At the plush Four Seasons in Worli, Aditi Mittal, one of India's first female comics to have carved a place for herself in the nascent English stand-up comedy space, is surrounded by a crew.
A motley bunch of publicists, managers, stylists, and a make-up person hang around, carefully ensuring that she looks great. Basically, the scene resembles the countless situations I often find myself when I interview a Bollywood star. Mittal is being prepped up for the promotional blitzkrieg of her Netflix special, Things They Wouldn't Let Me Say, which will debut on the streaming platform on July 18.
From Kevin Hart to Louis CK to Hasan Minhaj to Sarah Silverman and Ali Wong, Netflix -- with 100 million subscribers across 190 countries -- has attracted top comic talent from across the world, becoming the gold standard for comedy specials.
For Mittal, this is quite a surreal moment. She candidly admits that this isn't quite something she had expected. "A white make-up man, can you believe it?" she whispers, as I try to suppress a giggle.
Here are excerpts from a fun, enlightening chat with Mittal:
While there was some controversy over Amazon signing 14 male comedians for stand-up specials, after speaking to a few people, I learnt that Amazon was negotiating with you as well but Netflix made a better offer...
I'll be honest with you, it was Netflix all the way. And like you said before, this is the golden ticket, this is the golden star. I've been doing this only for seven years, so it's a huge break of sorts considering comedy itself is a very young and nascent market in India. We're getting these opportunities to do this stuff and to showcase what we think is the best of us and what makes people laugh, all of it is just mind boggling. I feel like I'm a combination of right timing and right growth.
The fact that you've been around longer than other comedians also gives you an advantage...
That's very much a part of why I'm sitting here. I got in at a particular time and then I continued doing what I was doing for X number of years. With standup, the more time you spend on stage, the better you get at it.
Like is the case with any vocation...
Absolutely. It's the 10000 hours, Malcolm Gladwell's theory 'Ki tum matlab karte raho karte raho (constantly keep at it), and then for f***S sake you will get it. Even if it's hoola-hooping with one leg!'
For a comedian, the ultimate validation, I would assume are laughs and claps. Or probably people relating with your experiences and sharing them. But surely there must be moments when you get demoralised and start questioning if you're doing it right? I think a lot of aspiring comedians would like to hear how you cope with that.
So when I started out, I wasn't used to the crests and the troughs. Like when it's really good, you want to believe what everybody is saying. You want to believe that you're super funny, that what you wrote was truly great or what you said what damn identifiable. I mean you want to believe it. But then you have to realise that if you place that much importance on the good things, when the brickbats come to you, you're going to have to give them the same amount of importance. Whether it's about how fat you are, or I don't know why I bring this up, but I got one 'You're shaped like a dildo'. I was like 'What! No! I'm not shaped like a dildo!'
Also, it's not like a bad thing to be compared to a dildo ...
(Laughs) I just realised that if you're going to take the highs that seriously, then you have to take the lows seriously as well. And I was in a place where I did not want to take the lows seriously. And I think it's with a function of time that you start to realise that if the shit doesn't mean anything, the good shit also, I mean it's not really... okay well, it's nice...it really is. It's lovely to hear praise, but it's not the 'be all and end all.' Like 'Abhi mera Netflix special hoga, ab main khatam. Now this is it! Ain't f****ng getting bigger than this!' In fact now...
The real challenge is to be able to sustain the kind of attention that'll come your way post the Netflix gig...
Haanji...I really believe that my breakthrough moment will be in my fourth special. And that'll be many, many years down the line. I think it'll be when you've shown some level of consistency. In fact consistency is the wrong word, it's when you've improved and are saying more intelligent things than before. Even the things I'm saying in Things They Wouldn't Let Me Say, as I'm writing my next show, I'm realising I've moved completely in a different direction because I've grown and changed as a person.
Right. With time, your opinions evolve and your perspective broadens and that, I'd guess, would influence your humour.
Absolutely. The things that matter to you, the things that you want to bring up on stage have suddenly changed. Not suddenly changed, but say, gradually changed. It's also a function of the place that you are in your life which may give you the confidence to speak on subjects with a certain authority.
And that perhaps comes from a lot of lived experiences? Comedians, like actors or any other artistes, are constantly drawing from real life...
Always...That's what I love about my job. The fact that you've to live for a living. Like you have to really LIVE. I've done the stupidest things because I'm like 'Chalo yaar set milega na, set milega..'
What kind of stupid things?
Just stupid things.. I can't even remember the initial trigger of what had happened. But one day we just went to Panchgani because we thought Panchgani mein set milega.
Panchgani mein set milega? Panchgani mein to sirf Aamir Khan ka holiday home dekhne ko milega.
