If you’re lucky, Neeti Palta’s rambunctious French bulldog, named Punchline, will insist on climbing up your body to lick your face and lips. “She likes you,” says Neeti, who finds it difficult to resist the tiny tornado’s advances herself, cuddling her while she jumps up and down animatedly. Neeti’s other dog, a beagle named Socks, appears calm in comparison.
“There are my kids,” Neeti introduces them before sitting down in her airy Delhi apartment where she lives with her husband and father-in-law, a retired Army officer. The first floor apartment is done up in tasteful bright shades with a healthy dose of art and collectibles, and its large windows open to a generous view of the neighbourhood park.
The sounds of birds float in. It is the home of a woman with an intuitive sense of aesthetics, a charming hostess, perhaps, someone at ease in the company of both people and animals.
The moment she starts speaking, though, Neeti is a magnet unto herself, her answers laced with wisecracks and her straight-backed fauji upbringing drawing your attention. The standup comedian has, over the past seven years, mastered the art of reducing people to hysterical laughter armed with just a mic, all over India and Australia, and is now hailed as one of India’s top comedy acts.
The 39-year-old’s jokes are dipped in her experiences as a woman, as an Indian, and as a tomboy. And they all begin in her life as an Army officer’s daughter.
Neeti was born in Agra (“My family jokes that the largest pagal-khana [mental health hospital] was in Agra then, so it was befitting my birth”) and brought up all over India. “I had a painfully older brother,” she says. “He was just three years older but he was very painful.” Her father inculcated in her the love for books and reading (“PG Wodehouse was the best”) and her sporty, energetic mother endowed Neeti with a love for short hair, youthful looks and the inability to sit still.
“My mother joined my older brother when he went to college in Ambala to do her Master’s in English,” she narrates. ‘Some boys pointed her out to my brother saying, ‘Maal aya’ [slang for ‘here comes a good-looking woman’]. My brother was mortified and furious. ‘That’s my mom!’ he shot back. Later at home, he told my mom to do her studies by correspondence instead.”
After completing her graduation in English literature from Delhi University, Neeti went on to do her Master’s in mass communication and journalism from Symbiosis in Pune, where she wrote humorous columns and did a fair amount of investigative reporting for the college newspaper.
Neeti’s mom had a huge influence in pushing her towards a career in advertising (“What kind of mother does that?”) and for the next 12 odd years, Neeti worked as a copywriter, spending most of that time in the corridors of J Walter Thompson India (JWT).
Eventually, she retired “hurt”, after a particularly soul-shattering experience having worked for 48 hours at a stretch for a project, only to be insulted by junior managers from the client’s company who had no idea about the brief. “I felt like a shawl seller – no offence to shawl sellers,” she recalls. “I thumped down the presentation and walked out for good. I’m done with advertising, I said to them.”
But it wasn’t the end: “I had to storm back in to get my chappals.”
One of her seniors in JWT, Anuja Chauhan, who is now a bestselling author, referred Neeti to the team of the international TV show Sesame Street. “I fell in love in just two days,” says Neeti of how she became the screenwriter for the children’s show Galli Galli Sim Sim, which premiered on Indian televisions in 2006.
After working there for almost five fulfilling years, she happened to attend a comedy show featuring Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie of Whose Line is it Anyway? fame, who were visiting India. She volunteered to do sound effects in an interactive scene, and caught the attention of Raghav Mandava, founder of standup comedy club, Cheese Monkey Mafia. He invited her to do a five-minute act the next weekend. And the rest is history.
Her acts peppered with real-life anecdotes, India (“I bleed the tiranga”), Indian men, and self-mockery especially about her flat chest and short hair, Neeti portrays a modern Indian woman on stage, someone who is confident about her non-conformism.
Married for nearly half her life, Neeti’s husband, who is a financial consultant, has been lucky enough to escape being the butt of her jokes, “but something is coming up soon,” she warns. Often the recipient of vitriolic comments by trolls online, Neeti admits her parents are concerned about her safety especially since she works late nights: “They are proud, but worried.”
Considering her regular gym routine and six-pack abs (“My trainer says, model banna hai kya?”) Neeti spends a disproportionate amount of time thinking about food. “I work out so that I can eat out and drink. My cook deliberately makes tinda-gobi (bland vegetables) every day. It makes me suicidal. So I have to eat out. And my refrigerator holds more beer than milk.”
Punchline waits impatiently for Neeti to finish talking before pouncing on her again. There’s never a dull moment in the Palta house.