Always ready to speak her mind, this comic and author is simultaneously feisty, fiery and funny
Playing the multiple roles of actor, writer and stand-up comedian, Radhika Vaz has taken India by storm with her refreshingly candid one-woman shows. She spoke to Film Companion about political correctness, feminism, Bollywood and about how she brought her brand of comedy back to the country.
Q: Your one-woman stand-up shows, titled Unladylike and Older, Angrier, Hairier, deal with everything from women having orgasms to women sitting on the pot. You approach these topics with a refreshing honesty that can be considered ‘crass’. Do you feel like the rules are different for men?
For women, anything that’s masculine behaviour is always going to be crass and crude, and masculine behaviour is what’s been appropriated by misogynists. When a woman comes out and does something that has been in the male domain, it’s always an issue. After talking a lot about sex and after being raw about it and telling people how I feel, I definitely did get a lot of reactions. But people who think like I do, can’t wait for me to say the things I say and if others are questioning it, they are still thinking about it. There are people who think I go a bit too far and I just think I don’t go far enough.
Q: You spent some years in New York doing improv and stand-up comedy before bringing it back home. How has the reaction differed between East and West, especially with reference to the ‘political correctness’ in the US?
Well, the issues are the same everywhere; sexism exists in both places, racism exists in both places. We have our own versions of everything in India. The difference is we don’t even care to be polite about it, so I’m on the side of PC right now. We have comedians in India who will get up on stage and make dark skin jokes. I think that’s old, disgusting and not funny. We’re a little behind in that sense.
Q: On a more personal note, was it hard to do this kind of stand-up in India, where you might have had more judgment coming from family and society?
Feminists have always existed in India, but I feel it has gone from a few people to a real movement in the last few years. I really wanted to work in India because my comedy spoke directly there. I could have a career in the US, but I wouldn’t be moving the needle for other people or for myself. From a professional perspective, I had no interference from my family or my husband’s family, and I think it’s a reflection of who I am and how old I was when I really started feeling it for myself. I was past 40 when I moved back to India. I told myself that I’m not going to listen to anybody now, unless they’re giving me good advice and I was able to put that vibe out.
Q: In light of that, what’s your view on what is going on with women in comedy and in film? Do you see a real change?
We’re still so behind. Until we see fifty percent women and fifty percent men on screen, we’re still just paying lip service to women. I wasn’t taught to worry about whether it’s a man or a woman in the lead role, but men worry about that. How many men watch Sex in the City or Orange is the New Black, compared to the women who watch Entourage or Master of None? That said, I’m hopeful about what I see in India.
Until relatively recently, everything was about the male actors, but now the women – Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Huma Qureshi – are being picked up for even bigger global success. For me, that change, where internationally things have flipped, is a sign of sustenance globally. And of course there is the fact that we’ve started making female centric films. I don’t think that will stop.
Q: Let’s talk about Shugs & Fats, the web series you’ve created with fellow comedian Nadia Manzoor. It launched its third season at the Tribeca Film Festival this year and won a Gotham Award last year. The two feisty hijabi women that you and Nadia play are unlike anyone I’ve seen, especially in terms of subverting stereotypes. Where did this come from?
I had been writing and doing improv comedy for about three or four years and like everyone who does that in New York, I thought, ‘Oh! I want to be an actress’. Based on my headshot in post-9/11 America, I was being called in for auditions to play variations of a Palestinian mother whose son was being taken to the madrasa; women who were always feeling sorry themselves and not expressing their opinions.
Stereotyping in the US came at me through this very specific lens, so I reacted to that. It irritated me so much that I ended up doing a sketch called The Terrorist’s Wife. She’s a loudmouth wife of a terrorist who thinks all men are idiots. I wanted to express a different point of view. Nadia was doing her one woman show called Burq Off! and so I knew these types of characters existed for her too. Initially, MTV Desi asked me if I could do something more with The Terrorist’s Wife and so Nadia and I came up with the idea of these two characters and we’ve since produced three seasons ourselves.
Q: So, in your head, who are these women?
They are beyond best friends. They are soul mates, even though they come from two different generations and they have a different world view. We are in fact going to be doing some US election coverage where Fats (Fatima) is a Trump supporter and Shugs (Shugufta) is a Bernie Supporter. For us, it’s about female friendship which is what has got both Nadia and me to where we are today. I would not be a healthy human being without having my women friends to talk to.
Q: The two things about your work that strike me the most are its feminist message and honesty. Where does this link back to you in terms of your upbringing?
My parents. They never raised me with any hard and fast rules about success, about being a woman, about anything. People always ask me why there are so few women in comedy. It’s because no matter where in the world you are, women are raised not to make a scene and comedy is the exact opposite. You make a scene, you put yourself out there, you take risks.
As a child, I was never told to sit a certain way or wear a dress or asked why I was acting like a tom boy. So when I decided that I wanted to talk about how I hate giving blow jobs in my stand-up, it was that much easier for me. I didn’t have to get my parents’ ‘permission’ and it helped a lot when it came down to the kind of material I write.
Q: So what’s next?
One of the things I want to do is to write a screenplay. The starting point for that will be my book which came out in December and I want it to be a fictionalised version of that character. We also just finished writing a TV pilot for Shugs and Fats and we’re going to spend more time on that and on marketing it in India.
Q: So now that you’ve performed on both sides of the globe, how important is it for you to be heard in India?
It’s crucial. Part of moving back for me was the feeling – ‘Wow the feminist movement is taking off here!’ There is something going on in India that is not happening anywhere else right now, and it’s historic.