Thank you! I was like mereko Panchnagi mein set dhundne ka hai... (I want to find a set in Panchgani)
We roamed for three days on Table Top. We as in I, roamed for three days on Table Top, riding a horse, looking down the edge, like you know, doing things to just encourage myself that I have to LIVE. I've to put myself in situations where I'm uncomfortable, where I'm not 100% in my element. This was done because I wanted to extract more comedy from existence in general.
Hmm..you're constantly seeking experiences which you can then convert into a set. So is this interview also a set for you, Aditi?
Everything (laughs). No no no. You know I really got involved in my nephew's first birthday party. That was my breakthrough moment I guess. I was like 'Nahi uska birthday hai' and my mother's like 'You've never demonstrated any interest in birthdays or children or maternity. What the hell are you doing?' I was like 'Mumma set milega'. So that became a sequence in Things They Wouldn't Let Me Say where I was like 'You know I went for a one year old's birthday party'. And I realised the more personal you make it, the more identifiable it becomes for people.
We are in this age right now, the post-modern age, where everyone is jaded with everything. Like television has realised that television is f**k all. You know. And television owns it. So now television is not accountable to anybody or anything because they're like 'We're f**k all, we told you. Why are you still watching?' Ads, you know the self-aware ads, who're like 'Hey I'm just an ad selling you stuff, but will you buy it?' I mean what are you? A fool? I was very unnerved by it because I was like 'then who is telling actual stories?'
Yeah. If they're gonna parody themselves then you lose the chance to call them out.
Yes! That's what it is. For the longest time, comedy was sort of the 'caller outer', right. And now the 'caller outer' has become that thing itself. So now it has insulated itself from being called out. It's now gone back in the other direction where people are seeking sincerity in comedy! Where people are looking for truths and saying 'ki nahi agar usne bola your mama so fat, to matlab vo genuinely tumhari maa pe joke maar rahi hai, aur tumhari maa itni moti hai'. (If she's said your Mom's fat, she genuinely means it)
You know the hailing of comedy as the solution to life's problem and all, I find that very disturbing.
It puts a lot of responsibility on comedians to not just be entertainers and joke-tellers but something more accountable...
And it also shifts the blame from where it's supposed to be right? I feel constantly being torn between what is calling out and what is 'call-outable' and irony and where to derive humour from...
But Aditi what would you say, like in America, comedians have pretty much assumed the role of public intellectuals. They're making news accessible by having satirical takes on Trump and his administration. And they're doing a solid job to...
... to the point they're getting higher ratings than news channels.
Exactly. And we don't see that culture in our country. Now that is obviously because of the legal repercussions and the very real physical threats and the fear of FIRs and PILs. Isn't that a suffocating environment for comedians? Say you may want to take a strong political stand but you're too afraid to go out there and say it as is...
Of-course it is! It is restrictive because there are certain things you want to say and you know it will invite the backlash that you are not equipped to handle. I don't have the money for a million lawyers to stand by and be like 'Nahi nahi ye theek hai, isko jaane do'. (No, no, this is acceptable, let it go)
I don't have the resources as a single individual to face that. I also feel that it's an entirely unreasonable demand to expect your comedians to educate you. The fact that it is happening is great. But to use it as a primary source like 'Nahi nahi vo comedy person ne bola ki drinking and driving is okay'. No it's obviously not, man.
People taking their politicians less seriously than their comedians is just terrifying right?
Of course. Our lines of morality are very flexible. They can get away with a lot more than you can despite being elected by the people and holding public office...
Thank you! In the f*****g power structure, where are they? And is there any single person who is like 'Hey by the way, you as a politician is a sucks'. I do believe that comedy has some temporary power. It's temporary because it lasts as long as you laugh and clap at a thing. Because you realise this is something so much bigger than anybody sitting in the room and at that moment, none of us have control over it. But for that one moment, we can all take solace in the fact that it's ironic to the outside world or we're acknowledging how weird it is, collectively.
More importantly, it's a voice of dissent, one that busts the State's propaganda. It's this alternative awareness that needs to exist and one wishes that there was more freedom for it to travel...
Yeah...Varun Grover is so good you know. He's one of those guys who doesn't follow the conventional clichés associated with comedy -- you've to be alpha, you've to be loud, etcetera. And it's so amazing to be literally on the same lineup as him sometimes, where he brings a level of calm and reason that is not even seeking ki main bahut hilarious bolunga. He's not even trying. But it's a level of reasoning and logic and you're just like 'Oh, sahi bol raha hai ye'. He inspires me endlessly.
I've noticed that at times, comedians tend to repeat themselves. There's a pattern which functions like their safety-net, leading to a lot of cyclical jokes. How do you avoid that?
