Mahila Manch, comedy collective

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As in 2020

Ketaki Desai, March 11, 2020: The Times of India

The idea of a comedy show at a fitness studio may seem strange, but strange is exactly what Mahila Manch, a unique female comedy collective, is going for. Another strange fact: they’re based in Ahmedabad where the comedy scene is small, and mostly a boy’s club cracking stale jokes on annoying girlfriends and sex. Enter the feisty duo of Shefali Pandey and Preeti Das who decided to do a monthly show that delves into a variety of themes like body issues, porn, politics, religion — if it’s even slightly taboo or touchy, they’re all over it. Over the last two years, they’ve been joined on stage by a group of 30 people who perform with them off and on.

Pandey, 35, says it began when she had moved back to Ahmedabad to run a digital agency after stints in New York and Mumbai, and was looking for something different to do. She was introduced to Preeti Das, a former journalist and teacher who had been doing stand up for about six years. “I had no social life, and it came out of a desire of wanting something to do,” says Pandey. For Das, she was sick of being introduced at shows as “Gujarat’s only female stand-up comedian”. That’s how the period show was born. A monthly show (get it?), their first one was at a friend’s apartment with a hundred people sitting on the ground. Das joked about politics and gender, and Pandey talked about how desi porn makes her uncomfortable because it reminds her of her family. No one said ‘haw’ or shamed them, they just laughed.

Their jokes tackle everything from sanitary napkins (they once made a man in the audience hold an unused one, he didn’t like it) to contraceptives, with Das, 39, noting how the first time you take the morning after pill is a lot like the first time you send a d**k pic — first you’re nervous, but then the world is your oyster. Jokes about mammograms and erectile dysfunction co-exist with ones about what it’s like to date in the dry state of Gujarat (no drunken make-outs, apparently). Apart from Gujarat, they’ve performed at festivals and shows in Thiruvananthapuram, Mumbai and Delhi.

They have hosted shows called ‘Maa-Behen show’ which dealt with reclaiming curse words; they did another called ‘Bevda Gujarat’ about the hypocrisy of the dry state. Sometimes it gets weird. “We did a thing called Nightie Aunties where we wore my mother’s nighties and talked about the silliest women’s safety devices,” Pandey says, citing the example of one strange (and apparently real!) device that you put in your bra and an alarm goes off every time someone hugs you.

The original idea was creating a space for women to do comedy and tell their stories, but they don’t just have female performers now. Pandey says, “It’s now a platform for whoever doesn’t have the opportunity to have their voice heard, anyone who has a story to tell but nowhere to tell it.” That means it is a space for a Muslim performer Vasim Habib to talk about the stereotypes he has to deal with, or a man who has just moved from Kenya to talk about the culture shock. They have had transwomen, ASHA workers, and the son of a manual scavenger performing at their shows. These acts aren’t always pure comedy, they sometimes delve into more serious terrain, but the idea is to hear as many diverse voices as possible.

Das says, “One really interesting show was when we had a female bootlegger do the show with us. She talked how she could tell what kind of alcohol someone wanted just by making eye contact with them and the police taking hafta.” Another time there was an ASHA worker who spoke about family planning, dengue and the anemia program she’s in-charge of. Most of the audience, many of them young, urban people, didn’t even know what ASHA stood for. Das adds, “It’s easy to rely on sex jokes or the F-word because people will laugh and applaud. Sometimes the audience gets uncomfortable, but now they come in with the expectation that something unexpected will happen.”

Doing the kind of material and shows Mahila Manch is known for, can sometimes lead to problems too. Looking for a venue for an open mic called ‘Achche Din, Achche Jokes?’ they were rejected by a café that they had previously performed at. Their material, deemed by some as overly provocative, gets negative responses sometimes. Das says, “We’ve got rape threats, and people tell us how obscene we are online. They’re just shocked that women are saying these things.”

Most, still, are appreciative of what they do. “We’ve started getting a lot of private gigs recently,” Das says, “We go to perform at kitty parties and the women tell us to do a political set. They say, ‘I came to your show with my husband and I couldn’t laugh in front of him. Why do you think we’re calling you and not someone else?’”

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