Radhika Vaz’s Pali Hill apartment is all white walls and sparse furniture: a sofa, a coffee table, a ground-level single bed and a two-seater table, all of which came with the house. If not for the plants outside the French window, you’d think it’s a bachelor pad (bachelors have clothes out to dry in balconies, not plants). “I own just the two frames on the wall,” says Vaz, pointing at the wall above the couch. Two small suitcases sit in one corner, like she might just have arrived, or be leaving.
Houses offer insight into people’s personalities. Vaz’s rented apartment only tells you she’s a woman on the go; a global citizen with light suitcases, but the perspective of someone who’s seen the world.
She lives between Mumbai, Gurgaon (where her hotelier husband lives) and New York. “I spend about two weeks every quarter in New York,” she says. New York, or Brooklyn, to be specific, is where she shoots the web series, Shugs & Fats, along with fellow comedian Nadia Manzoor. Described simply, it’s about two hijab-clad women in Brooklyn, and how they see the world around them. It’s political, but humorous, loud but layered. And different enough to have won them ‘breakthrough series’ at the recent Gotham Independent Film Awards in New York City. They went up on stage in-character, in spangly burkhas. “We’ve never won anything,” said Manzoor; “We’ve never been nominated either,” piped in Vaz.
The idea for material that reverses the middle-east cliché first struck Vaz while living in post-9/11 New York. In film and in theatre, “women from Islam” were being portrayed as docile and oppressed. “Surely, there’s more to these girls, I thought.” She wrote a sketch called Terrorist Wife, about a woman married to a terrorist. “Except, he’s a failed terrorist because he’s not succeeded in blowing himself. She can’t stand him. She’s belligerent, not docile… We make assumptions about women according to how they dress. Girl in a sari, you make an assumption; girl in a miniskirt, you make another assumption… It’s all bulls**t, because all women have the same issues.”
She calls the hijab a costume, a “lens to see the world through”. Effectively, though, in her hands, it’s a weapon — a symbol of sameness and conformity, reversed by giving opinions and voices to the characters.
That voice of the everywoman, irrespective of the cultural marker, is definitive of Vaz’s humour. In her stand-up sets, as in the web series, she’s unafraid to take up cudgels on their behalf; or to hurl uncomfortable truths at you, even though her job is to make you laugh. “We’re up against a tide of misogyny. There is discomfort among women to say they are feminists. It’s been made into a dirty word… a ‘male basher’,” she says.
Even as Vaz invokes the late Joan Rivers, and contemporaries like Amy Poehler and Tina Fey, she agrees that the nascent comedy scene in India needs to be more than a boys’ club. “One of the most annoying things I’ve heard said repeatedly is, ‘Women aren’t funny.’ How is ‘funny’ gender-related? Sure, a female comedian is a novelty here, but do you look at a female doctor and say, ‘Oh, here’s a woman doctor. Everyone watch out for the woman doctor’?”
Being that rare comedian not afraid to wade into gender politics makes Vaz stand apart; but it comes with some repercussions. Early in 2015, a man protested ahead of her show at Sophia College, which is incidentally her alma mater. “Suddenly, they panicked and called me to ask for the script. It was ridiculous because you can’t get permissions for a show in Mumbai without script approvals.” In another instance, after the Peter-Indrani Mukerjea case, her joke was, “‘All mothers want to kill their kids; only one or two go through with it.’ It went really well in places, and was met with utter horror in some,” she says. Vaz has learnt not to be afraid to offend. “It’s part of the job description,” she’ll tell you.
Yet, this tough-talking woman of 43 hasn’t always been this way. You get a glimpse of her growing-up years, and her life before turning comedian, in her memoir, Unladylike (the title is borrowed from that of her stand-up set).
Among other things that have changed over the years, she says, is her attitude towards fashion. We’re back to talking about women’s clothes, and what they say about you. Except, this time, she’s not rubbishing attitudes, but revealing how they affected her. “I’ve had a conflicted relationship with fashion. The pressure of ‘what to wear’ comes with being a woman. Your ass is too big, your arms are too fat, or too thin… It takes a really confident girl to not care. And, for a long time, I wasn’t that person. I just wanted everything covered...”
The admission only makes her appear tougher. It validates what she says about the everywoman, dealing with the same fundamental issues: in Brooklyn or in Mumbai; hair hidden in a hijab, or cut in a modern pixie.
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