bevda Gujarat show”, in which they talked about the illegal alcohol business of Gujarat, had an audience of 600”. Pandey hopes “to keep doing these monthly shows on a larger scale. We have created something special in our monthly Period Show which makes women [and men]…go…wow, that sounds cool. We want to reach out to more cities.”
Das concludes, “One feedback that stood out for all of use was when someone during our show said, ‘Ahmedabad will always thank you girls’. You are changing the content they consume.”