This week, You! talks to Faiza Saleem and Amtul Baweja of ‘The Khawatoons’, South Asia’s first all-female comedy group...
Becoming a comedian takes much more than a good sense of humour. In fact, successful comedians spend years studying the art of comedy, acting, speech dynamics, artful timing and public speaking. However, the idea of becoming a good comedian has always been associated with gender as well. Like every other field in Pakistan, men are considered to be pro at this job too. This is the reason why comedy has always been a male dominated area.
Pursuing comedy as a career and becoming a successful comedian has always been a tough choice for women to make in Pakistan. For that they need to be vocal about issues, bold and witty at the same time. Also to acquire the skill, they must learn the best practices of self-promotion, networking and marketing... and in modern day, a good social media influence too. Interestingly, we do have an example of such women, who are nailing it with their witty humour and amazing comic timings. South Asia’s first all-female comedy group, ‘The Khawatoons’, recently completed three years and celebrated the occasion with an improv show. Featuring nine female comedians, these women have managed to conquer hearts by proving their mettle as exceptional performers.
The Khawatoons was founded in 2016 by actor, comedian and host Faiza Saleem. She brought together girls from different backgrounds and trained them for six months before putting up their first show. So far, the troupe has performed in various cities of Pakistan including Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, Rahim Yar Khan and Topi. They have gotten both national and international recognition, from BBC to the Times of India, in addition to local publications.
This week, You! talks to Faiza Saleem and Amtul Baweja from the comedy troupe, who share their insight about the scope of comedy, hurdles they faced and how female comedians are perceived in Pakistan...
For people, it is always difficult to embrace the fact that women can be vocal, bold and funny all at once. In order to form a comedy group of women which is one of a kind, Faiza Saleem brings back her thought on how they faced difficulties before becoming what they are today. “As soon as I started my career in comedy, I realised there were literally no women around who were doing stand-up or were even on social media. At first, I couldn’t even find women for the troupe. When I did, several would leave after a couple of months because it is a lot of commitment and not everyone was that keen on investing so much time and effort in improv. All the women in our troupe have come a long way and overcome their personal hurdles as well. Quite often, families are not supportive of them being in the troupe either. I could go on and on about the hurdles but I don’t want to. We have just started our fourth year as a troupe and I couldn’t be prouder. I must celebrate.”
With reference to accepting women as comedians, Amtul Baweja adds, “The way people perceive women in the field of comedy is a bit shaky. They still need a lot of conditioning to accept women doing comedy and receive them well. I often get backlash on my platform like people usually ask, who is this weird girl, she is so annoying, she is so loud, she looks like a clown! You have no idea the sorts of things I hear from people. There are those who appreciate us too but they are the ones who are like us, they are liberals and don’t need any awareness or education. We want to reach out to those who are not aware or educated, but it is really tough to get ourselves registered to them because they are always shocked to see a girl so vocal and bold, they can’t take it as it’s not normal for them. This is because we live in a society where it’s pretty normal for a man to be funny, weird or whatever his ways are of putting things in a comic way; he will not be bashed or criticised. But, the case is completely different for us. With people like Faiza in the field, the scenario is changing but still there is a long way to go.”
Following the same vein, when asked about the opportunities of becoming a female comedian and pursuing it as a real profession, Faiza details about her troupe and how they work and promote a career in it. “Apart from Amtul and I, our group includes Jaweria Khan, Natalia Gul, Ashiqa Sheikh, Sara Ashraf, Shanzeh Ishtiaq, Zemal Shah and Sana Ahmed Khan as the current lot of experts in improv - a modern form of comedy. I did ‘Auratnaak’ - a while ago with other group of women - which was more of a platform for anyone and everyone who wants to do stand-up comedy. Whereas, The Khawatoons is an improv comedy troupe with performers coming and going but it runs more like a troupe. Both provide the best opportunity for women to come forward in the field of comedy. The Khawatoons do all types of events from public shows to corporate gatherings; from an all-female to a mixed audience. Small scale shows and large scale ones as well,” informs Faiza Saleem. As she puts it, once they are on stage, the audience should expect lots of fun, great group chemistry on stage and tons of entertainment, but also a sense of empowerment which she enjoys the most. “If I were an audience member, I’d be proud to see so many Pakistani women coming together and doing good comedy,” she expresses.
