“I have never brought a woman over to India to perform, you are the first,” said my promoter Ajit Saldanha. Then he gave me a look that said: “Make sure you’re funny. Otherwise I’ll never bring over another one.”
Saldanha, who had organised my tour, was unlike any other man I’d meet in my India experience. He was so liberal, it made me nervous. At least with conservative audiences in conservative countries I know where I stand. I know how far to go. But with a liberal man in a conservative country I felt danger. Saldanha was the Indian version of Basil Fawlty. There was a lot of shouting and screaming but it wasn’t scary, it was hilarious. “What material should I do?” I asked, worried about offending people. “Do what you like,” he said. “I don’t care. If they’re offended that’s their stupid problem!”
So I was in at the deep end in a country where comedy is relatively new. Comedy clubs are opening up all over India: in Mumbai you can watch a show every day of the week. It’s not edgy, observational comedy, mainly it’s happy-go-lucky slapstick. But there is a hunger for comedy and the potential to make lots of money from it.
I had to do six one-hour shows in Bangalore, Pune, Chennai and Hyderabad, and for every show a local Indian support act – a male – had been booked to go on for 20 minutes before me.
In Bangalore my support was a young man from Mumbai who has recently starred in Bollywood films. So he was far more well known than me. Before my first show, a journalist from a national newspaper had asked: “So are you famous in England?”
“What do you mean famous?”
“Well, how famous are you?
Do you get mobbed in the street?”
“I don’t get mobbed in the street.”
“Well, do you get free things sent to you?”
“Are there pictures of you in magazines when you put on weight?”
“Oh, so you’re not that famous.”
The support act was very funny. His material centred around relationships, why it’s so difficult to date Indian women (because they don’t jump into bed on the first date) and the pressure on him to go to the gym in Mumbai as that’s what all the men are doing these days. He also did a funny routine about skin lightening – how things have gone a bit far, with women using underarm skin-lightening cream. His conclusion: “Who goes on a date craving a woman with lighter armpits? And do they check?” I noticed that when he did slightly ruder sexual stuff, it got big laughs. But I was still worried about my own material.
I went on and tried to gauge the feel of the crowd. The audience was a mix of ages and well-educated: doctors, businessmen, lecturers. I did jokes about family, marriage, basmati rice … all things I thought they could relate to. But then a man who looked about 35 started shouting: “Go further, go further!” Then the rest of the audience joined in: “Yes, yes, further, further!”
So I did some material about atheism being a fashion, and people not having as much sex as everyone else seems to think. They started becoming more raucous and loved my unrepeatable joke about how Asif Ali Zardari became president of Pakistan – which caused people to scream and stamp their feet. One man stood up and shouted: “Outstanding. Outstanding material!”
Saldanha the promoter sat on the sides, looking as if he couldn’t care less with his “do what you like” face. When I came offstage, I said: “I was really worried about pushing the boundaries there.” He replied: “Don’t worry, the police have already been.”
“The police checked everything with me before you went on stage.”
“It’s a part of the police force in India that we call the moral police. They go around ensuring that what artists do is morally, socially and politically acceptable. I told them you’d be doing jokes about your mum. That’s always a safe bet.”
In Pune, Hyderabad and Chennai the audiences lapped it up. They were very open-minded and able to laugh at themselves. In Chennai, I got a standing ovation. It did take time for people to get the idea that women also do comedy but once the first laughs had happened and they realised I was not a man in drag, everything was fine.
Offstage, however, people were still not sure. I met a man in Bangalore whose second sentence to me was: “What do you do?”
“I’m a comedian.”
“Oh, that’s interesting.
Can I take you out to dinner?”
“I don’t know you at all, we’ve just met.”
“Don’t worry, I’m married. But my wife and I have an open relationship.”
“Does she know about this ‘open relationship’?”
“She won’t mind. I’m just thinking you must be quite fun if you’re a comedian.”
I couldn’t bring myself to explain to this man just how wrong his perception of “comedian” actually was. The most fun I ever am is on stage. I am totally unexciting and morose in real life. But, obviously, my main reason for refusing was that he was having this imaginary “open relationship” with his wife and trying to convince me that this was normal behaviour in India. Saldanha shouted: “Just go on the date and get some material out of it!” But even I have limits.
Comedians in India don’t yet have the respect given to doctors, lawyers, businessmen and Bollywood actors. It will take a while for Indian audiences to appreciate the art. But once they do, comedy will really take off. Indian comedians of the future can definitely expect to be photographed when they put on a few extra pounds.
Shazia Mirza is working with the BBC on a documentary about stand-up comedy in Pakistan