“If you’re feeling uncomfortable with my jokes, that’s because I want you to be uncomfortable”
Anshita Koul remarks, as she winds up the second act of her stand-up special, Thoda Boht that took place over a Zoom meet, after a sweltering segment where she jokes about how while growing up in Jammu the only thing she cared about and wanted to stop was the eve-teasing and catcalling around her.
“Even though I am a child of the Kashmiri Pandit exodus and political turmoil I witnessed around me,” she says “I realised very early on in life ki tharak aur patriarchy ka koi dharam nahin hota.” [lust and patriarchy don’t have any religion.]
Mostly a pounce into her primitive years with incidents that chiselled her for the better today, and a learning or two for those with a mouth to speak and fingers to type on the Internet- Thoda Boht is an hour of stand-up the amplitudes of which craggily toe-trudge on a delicate mean-line; counterbalancing its fickle momentum and predictably poached punchlines – but never dwindling down the dullsville with its contemporary themes, interestingly more so, from a Kashmiri woman’s perspective.
Koul, who grew up in Jammu, studied in Pune and moved to Germany after getting married, has been well-known in the diaspora for almost 3 years now.
“A large chunk of my YouTube videos end up circulating on WhatsApp groups. It doesn’t give any monetary benefits to me, but hey, people recognize me on the streets from time to time!” she says.
She began with a YouTube channel in 2016 which carries a sparse range of content; stand-up, sketches, listicles, vlogs and a chat show of her own – with around 30K subscribers who she fondly refers to as ‘paglets’ – and had her foray into stand-up comedy with a TLC India show called Queens of Comedy in 2017.
After performing and accumulating content for over 3 years, Thoda Boht is her very first stand-up special.
The taxonomy of the special has some technicality, and the choice of spelling is deliberate.
“It’s Jammu lingo” she says. “In Jammu, we don’t use the ‘au’ and I felt incorporating Boht instead of Bohot would add the local flavour to it.”
An oxymoron, Thoda Boht is supposed to represent the conflicting disposition of her life.
“My entire life has been an oxymoron. It has always oscillated between the contradictory extremes,” she says. “It’s also more or less how I’ve stitched these bits-and-pieces of material and made one whole part,” Anshita adds. The said disposition is what constitutes the nub of the hour.
Koul mostly begins with her old material, and minces some new jokes in between. Chances are you have already read or heard most of it if you follow her on social media or have attended her shows in Jammu. But she encapsulates them with clever segues, repackaging them anew.
She jokes about growing up in a middle-class Kashmiri Pandit family in Jammu post-exodus, and how despite the harshness of life, the colours in the Koul household never faded.
As she sets everybody in ease with the warm stories, she attacks the tranquillity in the air with a sharp satire on the Kashmir conflict and patriarchy: two heavy overtones of her set.
“I was a child of 3 during the exodus,” she says, “I have no memory of trauma, but I remember everybody around me being traumatized. I could sense something bad had happened.”
As she strokes tension, she immediately follows it with, “And as I grew up I wasn’t sure who to hate more, Kashmiri Muslims, Hindu Dogras or my community in general. But then something revolutionary happened. I got breasts! And then I started to hate everyone. It was then I realised that patriarchy and lust have no religion,” as she looks over the disbelief on the faces in the tiny squares on the screen.
Thoda Boht is material accumulated over 3 years, with themes that a majority of contemporary comedians would touch, but this one is devoid of smokescreens. Classic Anshita, if you will: upfront, blunt, and yet, charming.
Instances of unpolished structure, however, might trick into calling it unappetising, but Koul tries hard to not fit in the inept bracket.
Unlike most of the present comedians, Anshita ensures hers doesn’t follow the overused troupe of gaudy cocktail of self-deprecation, existentialism and second-guessing; but instead she stirs it with easy humour sharpened by requisite of discourses like feminism and Kashmir.
Anshita isn’t devoid of the problems of the aforementioned troupe.
“Existentialism never leaves,” she says, “this one time I got a DM on Instagram that read ‘Hi, ma’am. Big fan. What do you do?’ This was peak existentialism, coming in the middle of the pandemic.”
