I heard the audience tell Stand-up comic Harpriya Bains that her act had made their day, and made them feel lighter about the monotonous struggles of life. One member of the audience even remarked that attending the show had made her forget her chronic knee pain.
Comments like these made me envious. Wasn’t this what I was supposed to do as a family relationship therapist – make people see their family drama or troubled lives from a lighter perspective? Her use of therapeutic tools that I took years to learn – metaphors, self-disclosure, empathy, and existentialism – were getting her standing ovations and bringing laughter into people’s lives. The fact that she took up her career as a stand-up comedian at the age of 39, soon turned my envy into admiration. And I wanted to know more about Harpriya.
“My husband went to the same school as your husband,” was the trump card I used to get invited over for coffee. We talked about her journey as a stand-up comedian, full-time mom, artist, interior decorator and a mind blowing cook (a tray full of home made snacks came with the coffee), and more.
Stand-up comedian at the age of 39? How did that happen?
The bug bit me in Goa. I lived there for 2 years and watched a lot of stand-up. I felt I could try my hand at it since I had always been comfortable doing theatre and emcee through college. Once when I took my parents for the Amit Tandon show, on getting back my mother casually said to me, “When you are in a really good mood na, you can also do something like this.” I don’t know what she meant by “really good mood”, but the very thought of it got me in a good mood.
Soon after, we moved to Secunderabad, and luckily it had a good open mic scene going. With a well-prepared script and beginners’ luck, my first open mic was a great success, and I knew I had found my calling. My age and my grey hair actually worked for me as it made my audience relate to me – they saw their stories in what I spoke on stage.
What is the genre of the comedy you practice?
Mainly ‘Observational’ with a bit of satire. When I started out, I noticed there were many stand-up comedians, including some big names, who were talking about marriage and relationships from a man’s point of view. It was great stuff and funny. Women comedians, however, were doing issues like careers, boyfriends, menstruation, gender biases, etc. but not much was happening on the topic of marriage. That’s when I decided to bring out the life of an average Indian housewife and mom – the multitasking, daily challenges, plethora of emotions and lots of comedy.
I like to talk about daily life and the relationship challenges we all face while talking about the seriousness of patriarchy through comedy and a bit of satire. The audience is able to relate to it and are comforted when they see the comic perspective in the situations in their life. It helps them to alter their point of view of these daily squabbles and frustrations and laugh them off quite literally.
How does it feel to be a celebrity?
(Laughs) I am not a celebrity yet, but yes I have been approached by some of my audience at malls and restaurants. They come up and tell me how much they liked my show. So, that does boost my confidence.
Fortunately till now, I have not had to distort my authentic self for approval from the audience. In fact, this is one of the first tips I received from Papa CJ, a world renowned comic, after I went blank at one of my mics. He told me to be myself on stage and not try to change myself or my script for the younger audience. He advised me to retain my uniqueness and stick to my experiences as a wife and a mother. He said, “Go with your original story and the audience will come to you.” So, it’s very self-fulfilling, and the pressure for approval and celebrity-hood is also lesser.
Has your kind of audience found you?
Yes, meeting your target audience is a very interesting and crucial journey. Initially, when I started open mics, I didn’t meet the right audience because in India, the average Indian comic is a 25-year-old male and so is the audience. So, the early shows I did, a lot of my jokes used to fall flat because the audience couldn’t relate to the satire. But that’s the journey of all jokes. They have to pass through numerous open mics as that is the best way to test your content. You begin to move up the ladder gradually only after you have tested and retested your jokes in a number of mics with a variety of audience. Once my jokes got sharper, I graduated to line ups with known comics and corporate shows, and finally began to meet my real audience. Now I have women cheering and husbands blushing, and they come up to tell me that they really enjoyed the show.
Talking about jokes falling flat, have you ever been booed off stage? How does an artist handle that?
Stand-up comedy gives instant feedback. It’s like a minute to minute, joke to joke feedback through laughter, and sometimes even guffaws from the audience. Of course, its happened that I am being my most humorous self but there is radio silence from the audience side. There was one such mic that made me very nervous. I started to forget my lines until I blanked out. My time slot was 5 min, but I barely lasted for 3 min on the stage. But, like one hit show doesn’t define your career, one flop show doesn’t define you as a failure either. I worked on myself and continue to do so, and every show is a learning for me.
What has been your family’s reaction to your becoming a stand-up comedy artist?
They all are extremely happy and proud of me. My daughters love that their mother is going out and adding laughter to people’s lives – they see it as my superpower. When I come home, they excitedly ask me how the show went and if people laughed or not. In fact, my elder daughter has asked for commission from my earnings as I borrow a lot of one liners from their typical teenage tantrums to quote in my shows at times. I am glad that I’ve been able to set an example for them to not look at marriage and family life in negative terms or as a burden that holds women back.
As for my husband, he has always been my best audience, and even before I did open mics and shows, the jokes would be directed straight at him. He takes them very sportingly and understands that the joke is not on him, but on the system and the patriarchy.
Another of the many feathers in your cap is modelling. You have done some video advertisements like HDFC life insurance and Seagrams recently. How does that fit in with your stand-up career?
Modelling is just something I do on the side since I am very comfortable with theatre, acting, shows, stage, etc. I am not particularly aggressive about it. I enjoy the experience and take it up as and when some project interests me. Stand-up comedy remains my constant. I want to work on this art form – every show is a step forward in perfecting it. I love being there with my audience; being able to speak my mind; and get their laughs as my feedback. I know I have a long way to go, but I am happy that my audience is coming along with me.
Stand-Up Comic Harpriya Bains make people laugh, what makes Harpriya Bains laugh?
My husband’s lame jokes and my daughters straight-faced one liners.
Is there any performance that stands out in your mind?
A show that I did for a group called ‘Winning Stree’. It was a group of about 30-40 women entrepreneurs in the 20-60 years age group. The meet was in Delhi. It was my first 20 minutes performance in an all-women audience. They were an amazing audience and thoroughly enjoyed themselves – cheering, hooting and giving me a standing ovation. I was really overwhelmed.
If you could have coffee with any stand-up artist, who would you choose?
It would have to be Sindhu Vee, the famous London based Indian comic. She’s a mother of three and is amazing at her work. I would love to have coffee with her and get some feedback or tips and know her thoughts on women in comedy
So, that brings us to the last question, how do you like your coffee?
In other people’s cups (laughs). I am a tea drinker. Having said that, I love the aroma of coffee and would love to sit next to someone having it.
See a video of Harpriya here