People often get trapped in 'Audience ko mere se ye sunna hai, to main sirf ye bolunga ya ye bolungi' (People want to hear this from me so I will say only those things). And that becomes almost suffocating to you as a creative person. I've realised that when it comes to people liking you and loving you, being fans and all that stuff, it's really embarrassing. I mean I find it really weird because people will come and go, audiences will come and go. The reason they came to you was because you were being authentic and true to yourself at that point in time. So, now to start lying to them, because you think this is what they want to hear, is dishonest. It's disingenuous and it's stunting your growth.
So much has been said about sexism in comedy. A lot has been written about the so called boys-club. At this point it'd be naive to assume that there isn't a representation problem in the fraternity. Why don't the girls also get together to have a collective, like the men have?
First of all don't think it's their prerogative.
As in I don't think that pressure should be put on women.
No, nobody is putting pressure, I'm only trying to think of legitimate ways to combat the issue. Why do you think it can't happen? Is it like lack of access, resources or it's the industrious spirit among the female comedians that is lacking? A collective will be stronger than an individual voice.
Hmm. One problem is that we occupy different places in the power structure in terms of the kind of work we do, the kind of people we know. I realised I had said all that stuff and nobody sort of even gave a shit! It is only when that one clip went viral where it was so obvious, I didn't have to say anything for it to be demonstrated, was when people were suddenly like 'Oh by the by, aisa bhi hota hai'. I still get asked constantly, 'That thing you said in that interview, is it true?' I'm like 'Main jhoot kyun bolun? (Why'd I lie?) Did I stammer?'
At one point I was getting so discouraged because I felt there was no space. Like I am just not supposed to be there and if anything, I was being an inconvenience.
What made you feel that?
The exclusion in itself. You know where they're in a conversation and you cannot keep up with dicks swinging left, right and centre! I would be in these meetings where we're all talking and then I've been told to shut up, straight up. And there are times when I've been told that I don't speak up enough.
Maybe it comes back to the thing I was saying where I was constantly being slotted into 'You're the tits of it and of-course we know you're the tits of it. How ironic that you're the tits of it, isn't that crazy! You're the tits of it.'
It's like these comedians try to position themselves as very woke people you know, who are constantly calling out sexism, championing feminism and hitting all the right buzz words. So you would think this is a progressive place where women would feel the safest because there's so much of self-awareness and consciousness. And that in itself becomes an ecosystem...
... That perpetuates it.
It's very, umm...ahhh, I'm not even thinking of the right words and sentences for this.
At the end of the day we all are in an ecosystem, the dynamics of which we aren't fully aware of. I was telling someone recently that I've been a misogynist longer than I've been a feminist, and I'm thirty years old. Because I did not even know about half these things or at least did not know the words for them. I did not know what words to use, I didn't know how to express myself, I didn't know whether I was correct in expressing myself, whether I was correct in asking for space or asking for inclusion.
Even now, it's like 'Yay hum cricket khelenge', but none of the women are ever invited for cricket. They invite the ushers of the clubs where they perform to play cricket lekin ladkiyon ko koi invite nahi karta (the girls are not invited for cricket)
And it's the small things of not being heard in a conversation. It is the small things of saying something and then hearing somebody repeat the damn thing you said in four different words and everyone going 'Kya genius hai!' And I'm beyond the point that wears you down and that's why I insisted on 'Nahi ab mereko khud ka jagah banane ka hai.' (I want to make my own place now) Also, I didn't know anything else to do to. So I was like I have to continue doing this because it's the only thing I know.
Even when it comes to the availability of gigs, it's always like 'Female items ke liye female comic', not that female comics can sell insurance. No no no...
Subjects need to be in sync with your gender...but only when you are a woman.
Haan, like for Women's Day, they'll be like 'Oh come on Aditi, come perform for Women's Day' and I'm like okay my price is XYZ, so they're like 'Come on Aditi, it's Women's Day!' I was like 'I'm also womens, give me my market value for womens!' So there's this reverse-tokenism kind of a situation.
It's like do it for a cause and do it for less. But the cause is literally about empowering the person you're asking to take a pay cut.
Imagine the irony and the fact that it's lost on them.
Just an observation but when Netflix announced your special, I thought there was a bit of a silence from your fraternity. While I did see some tweets, I didn't see a lot of them, the usual back-patting that happens.
Geez, I prefer not having anyone tell me I'm amazing so that I can work and be amazing. (Laughs)
Did you not observe that?
No no, f**k it. I really don't want to make it about anything else apart from the special.
Finally, what'd you tell people who say, "Please, Aditi Mittal is NOT funny"
Meri oar se koshish jaari hai (I'm constantly trying) Nahi pasand aaya toh (If you don't like me...) please check out Varun Grover, Abhishek Upmanyu, Rajneesh Kapoor, Karunesh Talwar. These people are definitely funny.
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