• 20 Jun - 26 Jun, 2020
  • Eman Saleem
  • Interview

The culture of comedy nights was a welcome change in the cosmopolitan where people often complaint there is much else to do other than frequenting eateries. But comedy wasn’t just here to entertain, it was here to force you to identify, question, process and eventually (and hopefully) understand issues beyond oneself. Personally, I love comedy nights and I’ve been to nearly most that take the stage on weekend nights in Karachi. Stand up and improv, all male performers and all female, ladies night and date nights. It’s always heartening to see a woman take the stage and say everything she isn’t ‘allowed’ to but annoyingly, the stereotype has lingered and it still does: Girls aren’t funny! But that’s one of the better reactions to get opposed to getting death and rape threats. I speak to Natalia Gul, who has become one of the flag bearers of women in comedy and tackles misogyny that comes with the profession.

Icebreaker! What is your opinion on pineapples on pizza?

I’ve grown up eating mangoes with daal chawal owing to my Sindhi upbringing and I love pineapples on pizza. Even if that means being disqualified for it.

Dentistry to comedian – how did this happen for you?

Acting has been a part of me growing up from doing theatre in school to commercial theatre alongside dental school. At the end of the day both professions align because it depends on aap kitne daant nikaal sakti hain.

What draws you to the stage?

I think it’s the entire energy of the stage. In theatre, when you are on the stage you can only see the bright lights and not the audience. I can completely get lost in that, there is nothing before me and I am just that character. During stand up, the energy that you get from the audience bounces back between you and the crowd and I love the experience more than acting on screen.

As a woman with a mic on the stage, what has been the hardest nut to crack?

Being a woman and on the stage IS the hardest nut to crack in this society because it is too intolerant of a woman taking the stage. We sadly have a culture where women are objectified and sexualised in theatre and other art forms. When I come to perform, the first thing people do is they sexualise me. Sadly, I have been to some corporate events jahan main stage pe ai hun aur logon ne seeti mari hai. Then comes the subject you choose for your set because men are so egotistical that they can’t take a bold woman being vocal and facing this is a different level.

As a comedian, do you still have to face the stereotype ‘girls aren’t funny’ or has that changed?

All the time. When Khawatoons started, we initially got a lot of press publicity and there was noise that ‘they’re getting PR because they are girls’. It all comes down to ego; till our male population remains egotistical, we cannot achieve mainstream acceptance of women working. We can only eliminate this gender inequality when we have more female comics in the field.

Personally, I feel like you being a comedian is a statement in itself. How do you feel about this?

I love calling myself a stand-up comedian more than I like calling myself a dentist or an actor. But there are a couple of drawbacks. People assume that they are depressed because stand-up comics are usually very dark or alternatively, they think that you are funny ALL THE TIME. I go to a gathering and people say chalain joke to sunayen. I hate that. Our society doesn’t respect comics as a profession.

You’ve been targeted for a comedy set but you continue to perform despite of it. Has this changed your approach to minimise threats or forced you to self-censor?

The last incident after my set on Sindhis changed my approach to life. I used to be the kind of person who would get very affected by public opinion or criticism. But that was a turning point. I believed in my art more than I believed in myself. I understood at the time that everybody is entitled to their own opinion and that shouldn’t affect me. My brought up is very different from the masses and I cannot expect them to understand me and anyway, art waheen hota hai jis pe opinions hote hain. My art and self-belief is so strong that I look for inwardly validation and I no longer depend on outwardly emotions. They say that feelings are visitors, do not identify them. This has made me a strong person and I no longer put restrictions on myself or my art.

Certain career choices for women draw out rather aggressive misogyny in the masses and we see incessant bullying on social platforms targeting everything from content to wardrobe. In the midst of this, how do you cope emotionally and mentally to keep doing what you are doing?

Being on social media is very pressurising. I get a lot of hate for being vocal on social media but I handle it pretty well. I engage with my trollers because how else can you educate them. When I approach them with respect, they understand and a lot of times they have even apologised to me. This is one way to bring a certain amount of change.

Have you ever considered returning to the safety of dentistry as a career?

Not a lot of people know this but I am still an on-call dentist and I enjoy practicing dentistry as well.

Tell us about the gender dynamic balance in the comedy scene?

There is a platform called Auratnaak for all-female comics because girls usually feel more comfortable when there are other female comics in the lineup. I have always been one to not opt for all-female platforms, I went where the men were. I don’t think I need a separate platform to do comedy because why segregate it. There is a lot of gender based inequality, I would take the stage after a male comic and I find that the audience isn’t very comfortable because they don’t expect women to talk about a lot of things very openly. The first thing here is to eliminate these boxes of appropriateness that come with genders and after that your message will hit the spot. I get a lot of hate for doing sets on dating culture or sex, as opposed to my male counterparts. Gender dynamics are very unbalanced in comedy.

How do you suppose your male counterparts within the comedy scene can help with this gender imbalance or combat sexism?

There are a lot of male comics who understand the issues like Shehzad Ghias, Ali Gul Pir and Hassan Bin Shaheen who started the Auratnaak movement. We have these comedy panels and we see how male comics talk about women’s issues with so much passion. I am really happy that our comedy fraternity has a lot of sensible people who are educated and aware and understand these issues are rooted deep in the society and through their comedy, they combat this all the time.

One thing you’d like to say to trollers?

The need to be empathetic. Empathy is ehsaas. We’ve seen the very recent case of Zohra who was a child domestic maid killed by her employers and this is a portrayal of lack of empathy. We can only learn empathy when we look beyond these divisions and see people beyond the lens of our differences. We’ve been raised to spot differences between people. With a united humanity approach, we can teach ourselves to think kay aaj us bande ko dard ho raha hai to mujhe bhi mehsoos ho. It’s humanity first and culture and race come second.

What do you wish to see the comedy scene in Pakistan become?

I feel that through comedy we can talk about everything without offending people but first we need to understand the art of standup comedy. It is self-depreciating humour. For success stories there is TED Talk and for failures and tragedies, there is standup. It enables you to celebrate your failures. Mera confidence comedy se aya hai because today I make fun of my pimples and I’ve accepted it. I can talk about all taboo topics and I do take my audience on a ride where you touch low and high moments. Which is pretty much what life really is, hitting lows and rising out of it. I would love to see this culture flourish but unfortunately we don’t have a lot of open mics and our material doesn’t ‘cook through’. I’ve started my own platform called The Jungle where I throw music, dance and other art related events. I intend to organise regular comedy nights to support new entrants and also increase our audience numbers. I find not a lot of comedians share their videos on their socials but I do because we should be getting the word out. This isn’t a ‘copy of India’, this is a global art form which has existed in Pakistan with artists like Omar Sharif and Moin Akhtar, but unfortunately sets at that time were even sexist. I have a lot of plans and we will see a tolerant and accepting society for it.