In the first of her Hindi-English comic web series Dollywood, in which she plays the role of a star-struck, voluble film reviewer, Aditi Mittal cracks a joke about androgynous Sikh names: “I was born at a very young age. My father was then posted in Phagwara. He got the news that a child has been born, and the child’s name is Gurpreet. He thought I’m a boys (sic). That is why my female infanticide did not happen. And that is why I say I am very lucky.” The background refrain pipes up: “Punjabi!”
It’s an Aditi Mittal classic: a larger-than-life character, a social cause casually thrown in, a bright, hilarious rendition. One of the most popular faces in the Indian comedy scene, Aditi has used humour in many ways – to deal with personal crises, to cheer others up, to dress up like an old woman and talk brazenly about sex – but through it all, she’s had an ulterior motive: she is driven to raise awareness about social inequalities and gender bias.
And yet, the 32-year-old refuses to call herself an activist, for she believes that would take credit away from those who are really out there making a difference. “The hallmark of comedy is that it intersects with the truth,” she says in a rare moment of seriousness.
“One of its elements is that of surprise, its truth telling. I have friends working in NGOs who face relentless abuse and challenges. Compared with them, I’m in a position of privilege. I just stand on a stage and express the truth. And the truth is dire for women and the marginalised. There is so much truth to laugh at.”
Drawing fodder for laughter from uncomfortable truths is a recurring theme in Aditi’s life. Born in Mumbai, she lost her biological mother when she was just three years old. Her mother’s sister adopted Aditi and her older brother, and decided to stay unmarried for their sake.
“She told us she got readymade children so she didn’t need marriage,” Aditi shares. A powerhouse of energy and courage, and an outspoken feminist – “the filter on her mouth is so fucking off” – Aditi’s adopted mother Rajkumari aka Raju would become her permanent role model.
One of the first Indian women to work in TV production, Aditi describes her as “strong, powerful and self-contained,” and looks up to her for both personal and professional advice. “My boyfriend says I’m not as cool as my mom. I want him to think that.”
Young Aditi was sent to boarding school for a few years before she returned to Mumbai to complete higher secondary from Sophia College. She’s “super-grateful” for the all-female environments of her youth, where she was free to be the “smelly, homeless class idiot” making everyone laugh.
“In co-eds, the class clown is usually a boy, and expressions of humour from girls are more penalized than rewarded,” she says, explaining why she now cherishes being punished and sent outside class: “I got practice in making up stories.”
But the greatest influence in Aditi’s life was her father. A security director at a large Indian corporate house with a wicked, sarcastic sense of humour, he yearned to send his children abroad. He urged Aditi to apply to a college in the US. When she earned a scholarship from Fairleigh Dickinson University, he was even happier than her.
Aditi tried her hand at a few jobs after graduation, and then found herself jobless and broke in the middle of the biggest recession the world had ever seen. “Moonh kala kar ke, I had to return home in shame,” she says with exaggerated woe.
Her heart was broken, and she felt like she had let her dad down. “I was in depression from nine to five, and then in the evenings, I watched standup comedy,” she says so seriously that I have to ask her to repeat it. “My American dream was wrecked. So I thought I may as well follow my passion while I am in Mumbai.”
It was a kickass idea. Aditi’s “fucking high level of nautanki” got an excellent outlet in imagining punchlines, waving her arms about, making faces and drawing laughter from random strangers. She soaked up her failures, and showed up night after night after night, until she finally figured out she was made for this. India had a new female standup comic.
Aditi did shows in the US, UK and all over India. Her comedy was featured on every English network in India, BBC World, BBC UK, and BBC America and she was featured in several documentary films, including Menstrual Man and Stand Up Planet. Two years ago, she found herself on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list.
She started the comedy web series Bad Girls, and got her own standup show on Netflix, Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say. She also created two unforgettable characters, Dolly Khurana with her Punjabi quirks, and Dr Mrs Lutchuke, who talks about sex with a grave face and a funny accent.
Where does a comedian find jokes? “By digging into your shittiest experience.”
“The most frightening thing is also the funniest,” says Aditi, who has taught standup comedy in London. “Are you hurting inside? No? Then it’s not funny.”
2017 was that kind of a year for Aditi. In August, she had 31 back-to-back comedy nights at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, followed by 21 nights in London – a tremendous opportunity to perform in front of a mature audience.
On the day she left for Edinburgh, however, her dad was unwell. He had been suffering from cancer for a while. Aditi spoke to him on the phone from Edinburgh, telling him to get better soon so that he could teach her his recipes. Hours later, her brother – who is now settled in New York – called to say their father had passed away. He was 69.
Aditi was distraught, but her brother comforted her: “Do you understand how proud he must be? One child coming from the US, other from the UK for his funeral. His dream for us came true.” The siblings laughed through tears. They travelled to Mumbai, and at the prayer meeting, everyone recalled their father’s sense of humour. “He would want you to keep laughing,” Aditi was told.
Within days, Aditi was back in the UK, cracking jokes from her uncomfortable truths.
These days Aditi is busy getting her eggs frozen (“just in case”), learning the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira (“three times a week”), reading Raag Darbari by Shrilal Shukla (“Hindi lends itself so beautifully to humour”), and musing over Manto’s Why I Write (“Art should destroy the creator of said art. You are incidental to the process.”). She shares a flat with her mom and cat (“the cat is named, wait for it, Pussy”), and walks daily in Shivaji park (“I get my exercise slipping over dog poo”). Unlike her real-life playful self, she is rather ‘serious’ on Twitter, outspoken about politics and women’s issues.
The world is a crazy place, and all we have in our control is how we make people feel, says Aditi, adding, “That’s why standup comedy appeals to me. There’s no substitute for a good belly laugh and creating a new memory with a loved one by your side. The joke and the joke-teller are incidental. It’s an awesome feeling.”