Koul has a vast variation in her audience, given the national as well as cultural differences she operates in and panders to. While she talks of topics such as cultural differences, freelancing, feminism, and oppression – she is least preachy in her approach.
It’s mostly feel-good, but has that discomfort edge to it.
The most enduring lessons that Thoda Boht carries are for us to feel worthy enough to tell our story, more importantly, be open to other’s experiences – especially those deliberately silenced. And that we need to listen to it in its entirety, in all acts – beginning, middle, and end.
Koul is naturally effortless and packages full nine yards frugally. The jokes seem bound and practised, with evident multiple overwrites.
However, the effortlessness and the blue-bloodedness of the craft do not overweigh the light-duty, vanilla, plain-as-a-pikestaff punchlines.
Koul gives a mature, measured special for her very first – which is tricky when your audience ranges from Jammu to Germany.
Koul nonetheless delivers. While it may not be perfect, or very invigorating; or even claim to be so – she cups the elements into a neat, tasteful special that is an honest evident of toil, and without any ostentation for a first-timer.
It is needless to say Anshita’s is an important voice and this special would be a cherished cultural asset.
Anshita spoke to Free Press Kashmir post her show and answered some questions regarding the stand up comedy scene, the challenges and the ‘behind the scene’ work.
Free Press Kashmir: You began your YouTube career in 2016 and eventually transgressed into stand-up with a television show. How is writing comedy for YouTube different than writing for stand-up?
Anshita: While writing for YouTube sketches, the prime emphasis is on the building of characters. Various questions at various levels come in – such as, who is the character, what’s their backstory, what is their recurrent catchphrase or things they will repeat over the course of other videos with which the audience recognizes them, etc. I would intentionally try to make them repeat those things, and add that quotient of predictability too. Interaction between them would range on premises from day-to-day trivial things to social as well as political satire. All elements would eventually combine into one full-fledged script; later of course with emphasis on the structure of it all.
But when I started doing stand-up, I learnt the craft of writing a joke. And joke-writing is very different from character-writing. It is very technical. Almost like writing code! Someone once said that stand-up is either a person saying funny things or a funny person just saying things on stage. So, you can either be instinctive or learn to write jokes.
FPK: What was your process of dealing with the shift like? And how have you come to terms with the duality of the craft?
A: In my case, having no background of stand-up, I had to go the textbook route. I began by Googling the dos and don’ts. Eventually, I wrapped my head around the technical intricacies and how to make it crisp. While in a sketch you can take the liberty of taking time to build the upcoming joke, and not have a single laugh for even 1-minute, such isn’t the case with stand-up.
We have unofficial and unsaid rules in stand-up – LPM, or Laughs per Minute. Ideally, a comic should aspire for 3 laughs in a minute, that’s the benchmark. It is also something I’ve learnt from comedians here in Europe and in India as well. Some comedians outrightly denounce this rule, but I tend to stick to it. That makes you think how and when exactly in your set, you want to put out your joke and get a better understanding to use it in formats like sketch or stand-up.
FPK: What skill set does it tap that is different from writing stand-up and creating content?
A: Most importantly, a sense of humour. If you’re someone who takes offence easily, then you might not be able to grasp the humour in a situation. I believe, anything in life, no matter how grim or dark it is, always has humour hidden underneath. But at the same time, it’s also walking on thin ice. You may find something funny in a dark situation at the cost of someone’s misery. So the more you write, the more you allow yourself to be found in such situations and strike that balance eventually.
Personally speaking, I don’t think stand-up as an art form requires a lot of skill. It’s mostly practice. I began my stint at ‘Queens of Comedy’ without a background in stand-up. I was a novice, pure raw. You would’ve looked at me and thought ‘oh if she can do it, so can I!’
Secondly, you need practice and thick skin. Because you churn out your material at open mics, you need these two arms in your alley. You need to learn how to deal with bombing on stage and go back up there to tell jokes. You need to have that mental bandwidth to be rejected by people twice or thrice a week!
