Auratnaak: Pakistan's all-women comedy troupe is serious about making you laugh, and think

Articulate, witty, keen observers and hilariously funny — the comedians of the Auratnaak troupe are all this. They're also all women — a rarity in the world of stand-up comedy, that is often dominated by male performers. Since the group (one in Karachi and the other based in Lahore) began performing, they've received tons of press for the way they've systematically brought down gender stereotypes and the all-pervasive patriarchy through their punch-lines and stand-up routines. In an interview with Firstpost, Auratnaak Karachi spoke about how their journey on the improv and stand-up comedy circuit:

Tell us about how the group came to be? What was your first performance like?

The idea for an all-women line up in a stand-up show came from one particular comedian friend, Hassaan Bin Shaheen, who was concerned that while there were still some women in improv comedy troupes, the stand-up scene was pretty much a sausage fest.

For a few months, he tried to convince the girls in our group of friends to give stand-up a shot. He wanted us to at least try a few workshops which he would lead. In the first workshop in Karachi (which Hassaan finally convinced us to gather for), only three out of the six girls had any previous experience in  comedy: Faiza Saleem (a comedienne who also launched her all-women improv troupe The Khawatoons earlier this year and gave The Auratnaak Show its name), and two others who had done improv before.

 Auratnaak: Pakistans all-women comedy troupe is serious about making you laugh, and think

Auratnaak Karachi

We were sold after the first workshop with Hassaan, though we were not necessarily confident about how it would unravel. Hassaan pulled in two other comedians, Faheem Azam and Akbar Shahzad. Over the next three weeks the old-timers workshopped us intensively — starting with basics of comedy, then going through some writing exercises to develop our material. By now our line-up was somewhat final; some girls had dropped out earlier, not able to commit to the practice sessions, others joined mid-way. We had started with six, and were now 11.

The third week was dedicated to refining our material and rehearsing our performances. Faheem got us working on honing our delivery, gestures and tone onstage. Aside from generously offering his house for our workshops, Akbar was constantly helping us cut down material, get to the point quicker, figure out our pauses. And Hassaan was the heart and spirit of it all, keeping the momentum going, bringing back three of us who had chickened out, constantly ready with pep talks for whoever felt like this was too scary and they couldn’t do it. Had these three not been there, we would have mainly rambled onstage, and bored everyone.

So while the process was partially chaotic and filled with second-guessing, we worked hard. Hassaan, Akbar and Faheem bhai were committed to making the show a success and in helping us prove to ourselves that we were capable of doing comedy. It was both exciting and terrifying — on the one hand, it was thrilling to think there’d be a WOMEN stand-up comedy show, on the other, we weren’t completely sure we could pull it off. For many of us, it was our first time doing anything on stage.

The show was marketed extensively through Faiza Saleem’s Facebook page. After the Karachi show was a success (we sold out before it even began!), we had an encore the next month.

As soon as Auratnaak Karachi kicked off, Yusra Amjad, a friend from Lahore, became obsessed with starting Auratnaak Lahore. She quickly got a few recruits by posting on women’s social media groups. This garnered a lot of interest, but there was still no one to train.

It wasn’t until September that Hassaan was able to take time out and go to Lahore to do a week-long workshop, at the end of which Auratnaak Lahore performed two shows.

Some of the performers finalised their sets literally a couple of days before the performance. Hassaan really helped them get out of their shells and craft their jokes and make their sets sharper. Yusra went about searching for rehearsal space and venues, and we ended up with two different places: an arts and culture hub called Olomopolo and a popular bookstore called The Last Word.

One thing we were careful about  was specifying that the show was 18+, especially as the sets started to shape up and it became clearer that some of our content was explicit. Both places drew a different crowd and so both the shows had a different feel, but nevertheless it was unbelievable that they pulled this thing off within a week.

Poster for Auratnaak Karachi's show

Poster for Auratnaak Karachi's show

Performance spaces for women, either side of the border, are only limited to a certain stereotypical version of them. Comedy has, similarly, been restricted to the men as well. Why do you think that has been? 

We don’t agree that comedy has been restricted to men. There are plenty of women, and always have been, in comedy shows the likes of Fifty-Fifty, or stage shows that are slowly phasing out of the vernacular. However these performances have always projected narrow ideas of how women can be funny — they are given the stereotypical roles of the evil mother-in-law, or the obeying wife, for example — so they’re not exactly helping. I personally think that perpetuating social norms through art and performance is one of the reasons our progress has stagnated.

However, like we said earlier, there are a significant number of women doing improv comedy these days. We think the difference with stand-up is that it is a more threatening form of comedy — since it entails women being loud, unapologetic, sharing their stories without filters or much self-censorship. Women are not supposed to own space in such a loud, aggressive manner in our society, especially in public; or discuss ‘fahaash’ subjects like rape, child abuse, our frustrations with marital expectations etc. We are also not conventionally supposed to share our personal stories and experiences publicly.

Stand-up comedy contradicts everything a woman’s presence is supposed to be in our society. It is a kind of ownership and visibility women are not only denied, but actively warned against. Many women are familiar with the tirade of ‘Don’t laugh too much in public. Don’t speak up so much. Don’t be so open and out-there.’ Since the basic pre-requisites of stand-up comedy are exactly these attitudes, perhaps women have stayed away from the form in fear of audience reactions — likely to be filled with judgement, and moral policing. Even with Auratnaak, there are a few girls in the line-up whose families have no idea they are a part of the troupe.

