Deepika Mhatre, a domestic helper who worked in Malad, is the newest name in Mumbai's comedy circle. Mhatre, through her stand-up act, tells the stories of poor women, especially those who, much like her, work at other people's houses to make their living. She delivers crisp commentaries on the kind of discrimination that domestic workers face and her observations on gender politics are also spot on.
When I asked Mhatre what's her style of comedy, she told me with a self-indulgent laugh, "Main toh hasee hasee mein tana marti hu." (I taunt people with my comedy). Watch her performance video and you will realize that she isn't kidding. She veils deep sarcasm in humour, but more than that, her content reveals the bitterest of truths about social discrimination, with the help of comedy.
Talking about the lives of the domestic workers, the comedienne revealed what confounded her most was the fact that they were always expected to make themselves invisible. "You have to quietly sit on the stairs. Your plates and tumblers are different from the people you work for. There is always a discrimination," Mhatre pointed out.
"In the building in which I worked there was a different elevator for the help. These little things irked me a lot. After all, even domestic workers are humans, aren't they? Then why treat them like this?" she asked.
Mhatre may not be spouting any feminism catchphrases but her keen observations of the societal hypocrisy when it comes to gender roles are very accurate. In her act she points out how she is always required to wear a mangalsutra and sindoor to show that she is married, while her husband doesn't have to do any such thing. "I tell a lot of jokes about men and how they get preferential treatment even if they don't do anything substantial to deserve it," she told me. " My husband is often a soft target," she added with a laugh.
Three things make her style of comedy unique and fresh. First, she comes from a section of the society that hardly has any representation in comedy clubs. Yes, stand-up comedy in India is still in its early years and is mostly a domain accessible to individuals from the middle class, or upper middle class. For Mhatre -- a daughter of a hospital clerk and a maid herself, who has to take care of her three daughters and run her household -- to make a space of her own in that circuit is no easy feat.
Second, because of her background, Mhatre also brings a subaltern perspective that we hardly see in Indian comedy acts. In one of her popular stand-up performancesfeatured in comedian Aditi Mittal's web series, Bad Girls, Mhatre begins by saying, "Namaste, I'm Deepika Mhatre, and I work as a maid. I've often observed that stand-up comedians tell a lot of jokes about their maids. But, today is my turn."
And, third is the fact that she is a woman comedian. There are very few women comedians in India and if you speak to them, they will tell you, that much like any other field, sexism is alive and kicking on the stages of laughter clubs as well.
Mhatre, however, didn't do it all alone. Another woman helped her out. Much of Mhatre's success she owes to comedienne Aditi Mittal who not only gave her a stage to perform but also refined her truth bombs as punchlines, organized her comedy bits into a proper act.
Mhatre first displayed her talents as a comic in an event organized at the building in which she used to work -- Rustomjee Elanza, which is where a journalist, Rachel Lopez, spotted her and later introduced her to Mittal.
"Aditi (Mittal) told me that I will have a bright future in comedy. But, initially, I was afraid. I just said that I can't do stage performance. So, she told me that, 'I will introduce you to your own talent. I will teach you how to talk on stage and what to do', and she did." said Mhatre.
It's been a year since Mhatre made her debut as a stand-up comedian. "I used to do shows almost three times every week. There were several events, sometimes in theatres and at other times in comedy clubs," she recalled.
"I have a few shows coming up, but now I am really busy with interviews, because of which I haven't been able to focus on my stand-up shows. Every day, I am giving interviews, from 7 am in the morning, till I go to sleep at night." said the comedian.
This new-found fame has made a lot of difference in Mhatre's life and lifestyle. Before, she used to wake up at 4 am every morning. At around 4:30 am, she boarded a local train from Nala Sopara to Churchgate. She told me that she used to sell imitation jewellery on the train --like bangles and trinkets.
After selling jewellery, at around 6:30 am she went to work in Malad. "I worked in five houses. Now, I don't anymore. By the time I got done, it would be almost 2- 3 pm in the afternoon. After that, I went to buy new jewellery to replace the ones I sold. I often went to Malad or Dadar to buy those. I then returned home, packed the jewellery into packages and did my own house's chores. By the time I got done, it would be 12 at night." she said.
When I asked her if she would leave all her side jobs to focus on her career as a stand-up comedian now that she had become famous, she replied: "Stand-up mein toh kuch kamai hi nahi hai." (One barely makes any money as a stand-up comedian.)
"I will take all the shows that come my way instead," she said. "Why should I continue with stand-up if that doesn't pay? I'm glad though that it has helped me make a mark of my own," added Mhatre. The comedian, however, confessed that although her popularity in the social media and the comedy circle may be new, she has always been 'popular' among her friends, co-workers and her inner circles. She revealed that she is the life of any party, and no function is fun until she walks in.
Mhatre is good-humored and has an infectious laugh. She told me that when she was in school, she didn't have any special ambition in life. But, now things have changed. She obviously wants to make it big, not only as a comedian but also as an entertainer and it seems there is no dearth of options for her.
Mhatre has already been shortlisted as a contestant of India's Got Talent and has appeared on a game show in Star Plus. "Now, I have also started getting offers from Colors and Star Plus. I have also been called for ZEE Awards, Marathi. If I get more offers, I will obviously take them," she said happily.