Thirdly, watch a lot of stand-up and give yourself time to figure out what’s your style of comedy. Keep your style original and stick to it. Don’t pretend. For example, I love dead-pan so much. But I tried it multiple times on stage and failed. I can’t keep a straight face!
FPK: What kind of a comedian would Anshita call herself on stage?
A: I’m a mix of unpredictable to an angry comic on stage. I like to be so. Because sometimes, when I’m talking about dark things such as (trigger warning) rape, holocaust, politics or how women are perceived to be in society, I’m angry. And yes, I want you to listen to me. And I will crack a joke while being angry.
Or I’m completely unpredictable. Sometimes I’ll pretend to be dark, and then say something jolly and stupid.
FPK: The recent trend of stand-up comedy in India, especially the brand popularised by metro cities – the one that is supposedly dark and edgy and whose taste is resolutely different than the trend which our TV comedy had set – is very much in its embryonic stage. When America was in that stage during the 60s and 70s, comedy legends such as George Carlin and Lenny Bruce had cases filed them and went to jail.
How would you juxtapose that scenario with the present onslaught on the freedom to make jokes – with regards to offence being taken and violation threats, etc.? Is there a bright future?
A: There is definitely a future. Bright or not, that is debatable. There are two very important aspects of stand-up comedy as a performing art. First, it’s a relatively elite form of art. We can see the effects of it go down the socio-economic level. In India, the famous comedians are from well-to-do backgrounds, especially who’re into what people term as ‘edgy’ or progressive comedy that speaks truth to power. Moreover, our number is really small, which also makes us soft targets.
Internet and democratization of opinions add to the soft target bit. If our number was as huge as the US or UK comics, the offence wouldn’t blow up as much as it does.
To understand stand-up, you need nuance and sense of humour. I get where the offended comes from; I’m, in fact, not surprised.
I think the more these kind of incidents happen, the more it will open up a dialogue towards a lot of discussions. And if I am not wrong, it has. We are talking about it, aren’t we?! I was never asked this question before in an interview.
Besides, I personally feel that the onus of consuming content lies equally on the audience now. There is a lot of content. Comics live and build their material on audience feedback. We are not against it but unfortunately, there is no feedback, just threats, patronization and misogyny. If you’re only going to watch what appears on your feed, then either it’s conformational bias or you’re too lazy to explore – but too outrageous to whine.
At the end of a comedy show, if someone comes and tells me in person (has happened once), that they were taken a little aback because of one of my jokes and felt offended and uncomfortable, I politely apologize, not for my joke but for the discomfort they felt. The one time when it happened they accepted my apology and did not ask me to not make that joke ever again because while she was telling me why she felt hurt, there was another person who overheard us and joined our conversation. The latter expressed how the joke made her feel comfortable and included.
FPK: How will the evolution ensue then?
A: I think it has to evolve from all ends. Comedians need to make mistakes, understand the culture, fail, try to find new ways to say the same things. The audience also needs to become more tolerant and more understanding of the art. A lot of people think it’s just people going on stage and saying things, when it’s clearly not the case.
If comedians can come out and explain their process: how they write jokes, what are the technicalities,etc., maybe people will understand the craft better. It’s wishful thinking.
FPK: How would you analyse your involvement in comedy as a woman, and more importantly as a Kashmiri woman?
A: It’s both an advantage and a disadvantage. There aren’t enough women in comedy to begin with; not just in India, but here in Europe as well where sometimes I am the only woman on the line-up – with maybe one more. It’s still a disproportionate number.
But I also think it’s the best time to be a woman in comedy. You have a new outlet of expression which didn’t exist before.
As for Kashmir, no matter how much I try, I can’t skip it from my content. It adds a special USP to my comedy. There’s so much to explore with regards to political disarray. And it makes it easier to convey your opinions or generate a discourse around it in the form of jokes. Sometimes I’ll write a good joke, and hope people don’t get it. I feel good to have put out my opinion, with layers of course. Everybody laughs because they think it’s for them. But it sometimes isn’t! Very much a self-indulgent exercise at times, I have to admit.
