Cussing and cursing, comedian Imaan Sheikh waltzes into Indian hearts
In December 2013, Imaan Sheikh was so mentally traumatised by the cinematic travesty that was Dhoom 3 she wrote a satirical review of it on her eponymous blog, succinctly summarising Uday Chopra’s presence as ‘hanging turd’ and the film ‘Bikes and shit‘. In a plot that resembles the world’s lamest acid trip, Sheikh writes,
‘WTF are these guys doing in Chicago, you ask? Well, American cops apparently do not know jack shit about a possibly Indian robber. That is why they’ve called these two guys, who have on their professional cop records the use of a f*cking rickshaw to save the day.’
Like all internet comedians, Sheikh is generously creative with her swearing and on the dot with her timing, making her reviews piss-hilarious.
The post had 352 comments, last checked.
Sheikh isn’t new to satire, though.
She says, ‘Dhoom 3 was not my first humour piece, because I’ve written satire for newspapers before. I started the blog mainly to sort of archive what I wrote. But, Dhoom 3 was my first Bollywood piece, yes. I do like writing commentary and opinion pieces every once in a while, and like to follow the news, having worked as a journalist before.’
Sheikh graduated from the University of Karachi. Her older posts on the blog are far more sombre and socially conscious. But, comedy is something that’s equally natural to her as she says, ‘I’ve always loved reading and writing comedic pieces (satire, of course). I’m normally just a happy person and like laughing and making people when I’m in their company, so I naturally gravitate towards humorous writing.’
Sheikh’s Indian audience was a serendipitous finding. Never intentionally seeking an Indian audience, she just wanted to share her views on what was a ludicrous combination of bad plots, bad acting and bad scripts.
‘It was a very pleasant surprise, honestly,’ admits Sheikh. ‘I chose Bollywood because, in Pakistan, my friends and I grew up watching Indian movies. They were a huge part of my life as a child and still are as an adult. Pakistan has recently started producing really good films, but things were not as good back in the day. If anything, I used to watch Pakistani films ironically.’
But, as any female comedian will tell you, there is a streak of unintended superciliousness in compliments women receive for their comedic work. Patronising back-handed compliments seem to come with the job description. Female comedians have historically had a tougher time honing their skills, especially online. Not everyone has the same good luck and timing that women like Tina Fey or Amy Poehler do. Just ask Cracked’s Christina H or actor-comedian Aisha Tyler (second-guessing the woman who plays Lana from Archer is blasphemous).
This attitude becomes even more virulent on the internet when it’s overflowing with dudebros and douchebags.
Sheikh says, ‘Oh good spaghetti monster, I get told that I’m “really funny for a girl” all the time. It annoys me a bit, and I don’t really know how to respond to these people. I’ve also been told I’m way too outspoken “for a Paki girl”, if I recall correctly, and the person meant it as a compliment. I am rather sailor-mouthed when I write. I’ve even received emails from women who tell me I need to be more lady-like (especially Muslim women). I take the positive criticism and let the rest go. I’ve trained myself to filter the BS.’
Like it or not, we’re all indoctrinated to foster a natural scepticism of the ‘funny woman’. In part, it’s because we’re also assigned social traits that make nurturing our humourous side almost impossible. Women are more likely to be forced to adhere to restrictive etiquette, but a lot of humour means questioning gendered status quos, being lewd, being polemic, recusancy or just being plain whack. Our exclusion from discussions on politics, society and culture is one of the primary reasons why we don’t produce as much satire as men do, and when we do, it’s discredited or held against an imaginary and impossibly high standard of scrutiny.
We’re shushed, silenced and subdued since childhood. That’s why when a male child says something precocious he’s being a big man, but when a girl child does, it’s because she isn’t being raised right – “probably needs a slap in the face”.
In an environment already sceptical at best and hostile at worst towards female comedians, many feel the need to consciously perform better, because their work is not only judged on its comedic currency and value, but also on the basis of the genitalia affixed to the comedian.
