When was the last time you saw great stand-up comedy in Pakistan? Depending on which city you’re living in, the answer might range from never to sometime during the last martial law. When was the last time you saw a bunch of women perform stand-up comedy in Pakistan? Women perform comedy? Have you broken into a cold sweat, is your hand slowly heading towards your gaping mouth, is your other hand reaching for a phone to call the police?
That’s exactly their point.
The Auratnaaks is a stand-up comedy ensemble put together recently in Karachi by a group of young women who, unless you’re shriveled up and dead inside, will likely blow you away. The show is the brainchild of lawyer, comedian and improvisational performer Hassaan Bin Shaheen, who together with Fatema Shah, one of the original performers, brought the idea to Lahore — where she was the only remaining performer from Karachi among a local cast.
The first performance under The Auratnaaks umbrella was at T2F in Karachi, and the latest at The Last Word in Lahore on September 3, 2016 (they performed a day earlier in the same city at Olomopolo, yes that’s a mouthful, even for them).
The sets are relentlessly ribald, in your face, with plenty of heartfelt expletives and excellently worded insults, reserved for things that really piss these women off.
There are jokes about guys not shaving their nether regions, there are jokes about cup sizes, menstrual pads, waxing, threading, rishtas, judgmental aunties, lecherous men and other social horrors visited upon women. Subjects with considerable social taboos like menstruation, puberty and sexuality are dealt with such a flamboyant irreverence that at the end you feel like there still wasn’t enough menstruation, puberty and sexuality.
But there is a level of engagement here that goes beyond just giggles, beyond cue cards and punch lines and into the territory of mesmeric storytelling, words and anecdotes that stay after the laughter has died down.
Each performer tells a distinct story, whether through activism, writing, teaching, singing, modeling or evading marriage proposals, whatever consumes their days, they turn it over in comedic gusto. To give you just snippets of what they have to offer.
The show is introduced and set in manic motion by Noor Peerzada, who dons the persona of baji, your unfriendly neighbourhood, overly talkative, endearingly paindoo and thickly accented Punjabi woman. You’ve probably never wondered what caged chickens think about while staring at you from the back of a moving van, but baji has.
Among other shenanigans, baji does the task of introducing each ensuing performer, including the talents of Eman Suleman, Yusra Amjad, Shafaq Javaid, Arooj Aurangzeb, Mavra Ghaznavi, Seerat Fatima, Meherbano Raja, Zara Peerzada and Fatema Shah.
One performer jokes about coming out as bisexual to her mother, telling her how she’s really into this British girl, and her mother saying good you’ll get a citizenship that way, because what mother doesn’t jump straight (or otherwise) to marriage?
Another talks about how awkward dating is in Pakistan and being caught by the police in a car with her boyfriend. When asked what she’s doing she replies, ‘woh mere cousin ki goud mein kuchh gir gya tha’. Single sentence introductions are inadequate to explain what was a riveting 90-minute performance. A performance that was just five days in the making; these women took less than a week to rehearse and practice their routines. Imagine what they could do with more time.
There was a guy standing next to me going oh god, oh #^-@ throughout the performance, expressions of ‘they did not just go there’. But they did. They went everywhere and then some. But it wasn’t just about being edgy —though they dropped words so sharp you could shave legs with them — it was also about being witty. You know a man is having a good time when he’s going oh god, oh #^-@. You also know he’s having a bad time by the same two phrases.
Yes, we have a limited vocabulary. But our collective reaction to the show was important. The Auratnaaks should probably be mandatory viewing for immature, pubescent boys, who cover the ages of about 11 to 51.
Go watch if they perform near you, convince them to perform more often if you know any of them personally. The Auratnaaks is exactly what stand-up and improvised comedy in Pakistan needs.
One hopes there will be many future shows to similarly unaccompanied by caveats like women can be funny too. Dear lord, no more of ‘women can be funny too’. The world has known for ages that women have a sense of humour, after all most marry men.
The writer is a staffer at the Herald and tweets @haseebasif