When Amazon announced their slew of new comedy specials by Indian comics, something seemed off. The all-male line-up made it seem like the most important thing for a stand-up comic wasn't humour, but a penis.
It may seem like an absurd inference, but it was a plausible one given that Amazon looked at the Indian comedy scene, and couldn't find even one female comic to fill the 14 slots at their disposal.
As a result, what should have been a display of the best India's stand-up scene has to offer, quickly became an apparent display of India's overwhelming bias in favour of men. But is sexism really what was behind the decision?
Are Indian women not funny?
The idea that there wasn't a single women deserving of being signed by Amazon is absurd. While the Indian stand-up scene is still very much in its infancy, it has already thrown up a handful of women who tower over most of the comics signed on for these specials - Neeti Palta, Vasu Primlani, Radhika Vaz, Aditi Mittal and Kaneez Surka, just to name a few.
While an earlier report established Primlani hadn't been approached, Catch spoke to both Vaz and Mittal who also confirmed they were never contacted.
On talking to both Vaz and Mittal, what stood out the most was their utter lack of surprise at Amazon's all-male venture. "I feel it's a product of the way stand-up has developed as a market, nobody wants to invest in females," said Mittal, adding that promoters need to have more faith in women.
"Maybe it [the all-male line up] wasn't intentional," Vaz offers half-heartedly. "Unintentional? When there's a room packed entirely with men, does it not occur to anyone that there is something missing?" I ask. "Sadly, that's entirely possible," she replied.
"This is not just specific to comedy, this is happening across the spectrum at every level to every woman at every stage of her career," Vaz says, with more than a hint of frustration creeping into her voice.
"You go see a movie and Deepika [Padukone] and Priyanka [Chopra] are Hollywood girls at this point, in a different league to all of our actors, but trust me, if Shah Rukh was paid the same money as those two girls for a movie, he'd throw himself off a roof," she says, emphatically driving home the reality of society's inherent sexism.
When we reached out to Amazon, they clarified that they didn't pick the comic talent themselves, explaining that it was selected by their partner organisation OML. Vijay Nair, CEO of OML, rubbished any claims of sexism, explaining that they did, in fact, reach out to some female comics.
"We represent a large number of comedians and the ones we have chosen for these specials are from our roster. This includes women performers like Kaneez Surka and Mallika Dua," Nair told us, adding, "What we required was fresh material and the women stand-ups we've signed were either not ready with a fresh show at the time, or focussing on other projects."
When asked why other major women comics weren't approached, to provide some semblance of gender parity, Nair said that they did not work with comics who aren't signed with them.
No space for women in Indian comedy
While Amazon and OML's explanation does seem to check out, the struggle female comics face is very, very real. In fact, it is reflected in the gigs they do or, more significantly, don't get. "You serve as both a function as well as an inconvenience," Mittal tells us, explaining that often female stand-ups are hired either as a novelty or passed up in favour of men.
Corporate gigs are are also a rarity. "While I obviously don't know the specifics of the selection process by corporate houses, I imagine the male dominated corporate culture, the fact that the people hiring a stand-up for corporate events are often male, plays some part in women being hired less for corporate shows," Vaz says.
And while there is already that sort of resistance to female comics, the prevailing comedy scene is also not conducive to women comics. "The scene with men is that there are 10 good comics, and 40 okay ones. But the 40 will also survive. Their boyfriends will keep them afloat till kingdom come," Mittal says, adding "Whereas with females, to survive you need to be on top of your game. The expectations of existence are very different. This is why there are so few women comics."
With this sort of environment, Amazon and OML had a real chance to give India's women comics some much deserved and needed exposure. While they claim to have tried to do so, one just wishes they'd tried harder.