You have said in interviews that the group’s comedy is not necessarily feminist. But a lot of your material is charged with a similar sentiment. In there a conscious attempt then from your side that you do not restrict your material to that alone. To be considered a comedian and not a ‘woman comedian’ or a ‘feminist comedian’?

We are personally uncomfortable with the dichotomy. No one asks Carlin if he is a “political comedian” or just a “comedian”. Certainly, no one asks him if he is a male comedian. We don’t expect anyone to align themselves with any socio-political ideology to perform, and we don’t put any labels on the troupe in general. A lot of our jokes have been political or poking fun at patriarchal notions, because many of us personally identify as feminists, and media coverage is always going to focus on what they perceive to be feminist jokes, because it makes better headlines. If we make five Harry Potter jokes and one period joke, only the period joke is going be mentioned in the articles. We also think that women writing comedy and getting up on stage and performing it is inherently a feminist act, whether we are directly joking about a “feminist” issue or joking about our annoying relatives. Comedy can be both highly universal and highly specific, and we want our content to be diverse for that reason.

Auratnaak Lahore

Auratnaak Lahore

Extending the previous question further, what do you think will it take for women to enter the space of comedy, and not be labeled as feminazis etc? Can social issues be funny, especially when considered from the side of the victim? Is that also something a risk you face while writing your material?

If sharing narratives on stage to make people laugh is comparable to or as distasteful as the Nazi genocide — we have some serious self-reflection to do about how we think of women who speak up without apology.

We literally had a (male, who’d have thought) audience member joke that we were feminazis recently. I think it says more about the world we live in rather than what we say ourselves. What will it take for us to not be labelled feminazis? For the world to start changing, in terms of women being normalised in public spaces and cultural spaces, and we think that’s already happening.

Is there a space for comedy (in general) and especially by women in Pakistan, the urban areas at least (Karachi, Islamabad etc)? What has the response been like especially to your material?

There is certainly a thriving comedy scene in Pakistani cities, especially in Karachi. Improv comedy along the lines of Black Fish (90s) has made a comeback, and over the past 5 years, become very much a part of weekend nightlife. We have LOL Walay, The Platoon, The Khawatoons (which is all-women!) and  Improvistan. Both solo and group stand-up shows are happening almost every weekend, and though the Auratnaak ladies have started performing at group shows, we’re still a long way from hosting a solo night.

In that sense, Auratnaak filled a very real gap. Most line-ups in stand-up comedy consist only of men, and the jokes too, are centered around the male experience, with punchlines that are often at the expense of women, transgenders or queer people. Auratnaak material offers a radically new perspective , where men aren’t talking on our behalf, or constantly making us the butt subject of a joke. Instead, we get a chance to own or reject experiences based on our lives with honesty and wit. And we’re fairly conscious of not doing this at the expense of another group.

The performances are inherently also a critique of the manner in which men take up space, even in stand-up comedy. One of the most heartfelt responses to the first Auratnaak show was when a friend came up to Sadia after and said: “Thank you all for that. I have never before been in a room filled with women where I felt the material was for us.” This is a common response from other women — who are able to relate with the stories we tell on stage. Then they become not just audience, but also participants, who share common reference points and inside jokes simply because they are also women, and who for a change, are given a space to laugh about it in public while having their experiences validated.

Poster for Auratnaak Lahore's show

Poster for Auratnaak Lahore's show

A lot of men have admitted to feeling uncomfortable during our shows —- but outright haters have been few. We think that because there is such a glaring absence of diversity in women’s narratives in comedy (i.e. narratives that aren’t stereotypical, or aren’t written by men) most people appreciate and welcome the space Auratnaak is creating. We still won’t go as far as to say that there is a lot of space for women in comedy in urban Pakistan — but something has been unraveled, for sure.

Finally, would you say your comedy is a deconstruction of society? If so, do you expect something in the way of reconstruction that might lead from it? Is that also a sort of responsibility, as much as it is a challenge?

Yes, Auratnaak material is absolutely a deconstruction of society. That’s an inherent quality of stand-up comedy, or at least, stand-up done well.

Consider what the performance is based on: largely personal, everyday experiences, observations and social commentary released out loud. The form is very much about playing with the obvious, and analysing not an imaginary world, but the world as we know it. It makes room for the mundane and the absurd, eliciting laughter when both appear together. Take the example of the shamelessness associated with talking about periods, bras and contraceptives. These things are a rite of passage for every girl, something we deal with every single day, yet we pretend as if they don’t exist. So when a performer onstage narrates stories of having to pretend she doesn’t have periods, the audience laughs because they can relate to the stories, but they are also made to wonder why we don’t usually talk about it. Clever comedy can take this subconscious analysis further, for example, by linking shaming with sexualising.

But reconstructions take time to settle into societies. Auratnaak is a very small ripple, among a limited circle and class of people. What we do hope, at the very least, is that it leads to some self-reflection within the Pakistani comedy scene, some re-consideration of the ways it is sexist, classist and misogynistic.

It is both a challenge and a responsibility, but that is true for any kind of public art of performance. However, too much emphasis on responsibility will veer any art away from its raw process. The social commentary, the feminist narratives, those are byproducts of stand-up comedy ; they are not the underlying purpose. Before everything else, stand-up comedy is about storytelling, connecting and creating communities through humour, and expanding the space where we can share and own our narratives in all their honesty, diversity and contradiction.

Updated Date: Dec 17, 2016 10:40:23 IST