Desi Women Storm The Stage At Desi Comedy Festival
The Zee TV Desi Comedy Festival Showcases Its Largest All-Star Female Comedy Lineup To Date
by Heather Cassell
This year’s Zee TV Desi Comedy Fest features the most women comics to date in the festival’s three year history.
The festival features 16 women comedians out of the lineup of 50 comedians who are descending upon the Bay Area from all over the world for the two week festival.
The festival kicks-off today (August 11) and runs to August 21 throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.
This year’s lineup of women comedians at the festival include: Franncesca Fiorentini (San Francisco), Shanti Charan (San Francisco), Shazia Mirza (London), Monrok (Los Angeles), Priya Prasad (San Francisco), Vasu Primlani (New Delhi), Sabeen Sadiq (Chicago), Mona Shaikh (New York), Melissa Shoshahi (Seattle), Irene Tu (San Francisco), Sindhu Vee (London), Priyanka Wali (San Francisco).
The comedians performing at the festival come from Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, China, India, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States.
Girls That Roam talks with the comedians and the co-founders and co-producers, Abhay Nadkarni and Samson Koletkar, of the Zee TV Desi Comedy Fest about the founding of the festival and the importance of including women comedians.
Bring On The Girls
This year the comedy festival features 16 women comedians out of the 50 in the lineup who will take stages throughout the San Francisco Bay Area from Silicon Valley to wine country for the next two weeks.
Many of the women are all impressively accomplished comedians. Monrok has appeared on HBO and is the winner of the funniest female comedian in California. Mona produces “The Minority Reportz” at the World famous Comedy Store in Los Angeles. Mirza has appeared on the BBC. Irene Tu was recently named one of KQED’s Women to Watch.
Tonight’s show features Monrok, Priyanka Wali, and Sindhu Vee among the lineup at Cobb’s Comedy Club in San Francisco.
Each of the 11 shows includes several of the women comics.
Abhay and Samson are very excited to see all of the women comedians, which there are significantly more in the lineup than the first two festivals that featured four and six women comedians, they tell Girls That Roam.
The audience is “going to love them, and laugh at them!” says Samson, 40, who along with Abhay, 33, anticipates upward of 4,000 attendees throughout the nearly sold out festival.
“I am excited to have every women comedian on the festival!” adds Samson, who has performed with many of the women comedians and some whom he hasn’t taken the stage. “Half the world is women. Isn’t it about time they received equal treatment?”
Abhay believes having women in the lineup is “absolutely vital” because diversity “brings with it an element of surprise that’s vital for a good comedy show.”
Abhay and Samson, who created the festival in 2013, hope to continue to add more women comedians to their lineup in the years to come, they both say.
All of the women expressed a sense of honor performing at the festival. They also hope to see more comedians like themselves take to the festival’s stage in the future.
“Hell yeah 16 South Asian females killin it!” says Mona, who has performed with all of the comedians before. “It’s great to see so many comics of South Asian background pursue their dreams and not be taken hostage by cultural/family expectations … it means we’re not all gonna be doctors.”
Vasu, a comedian from New Delhi, India who is performing for the first time at the festival, agrees.
“This is quite the pioneering effort! Why didn’t we think of this before?” says Vasu, who like Abhay and Samson point to other cultural festivals throughout the US.
“Comedy is all about a unique perspective,” she says. “South Asian comedians don’t just bring visual diversity; they bring in intellectual diversity to a joke. South Asians who are born and raised in the US speak from a slightly different perspective from the mainstream. South Asians who immigrate to the US bring a fresh set of eyes to the US, and portray US culture from a vastly different perspective.”
“It’s great to be part of such a beautiful concept, and to represent South Asians who do comedy,” says Melissa, who is performing for the first time at the festival this year.
She loves talking about her heritage as a second generation Iranian American. She counts one of her successes as a comedian as being able to inspire other Middle Eastern women to “follow their dreams.”
By being on stage she provides an example of what is possible for Middle Eastern women beyond what their culture and society prescribes for them.
“They can see there’s more to the culture than what is asked of them,” says Melissa, who animatedly tells stories about family, love, and pop culture on stage.
It is being that example that is the reason women being given the stage at the comedy festival is so important to her.
“It’s extremely important. We represent what comedy is and it’s not just a man’s world, especially for the Middle East where women are not as outspoken,” says Melissa. “I think it’s a great opportunity to showcase all the amazing gifts women have and are capable of.”
The women expressed excitement about performing with each other along with the men comedians.
It’s Desi Time
In 2013, Abhay and Samson saw the perfect storm of opportunity to create a comedy festival for the Desi (pronounced “THEY-see”) community. Noting the San Francisco Bay Area’s growing South Asian community and the dearth of permanent ongoing Desi-centric live performances for audiences to enjoy and a central place for comedians of South Asian descent to showcase their talent they grasped at the golden peacock.
“I realized that as someone [who was] raised Jewish I had done more Muslim shows than Jewish shows,” says Samson, a comedian who was born and raised in Mumbai, India before settling in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2000.
Three years ago he produced two shows on India and Pakistan’s independence days, August 14 and 15, respectively, featuring two Pakistani and three Indian comedians. The shows were somewhat successful, successful enough to launch the idea to do something bigger.
“The seed was planted for something bigger,” says Samson, who teamed up with his friend, Abhay, to create the Desi Comedy Fest.
Abhay, who was born in New Delhi, but grew up in both India and Qatar before settling in San Francisco more than a decade ago, believes that the South Asian community is going through a “creative zeitgeist.”
“The South Asian community is going through a creative zeitgeist,” says Abhay. Unlike previous generations that focused on becoming doctors, engineers, and lawyers, a new generation is spreading their wings.
The South Asian community is made up of people from or descendent from the eight countries – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – that create the Indian subcontinent.
If you haven’t heard of these comedians, you aren’t alone. Abhay is quick to point out that audiences searching for comedians from or of South Asian descent have been hard to find, in spite of many of them working the comedy scene.
It was the two men’s vision to create a platform to bring the large diverse pool of talent together with their audience. It’s working.
“The [Zee TV] Desi Comedy Fest is a perfect platform to connect the comedians with a new group of fans,” says Abhay.
The festival has grown exponentially since it launched in 2013. Each year the festival nearly sells out. The first year 700 people came out to see the comedians. The following year 1,200 comedy lovers attended the festival, says Samson. This year, the producers hope to attract upward of 4,000 attendees throughout the festival’s run, the two men say.
“I really hope Homeland Security won’t be tracking us down at the festival,” says Mona, who is excited to be performing at the festival.
On a more serious note, Priya believes it’s great that audiences and the Indian community have an opportunity to experience comedy that reflects their culture.
“There are a large number of Indians in the Bay Area thanks to the IT industry,” she says. “It’s great that they get to experience comedy that is directed towards their culture, religion, and experiences.”
The Zee TV Desi Comedy Festival starts today (August 11) through August 21 with performances in San Francisco, Berkeley, Mill Valley, San Jose, Union City, Kenwood, Livermore, Santa Cruz, and Sacramento. Tickets for each show starts at $30. For more information, contact or visit, desicomedyfest.com.
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