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Stand-up Anshita Koul is smashing the patriarchy one show at a time
As an Indian expat, Anshita Koul (pictured) is well aware of the clichés about both her homeland and her new country. And as a stand-up comedian, she does her best to avoid using them as fodder for laughs.
Koul, who is performing her show Little Too Much at The Black Sheep in Ixelles on 6 September, moved to Germany six years ago. She took the opportunity to transition out of a career in IT to writing and comedy. Besides a successful YouTube channel and Instagram account, she is performing at gigs around Europe.
“When I started doing comedy in Europe, it was difficult to find my voice,” she says. “These comparisons between India and Germany, it has all been done. A lot of Indian comics who have lived in Europe have used this. The language, the food and all that.”
She was interested in setting herself apart and soon realised that her gender did that for her. “There are not many Indian women doing comedy in Europe,” she says. “So I try to explore and talk about my experiences, not just as a woman, but as an Indian woman in Europe. That seems to appeal to a lot of people.”
If her name sounds familiar, you might have caught Koul’s show at the Black Sheep in 2019. “I have to say that was the show that put me on the stand-up comedy map in Europe,” she says. “I had been doing open mics and some shows, five minutes here and 10 minutes there. But this was the first time I had a 20-minute act, and it went really well. In fact, it was so good that a week later I started getting more shows from around Europe.”
Insecure & Dangereux
Hooray Brussels! And particularly hooray Insecure & Dangereux, the expat-run organisation that brings English stand-up to the capital. Launching in 2018, it is now collaborating with other organisations and finally getting acts back in Brussels after a seemingly endless health crisis.
Insecure & Dangereux co-founder Niamh Moroney is delighted to hear that Koul’s career took off in Europe following the Black Sheep show. That was the whole reason why she and a few fellow expats who worked in theatre launched Insecure and Dangereux in the first place.
“There was no place for people who want to start, no open mics really in English,” Moroney says. “There would be the odd thing, but nothing consistent. So we also thought of it as a place for us to get better, to do shows together and work on our material. It’s been quite successful, so we have clearly filled a gap.”
Insecure & Dangereux – a title that resulted from “a bit of self-reflection, where were thinking, hmm, we’re a bit insecure, and that could be dangerous” – hosts stand-up and occasionally cabaret in the popular expat haunts The Black Sheep and Funky Monkey but also other venues.
It has been tough sitting out the coronavirus crisis, especially when she hears Koul say her Brussels show helped launch her career. “A lot of comics really do love to come and perform on our night because it’s very chill, everybody gets along very well. People will travel to play our stage, which is so nice. It is a great environment, and our audiences are super cool, so it makes for a good time. It creates a spark that takes off from there.”
Koul says she is certainly glad to be back. Having launched her career on the Indian TV programme Queens of Comedy, she has played to audiences in both India and Europe. But the shows are completely different.
“I come from the Jammu and Kashmir region, so when I perform my show in Hindi, a full 20 minutes is political satire,” she explains. “But that is only contextual for people in India. The show in English is for an international audience.”
She certainly doesn’t leave her identity out of the show, though. “There are some bits in my English show where I talk about my nose – which is a very signature nose of my community – and all the politics around it.”
Switching from being a software engineer to a stand-up comedian – and in a foreign country – seems like a rather big leap, and, indeed, Koul’s steps have been gradual as she lets her career grow organically. But no that she’s crossed the threshold, there’s no going back.
“I love stand-up because it is very spontaneous and synchronous. On YouTube, you write a script, you write characters, it’s a lot of sketch comedy. After you shoot it, you can edit out what you don’t like, you can make it look nicer. You post it and then you receive the feedback. So it’s very asynchronous. But in stand-up it’s right there, right now.”
Not only is the feedback immediate, the whole act “is thrilling,” she says. “You get a little comfortable on the stage with a particular audience and feel like you’ve found your voice. It’s like a game of cards, you are playing the audience. You know there is a punchline coming up and they are going to laugh.”
And if they don’t? “If they don’t laugh, you’re like ‘what?! That was really funny!’”
But seriously, she says she feels a connection with the audience that is very real, there’s no hiding when she’s on stage. “I really enjoy that kind of connection, not just in my work but in my life. I love having conversations that are really raw and earnest. I think stand-up is a good way for me to express all the anger that I have ever had as a woman.”
Would it be accurate to say that patriarchy is not safe in Koul’s presence? “Patriarchy is going to have a hard time until the day I die,” she says, smiling. “I say in the show that it’s hard being a feminist because in order to be a feminist I have to start treating everyone equal to me. Including men. But I am awesome, so that kind of equality feels like oppression to me.” She laughs. “But, OK, I’ve met so many men in my life who are feminist and who are very nice – and they are also victims of patriarchy. So I thought, fine, I’ll be a feminist – for you.”
Koul has a quite clever video that is her answer to internet trolls who are down on feminism or the #metoo movement (see above). “Like any other movement, it has its flaws, its ups and downs,” she admits. “It’s not perfect, but you cannot discredit an entire movement that led to women being able to get up on stage and say what we want, and work and drive. We cannot discredit it just because some people don’t understand it. I often say that I’m a learning feminist, and you can be as well.”