In March this year, the President of India bestowed one of the six Nari Shakti Puraskar awards to Ritu Vasu Primlani, a personality impossible to categorise. She is a highly successful stand-up comedian, feted environmentalist and eye-popping triathlete. Primlani grew up in New Delhi, going on to study Geography, Urban Planning and Law at UCLA, USA. She has written, produced and performed countless corporate and club comedy shows around the world. She finds it an amazingly successful way to publicly raise important issues, like that of human rights and environment. Primlani told Nirupama Sekhri about her life and times…
Given your experience of growing up in Delhi and then living and working abroad, what would you say keeps Indians off from laughing at themselves and about things around us?
What a great question! I was just developing a set on why it is that the most intolerant people also come with no sense of humour? Wouldn't it be great if you had at least one of these qualities: either tolerance/empathy, or a sense of humour?
I mean, wouldn't it be great if someone was like, 'you are going to HELL for saying what you did! HAHAHAHAHHA! That was REALLY funny, but you are going to hell!' or, if you cracked a joke on God, they just looked at you and blinked, and said, 'I don't get it, but more power to you'?
Do you think it’s ironic that while ideas seem to be getting more aggressively polarised in our cities, there are also more young people opting to do stand-up comedy in our metros?
These are not causatively associated. The potential for stand-up comedy is the highest in metropolitans because of the exposure. At the same time, polarization is a good thing in one sense: I would be concerned if there weren't two sides - one opposing right wing fundamentalism, and one for it, for instance. What if the rural areas of India had just one side? But this does seem to be a global phenomenon - like look at what's going on in the US with Trump/Drumpf. I didn't know what that expression meant: It’s like watching a car crash in slow motion' until I saw this US presidential election.
Have you ever found yourself at the receiving end of India's moral police?
Not directly, no. Indirectly, unbelievable amounts.
Traditionally one expects audiences in the big metros to be more liberal than their counterparts in smaller towns. Is this actually the case? What have your experiences in smaller towns and cities been like compared to performing in places like Delhi?
I've done shows for villages in Hindi, in Bhubhaneshwar, Chandigarh, Hyderabad, Calcutta (not a small town, but off the comedy circuit), Pune, but not much smaller than that. I've had great experiences in all these towns. At the same time there is, and there isn't, a thing as a town’s cultural identity. Within each city is a duality - one progressive, one conservative. At the same time, a good comedian can get to the entire spectrum of progressive through neutral, even on-the-fence conservative. The question is how much of each. And along this spectrum of cultural identity is the determination whether a country is developed, or not.
What differences do you find in audience reactions in India to your stand-up comedy shows and those abroad?
The reactions are a little different. In terms of reaction to the comedy they are the same. In terms of appreciation of content, that's different. An American, British, Irish, or Australian would see my comedy as intensely courageous. An Indian wouldn't necessarily. An ABC correspondent pointed that out to me, actually. Indians don't get the price I pay for pushing the envelop of progressiveness.
Fitness and humour aren't traits we normally associate with. What inspired you to aspire to such high fitness levels?
I am attracted to the impossible. In the region between what you know you can do, and you know you cannot do, is where all growth lies. I am not interested in change. I am interested in transformation of the self.
All the sides of me: comedy, sustainability, business school professor, somatic therapy, triathlons, are actually all the same thing: they are about healing. Either me, the people around me, or the environment around me.
Based on the qualifiers given by India's right wing, on a scale of Smrithi Irani to Kanaiyah Kumar, how anti-national are you?
I just read this over the internet, and I think this should about sum it up:
We, the intellectuals of India, take umbrage at being called anti-national, we prefer to be called 'differently-nationalistic'.
What message would you give to aspiring stand-up comics in India?
Speak your mind. Show your audience who you are. Like a lover particularly loves that oddity about you, that strange wart or mole on your body that no one else has, your audience will be able to identify you with the unique way YOU think. Comedians are also the barometer of democracy in a society; SPEAK YOUR TRUTH.