"BREASTS," says the Indian stand-up comedian Aditi Mittal, as she explains the difference between breasts and tits. "Breasts drink wine. Breasts do networking. Tits … take money from their dad. You look at tits and you're like, Woohoo, girls gone wild! You look at breasts and you're like, That's food for a child. "
It's a line from Mittal's spiel on breasts, tits, and the nightmare that is bra shopping, which has been viewed over five million times on YouTube. The 31-year-old comedian's popularity is set to explode further this year. In July, Mittal became the first female comedian in India to get a solo special on Netflix India — Things They Wouldn't Let Me Say — named after her solo show, which has made audiences laugh-cry all over the country.
So who is the they in Things They Wouldn't Let Me Say? "It's a combination — all of these biases and the people who represent them, these ideologies that keep women down and don't let them possess their bodies or talk about their bodies like they belong to them," Mittal says. "If you write this thing about bra shopping, there will be a thousand dudes who'll say, 'How dare you?!' And I'm just like, 'One minute — I have them, and I'm going to talk about them.'"
As I wait to speak to Mittal on a Friday afternoon, I think back to the Indian films I saw growing up in the '90s, when the idea of a "funny woman" was restricted to a cameo by an overweight character whose mere appearance was meant to elicit laughter and revulsion. Her weight was the joke. Things have progressed somewhat since then — Indian films now have layered female characters — but mainstream comedy in India is still dominated by male comedians doing deeply unfunny gags about women and jokes that only reinforce negative stereotypes.
"Big-name and small-time male comedians still only feature women in their material as angry girlfriend, crabby wife, suffocating mother," says Nisha Susan, the co-founder of the Ladies Finger site and the author of an upcoming book on Indian nurses. "Or: Isn't so-and-so female chief minister so dark, ha ha ha . Bore! After sitting stony-faced in more than a few of these shows, I've stopped going."
Thankfully, there are funny, irreverent female voices — in stand-up and on Snapchat — that are getting directly to the people. And thankfully, Aditi Mittal exists, even if her audience features someone tsk-tsking, apparently surprised by Mittal's seeming audacity to talk about the female body.
This is relatively new in India. While there are women who make a living as stand-ups or as comic personas, there are only a few brave souls are carving out a space in the genre of no-holds-barred performances. Susan points to comedians like Sumukhi Suresh, whose women's-only show, called Disgust Me, talks about sex and all things generally considered "gross." For women to talk about sex in India, whether in comedy or mainstream cinema, is still uncommon, and women who do so are often stereotyped as being "bold" — shorthand for comfortable with sex.
Mittal grew up in Mumbai but went to boarding school in Pune and Panchgani. She started doing stand-up in her early twenties, had some initial success, then fell flat at a show. But she kept at it, and kept getting better. At a TEDx talk, Mittal talked about how she wanted to join the Indian film industry — ending up at a screen test where she was asked to read for regressive bits with dialogues rife with crass double entendres.
When she started doing stand-up, she became enamored with the idea that comedy is honesty. "I wasn't too aware of the myriad misconceptions or biases that people have," she says. "I was literally told that if you are as authentic as possible and if you tell your version of the truth, you will have no problem saying it, because you won't feel ashamed, you'll be able to own it."