I think I only know one more Kashmiri woman in the Indian comedy circuit, Sejal Bhat. There might be some new ones, but she’s the only one I know personally. That provides the flexibility of space for people to develop an interest in what we have to say. It’s a good advantage if used well, more so when people want to talk about Kashmir.
FPK: In the cyberspace, the Kashmiri diaspora has started to become apprehensive with regards to artists using their ethnic identities for artistic clout and yet staying silent on perturbing, vital issues. Do you think it’s necessary for artists, especially Kashmiris to be politically vocal?
A: Art vs the artist is an eternal debate, like the chicken-egg problem. There are some who would like to separate the two, but not me. I can’t sleep if I have a voice and a platform and I don’t use it. However, I am also learning to choose my battles because more often than not, people fight online to feel victorious and not to bring a real change. I am guilty of this as well. I not only want to raise my voice against a problem, I also want to focus on finding a solution. And if I find myself, and not the issue, become the protagonist in an online (as well as offline) debate, I am learning to choose my mental peace over my ego.
When it comes to making political jokes about Kashmir, or even in India – I get a lot of hate. Maybe it’s because most of my opinions on Kashmir are the ones you’d term ‘non-mainstream’. Me being a Kashmiri Pandit, and making these unpopular jokes, upsets a lot of people within my community. They often try to discredit my jokes with the history of the conflict. People turn the context of something on its head! They take the content very seriously.
I know I have strong opinions on Kashmir, so I make sure to voice them in the form of jokes – now that I have ample platform and a voice people would listen. Sometimes when it gets grave and serious, I leave my artist behind and outrightly speak about the issue, how I feel about it etc., if it makes me angry. I keep switching between the two.
Art is a very powerful platform for expression. And I don’t think anybody is apolitical. If you think you are, you’re automatically taking a stance by not choosing to react to it. I don’t think anybody in the present scenario can be apolitical. It’s their privilege if they claim to be so.
FPK: Your new stand-up special is called Thoda Boht; what’s the story behind it?
A: Thoda Boht is an oxymoron. And ever since I started to make sense of it, my life has been one giant oxymoron! One day everything makes sense, and the other day it all collapses. And Thoda Boht is my Taqiya Qalaam: a phrase in my arsenal I use to describe everything – which happens to swing between extremities.
This special is very much my life crunched in an hour. Initially, I began with a tight 20 minutes of content. I would tell everyone I have Thoda Boht (little too much) content. It basically has something of everything in my life. My life is summarised in an hour and ten minutes. All elements into one.
While asking for spots, I would say the same. So the phrase kind of stuck. And while deciding on a name, I thought let me go ahead with this one!
FPK: Speaking of making jokes about all kinds of things and power checks, and the entire thing about punching up and punching down, how crucial do you think it is to make jokes on powers and/or institutions that have held society for a very long time, like patriarchy or religion or capitalism?
A: It’s the need of the hour. I have an analogy for it. This morning, while trying to write a science joke, I was reading this article about the laws of thermodynamics which centred on entropy. It read of the second law of thermodynamics, which states that entropy in an isolated system will always increase – implying we’re always going towards more chaos. And in order to feel like things are in control, we have to check it from time to time. Similarly, in life and in the context of comedy specifically, we have to make efforts in order to find peace within that chaos.
Personally, if I experience something, which is discriminatory in any sense, I can’t go to sleep. I’ll maybe write a journal about it, or I will use my comedy platform to talk about it, or I will discuss it with someone in person. I feel I have this voice, so I should use it to speak truth to power and keep things in check from time to time, in whichever capacity I can. My brain can comprehend the very base of that situation and I’m grateful for it.
So while putting out an opinion, I try to incorporate all sides; so each time anyone points an objection, it gets answered in the next line! Like that there is more engagement than disagreement. And that is how I feel like a comedian, an artist; I can do that and I should do that. There’s some responsibility that comes with it. So it is, I feel, the need of the hour – because so many hateful people such as racists, sexists, and homophobes are taking large amounts of space, not just online, but offline as well.
