On a Friday night in September, Aditi Mittal paces on onstage at the Canvas Laugh Club in Mumbai. She's talking about sanitary napkins.
“Saying the words 'sanitary napkins' in public is like standing in a Hogwarts common room and saying 'Voldemort,'?” quips Mittal, who's 27, with hair down to her shoulders and large, dark glasses.
The crowd is mostly 20s and 30s, dressed in jeans and button-downs. They're laughing in between sips of McDonald's sodas and Kingfisher beers.
“Each pad is individually wrapped, which is then placed inside a plastic packet, which is then wrapped in a newspaper by the chemist and then placed inside a black plastic back. I have seen more careless cocaine smugglers,” she continues. “By the time you get to the first pad you're, like, 'But I've already reached menopause.'?”
A routine on sanitary napkins would be tame in the United States, but it carries a lot more weight if you're one of the only female stand-ups in country with a heightened sensitivity to its treatment of women. Amidst India's many problems, and its national dialogue about crimes against females after a shocking 2012 Delhi rape, comedians are using stand-up and Internet videos to satirize the more reactionary aspects of their country and change the conversation.
Mittal grew up in a well-off Mumbai family, but she never sat next to a guy she didn't know until her first day of college, at Fairleigh Dickinson in New Jersey. She became inspired watching stand-ups like Chris Rock and Elayne Boosler on YouTube, and thought she'd give it a try.
“No one told me I couldn't,” she says after the show. “No one told me, like, 'Oh this is a damn special thing, and you must be a unicorn.'?”
Like other Indian comics, she feels obligated to bring a political edge to her work, and is even taking a course in public policy. “It's painting a picture beautifully so that you can punch a hole through it,” she says of her routine, “so you have to find the colors to paint that picture.”
Once an audience member taunted that she'll never get a guy. Another threw a beer bottle at the floor and said she was disgusting.
But her experience is mostly positive. After hearing her comedy, “A lot of moms have told me that it's been easier to talk to their daughters about their period,” she says.
India's English-speaking stand-up scene has only emerged in the last few years (the Hindi form, which incorporates poetry, started decades ago). It tends to reach younger, more progressive audiences.
“It's always a fun thing to see a divided house on Modi jokes,” Varun Grover, a stand-up who pokes fun at the new, nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, says. “There are people who clearly don't find them funny, there are those who do, and then there are some who find it funny but are too unsure about laughing at them.”
Four stand-ups make up All India Bakchod, India's leading YouTube comedy channel. In one popular video, an actress addresses the camera PSA-style, and begins: “Ladies, do you think rape is something men do out of a desire for control, empowered by years of patriarchy? You've clearly been misled by the notion that women are people, too. Because let's face it ladies: Rape — it's your fault.” It has more than 4 million views.
AIB works from its headquarters in an apartment building in Andheri, a northern Mumbai suburb. Three full-time post-production employees work at computers in a back room, while various interns mill about.
The members, now in their late 20s and early 30s, grew up well-off and are as media-aware as most U.S. comics. Rohan Joshi raves about John Oliver's episode about Ferguson. (“It's good journalism first, and then he goes for the funny.”) Television networks are after them to create a Daily Show for India, but they've said no. They're jaded by TV — they've spent years dashing off jokes for reality and awards shows.
On a Monday afternoon in September, they seem like typical comedy goofballs, sitting on couches checking Twitter on their Mac laptops. But in creating the “It's Your Fault” video, they paid close attention to its effects. For instance, they showed a draft to one of their former critical studies professors, who suggested that they include a “trigger warning” to alert sexual assault victims for whom the video might bring back bad memories.
They acknowledge that a large percentage of the video's viewers have been outside of the India. “A lot of it came from 'look at the shit that happens in Third World countries,'?” Gursimran Khamba says.
Internet videos and stand-ups are in danger of preaching to the choir. Even at $10, comedy club tickets can be prohibitively expensive for most of India. Just 15 percent of Indians had Internet access in 2003, compared to 84 percent in the United States.
But Joshi resists that notion. “You're making the assumption that rape is done by a certain kind of non–English speaking class of people, which is not true. People on my Facebook page who I am Facebook friends with I am sure have some pretty jaundiced views on how women should be treated.”
Rega Jha, editor of Buzzfeed India, which touts satirical videos like AIB's, feels that ultimately, the main medium that will speak to that villager from Bihar is the movies. Internet messages must trickle up.
She says, “My hope is content creators like AIB and Buzzfeed, if we are having those conversations and making them cool to have, Bollywood will follow suit.”
See accompanying story: Can TV Save India?
This report was funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation, administered by the International Center for Journalists.