While shedding light on the comedy scene in Pakistan, Amtul Baweja says, “There is a lot of scope for female comedians in Pakistan as we need a lot of women out there who want somebody to relate to, who want an idol to look up to, somebody to laugh with, somebody who empathises with them.”
Despite facing a lot of struggles and people’s discomfort with female comedians, improv and stand-up comedy have become an admirable profession and has influenced a lot of people. This is due to the fact that the entertainment industry is expanding tremendously and social media has become part of our lives. Faiza and Amtul share their story of how they influenced people in and out of this field during this time. “I think I’ve given a lot of women the confidence to take up comedy seriously as a career. And in general, so many women tell me that seeing me overcome my own hurdles has given them inspiration too. What more could I ask for?” enthuses Faiza. On the other hand, Amtul expresses how people followed and admired her in the course of time. “As I teach acting and do theatres, I have a lot of students following me over social media who when see me doing all those things, get inspired and think that this is something they can do too and can take it up as a profession because before now, comedy wasn’t taken that seriously. So, I have inspired people in two ways; first they can take it as a real profession and second, you will be given love, respect, admiration while making money. Also, there are a lot of girls and women commenting and following me which has impacted women on another level because when women see me, they feel liberated and they reach out to me and ask how I do it and how can they get into acting and theatre. It is surprising to see so many women joining theatre and arts after looking at my content. They are adopting what they love because I promote the idea of being comfortable in your skin,” she narrates.
While talking about the age old concept of catering to social issues through comedy, Amtul Baweja believes that a comic relief is the best way to address social issues because satire, sarcasm or even black humour can get across so much more than serious content. “With Khawatoons, we are educating people – in a comic way – that nobody should body shame or crack jokes which might hurt someone. We also stress on not making fun of kala, gora or anybody’s physical or mental state. Even if somebody from the audience does it, we always call them out. Also, when I make videos or online content, I always try to add something comic which people would always relate to or address something which is a social issue so that people might not get offended that I am lecturing them,” she explains.
Nowadays, we often see social media influencers like Swineryy, Kusha Kapila and Mallika Dua who are vocal about deep-rooted social issues. According to Baweja, “I just love all three of them. They are just amazing! They are like my idols because it takes a lot of guts to be so vocal on these issues. It also takes a lot of wit and intelligence to make content around it. For instance, I want to address an issue in a comic way but what do I do? How do I write a script? How should I act it out? I think that’s where these women come into play and that’s where they really deserve all the praise. It’s very tricky and tough, like people get offended and bad mouth these people but these women are literally killing it.”
With time, the troupe has gained success with leaps and bounds. The hurdles are ongoing though. According to Faiza, it becomes tough to manage so many different people with their own set of genuine issues and to overcome those and still have a friendly relationship with boundaries. On how The Khawatoons has evolved over time, Faiza tells, “I think we’ve learned to deal with hecklers really well, and also with the fact that not all our performances will be the same or even that great, which is okay. We can have bad days too but that doesn’t mean we won’t have our good days again. So I don’t get as easily thrown off by obstacles in a live performance as I used to. Recently, I did improv in NYC and it made me realise that I set my own limitations more than anything else. I need to just chill out and always be myself and everything else will follow suit.”
While giving their message to people who want to become comedians or something of this sort, Faiza and Amtul motivate and advice those to just go with it and take the plunge with whatever resources they have. They both support the idea that one should give her heart and soul to it and not do it because it’s trendy and you think it’ll make you famous. Moreover, they encourage women to start signing up for shows or open mics. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a good camera or editing skills or aesthetic sense, just start it! “Try to BE YOURSELF because people will bash you anyway. Moreover, if people think that you’re weird, it’s good, if they think you are annoying, it’s great. If you are all that, people would be interested in watching you. This will be your strength,” concludes Amtul Baweja.