And these systems do not deserve to exist in modern times. They have so many problems. And whilst holding them accountable or speaking truth to power, these systems feel a little shaken up. And when these systems are shaken up, they react. And it’s a very good time to question them. I think I should use my voice to not only to talk about my experiences but to also give space to these people who don’t have that kind of voice. So I think that’s very important right now, especially with the internet, when everybody’s an influencer, everybody has some sort of audience, so yeah, we should definitely use this.
FPK: What’re some comedians from close to home and around the world that you admire?
A: Makhan Lal Saraf and Shadi Lal Koul when it comes to Kashmiri comedy. My dad as well! I feel I’ve inherited my spontaneity from him.
After being involved in comedy for almost four years now, you can almost predict other comedian’s jokes. Now I’m in that space where if a comic can make me laugh out loud, they’re actually funny to me because my brain takes over and gets into technicalities and dissection of the joke.
From around the world, I really admire Hannah Gatsby, Daniel Sloss, Andrew Schultz, Niki Glasser, and Manon Matthews.
From the Mumbai comedy scene, my favourites are Kunal Kamra, Urooj Ashfaq, Kanan Gill, Aditi Mittal, Jaspreet Singh, Akash Gupta, Kaneez Surka and most recently, Vidushi Swaroop.
FPK: You also have had a fair share of open mics and shows in J&K, infact, you organized the very first comedy open mic in Jammu back in October 2017. How do you see comedy elevate from then to now? Tell us a bit about the audience reception here, and how is it different from Bombay audience or even perhaps an international audience?
A: It’s very different. I feel that is so because stand-up comedy started in India from Metro cities and then like, in the subsequent years, it started coming down to smaller cities.
The audience in Mumbai, for example, is a mature comedy audience. And I think the culture there is such that the elite class enjoys standup comedy as performance art, without any judgment. Whereas when you come to small towns to do a show – the audience isn’t really expecting to laugh out loud. Of course, if you’re a good comedian, you will try to customize your set according to the audience. But that takes so much time and there’s only… there’s only a little extent to which you can customize it.
So this is the big difference that I’ve found as a comedian between the audiences. Sometimes I would joke about the same things in all the cities of India, but the audience in Mumbai would get it because they’re high on subtlety, and the audience in J&K would not. But if you are a local comedian – like for example, we have four locals every time I do my show – and you have local syndicated material, you will be a riot!
Hence, in J&K, it’s very local. But audiences are maturing as well, since they’re also consuming a lot of content from YouTube. I, along with a bunch of other comics, kind of started the scene in Jammu, and other local comics took it forward, which went very well until the internet ban in the aftermath of abrogation of article 370 happened last year.
Small business who would conduct these open mics lost a good deal of business because they need the internet to function and it affected the local scene heavily.
For a scene to function you need active participation. You can’t have 15 audience members and 30 people on the line-up – as it is mostly the case. There’s so much potential and I was so enamoured by the artists. They were so talented. I am hopeful. There’s mammoth scope.
There are new collectives opening up like VocalBoat, Pause Tribe that are opening up avenues for a lot of artists. Most of the open mics are for poetry, spoken word, or music. There aren’t enough comics; you still can’t have comedy exclusive comedy. People should have more bandwidth to organize these events and a revenue model also needs to be involved.
FPK: And lastly, five book recommendations you’d want to give?
A: I’m not a voracious reader, I’ll be honest. But I’m slowly wrapping my head around the habit.
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert, for anyone who’s going through a creative journey.
Sapiens by Yuval Noal Harari. If you’re an atheist or agnostic – it’ll push you over the edge!
Recently read this fiction book called Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie. I’m not huge on fiction but this was the first one that held my attention till the last word.
Cyber Sexy by Richa Kaul Padte. That book made me thought and question, be angry, be offended on some bits. It’s such a fine book about whether porn should be banned or not. It was amazing to enter that world and see that perspective. There’s such a fine line.
A book series called Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.
Lastly, the book I am reading at the moment – This Bridge Called my Back by Cherry Morga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa. It is basically these writings by radical women of colour and it’s the fourth edition of this book. It has some criticism about the third and fourth-wave feminism. It’s a nice perspective from feminist women of colour and talks about intersectionality in feminism.
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