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The queer, green comedy queen
Vasu Primlani, an environmentalist by day and stand-up comic by night, uses humour to get people thinking about sexuality and conservation.
Stand-up comedian Vasu Primlani should not be funny. After all, she is talking of subjects like rape, homosexuality and the environment. But she is, and humour becomes her stick to prod her audience to think about issues of women's safety, sexuality and environmental consciousness.
It's more than just an act for her. The green comedian, as she describes herself on Twitter, is an environmentalist whose day job used to involve giving talks to the hospitality industry in the US and around the world on cutting back on consumption of electricity and water and generation of solid waste. She's a rape survivor. And she's gay, and can joke about it.
Vasu, who just turned 40, says her jokes come about as a result of her "pretty much calling people on whatever nonsense I see". Her latest joke is about men fighting with each other. "Think of any macho movie, like Die Hard, in which you have two men who want to kill each other, " she says. "When Bruce Willis wants to kill Alan Rickman, he'll walk right up to him, real close, and talk into his mouth. Isn't that really gay? I mean, what happens if he trips? He'll end up giving him a kiss!"
One of her funniest sets is about the speech impediment she had while growing up. She says that she couldn't pronounce the letter S and would turn it into a Sh. Trouble began on the first day of school, when they had her recite Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. . .
It just went downhill from there, she says. They pulled me in front of the assembly and had me sing God save the queen. . .
Then this priest came home and my mother wasn't in, so I asked him if he'd mind waiting in the sitting room. . .
And of course, with a surname ending in "ani", she also does Sindhi jokes. Her favourite is about the Rajnikanth double moustache, above and below the lips. "That one says you're the boss of the house. Which is why in Sindhi homes, the men are clean shaven and the women have moustaches. "
What's it like to perform in India? "It's fantastic !" says Vasu. "Indian audiences are intelligent, and they're very progressive. They applaud all the gay jokes. " The men don't get upset when they're reminded about their bad behaviour? "No, " says Vasu. "They love it. "
She's also quite happy to laugh at herself. "Every woman in India, " she says, "knows she's crossed some invisible barrier when people go from calling her didi to aunty. I crossed that barrier when people started calling me uncle. "
Off stage, though, Primlani is rather pokerfaced and speaks with a voice devoid of emotion, which can seem like an insurmountable barrier when you're trying to interview her. Until you manage to draw her out. When that happens, her face takes on a different mien. The mask falls away, she turns towards you to talk about how she got into comedy four years ago and how her current tour, the California Comedy Invasion with stand-up comic Raj Sharma, is working its way across India's metropolises.
She doesn't yet have a name for her own show, but she is thinking about calling it either Pati, Patni aur Vasu;or Vasuvius: The Comedy Volcano;or Vasu Shaastra.
To her, stand-up comedy is just like rock climbing. "You've got to get over the fear of it. And when you've done that, you've got to build strength, skill, and power. "
Primlani, who grew up in Delhi, left for the US when she was 21 to study geography, law and urban planning at University of California, Los Angeles. "I always knew that I was going to be an environmentalist, " she says. It now seems natural to her that the traumatic events of her childhood morphed into a desire to care for animals - other vulnerable creatures - and finally into a greater need to care for the environment.
At 23, however, her past caught up with her. "I realised that I was incapable of a relationship with anybody, man or woman. I thought everybody was out to hurt me, " she says. Counselling followed and the arduous road to recovery began.
Primlani went on to set up a non-profit organisation, Thimmakka, which works on greening restaurants. She became a director with Ecotel, which advises hotels to do the same. Now back in India, she hopes to teach sustainability in business.
"My systems got hotels to cut their water and power usage and their generation of solid waste by about 40%, " says Primlani. "It saves them money, when most people think the opposite. Going green doesn't cost money. It's actually possible to do the right thing and cut costs. " But, she admits, "Corporates don't really listen and, in the end, all they end up doing is fire-fighting. "
Stand-up comedy happened four years ago when she was living in San Francisco. And like most of her explanations, this one too is economical: "I loved jokes. " Her own favourite female comics are Candy Churilla, who describes herself as a "bachelorette whose life is one misunderstanding, man, and cocktail after another", and Loren Kraut, who describes herself as being "somewhat dark, and covering such subjects as her obsessivecompulsive disorder and anorexia, or writing the perfect suicide note".
On stage, Vasu, who wears no makeup and lets the grey in her hair show, seems to come alive, and has the audience hanging on her punchlines. "I read Judy Garland's Comedy Bible, in which she says that 'when you perform, you have to send out rays of love to the audience', " she says.
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