In this regard, Sheikh says that in spite of the well-meaning but back-handed compliments she receives, she’s ‘never ever thought of that actually. This is the first time it has crossed my mind. I always try to do my best as a person, and I’m so thankful that people take out the time to read what I write. The women in my life are so hilarious that I have really never felt like we need to struggle to be better or funnier than someone else.’
If there is a challenge, it’s easy to get ‘stale and repetitive’. There’s a real struggle to ‘stay fresh’.
One of Sheikh’s greatest accomplishments is working for BuzzFeed. Four months ago, Sheikh’s Buzzfeed virginity was happily voided with her viral (and uproarious) review of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (it personally took me 13 years to realise the second Kabhie). So, is there a new kind of pressure to be funnier?
Sheikh doesn’t think so: ‘It hasn’t really changed the way I think, but I have definitely tapped into groups of different kinds of readers, which is giving me a lot to learn.’
Either ways, she’s blitzed with joy having gone from blogger to BuzzFeed writer.
‘It feels fantastic. I started working with BuzzFeed in July, and it feels amazing. I feel very lucky to have landed a sweet job like this, and it has certainly done great things for my exposure. But, I gained a lot of followers before that in very little time, which was just magical for me as a blogger from Pakistan who was posting on a mere WordPress account.’
More importantly, to Sheikh, entertainment is the only medium that conclusively has the push to build bridges, especially that pesky one in South Asia that urgently needs an architect. On taking a part of that responsibility Sheikh says, ‘Absolutely. If anything I do can be useful in building bridges, I’m up for it. I think entertainment has great power, and quite frankly, I’m rather sick of all the cattiness between our governments.’
Pakistan is a place that’s home to comedians like Anwar Maqsood and Moin Akhtar (who sadly passed away in 2011), a classic comedy duo. Maqsood remains the nation’s greatest (or, at least, one of the greatest) contemporary satirist and comedians. So, Sheikh has an illustrious pedigree behind her. In the 1980s, Maqsood created and wrote Fifty Fifty, likely Asia’s best comedy sketch ever. Maqsood and Akhtar would go on to be the stars of satirical late night show Loose Talk, another gem from the mid-2000s.
Yet, Pakistan’s current comedy industry never took off from these shows, those like them and other comedians of Maqsood’s calibre. The country is known for producing diverse quality dramas. Their television industry has always been a talent-rich pool, though it’s undergone a bit of a decline in the last few years with the influx of ridiculous soap-operatic gimcrackery. As the industry is slowly resuscitated to its former glory, nothing’s faced a more tragic demise than Pakistani comedy.
Sheikh says, ‘Pakistan isn’t big on the comedy scene, which is sad because we could really use some laughs. We don’t have any comedians who live in Pakistan. There are some who write hilarious stuff. There are some substandard television shows, but I quite like our comedic single plays. The realer they are, the funnier they are. Now that they’re airing Pakistani TV shows in India, I’m hoping they line up our best comedy plays too.’
So, what’s lying on the other side of the moon for Sheikh?
‘I do want to write a book in the future,’ Sheikh says, ‘but I don’t want to rush things, because that just makes for poor results. When I feel like I have something worth writing about, I’ll do it. My film summaries are already a kind of series to me. I sometimes draw for my posts as well, but no longer do comics (I used to many years ago).’
Finespun feathers of ardent fans do get ruffled and ravaged when she decimates their favourite movies, though. Sheikh says she sometimes receives ‘hilarious messages in my inbox where people attempt to humiliate me for being Pakistani and use all kinds of – umm – floral words that insult females. They also tell me to make a film if I ‘think I’m so smart’, and I’m over here like, “I can hardly make a living here, bro! What film?”’
If not that, it’s hundreds of marriage proposals from men on both sides of the border, and the occasional woman.
Where does Imaan Sheikh, India’s latest online sensation and best bud, go from here?
‘Currently, I’m busy with my new job, and completely focused on being innovative and experimenting. My team in India is absolutely fantastic. If anything, I want to go visit them as soon as possible.’
And, that’s Imaan Sheikh for you. The woman with a gender-neutral name reporting live from the bro zone.