I am a woman, and I am more of a man than you'll ever be.
Vasu Primlani, 47, is one of India's first openly gay comedians and a celebrated environmentalist who was awarded the Nari Shakti Purashkar in 2015 by then Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. She didn't direct the statement to a heckling audience member during one of her comedy routines. On the contrary, Vasu recalled a memory when two men had trailed her.
"They were debating whether I am a man or a woman," she said. Her face remained calm and somber as she narrated how she turned around to reply and settle things. Her reply summarised everything that prevents the message of equality from resonating with larger masses.
Her eyes twinkled, and a smile of satisfaction crossed her lips as she reached the climax of the memory. Vasu provided multiple personal examples of the several prejudices that threaten confidence and self-worth in people who don't "fit in" to gender binaries. Her jokes have always contained messages that she honestly believes the world needs to acknowledge.
She pointed out that, in melting pots like Mumbai, people have come a long way in terms of gender equality, with institutions like Bollywood opening up to gender fluidity as it exists. However, Vasu couldn't help but lament that the same cannot be said about a vast portion of India.
Her feet firmly grounded to the harsher realities that society has to offer, Vasu believes that the message is there and has been for quite some time now, but people need to be more open towards accepting it. "Until there is a willingness to change from the receiver's end, the message will not be received," she said.
But despite acknowledging the existence of vast disparities in society, Vasu remains optimistic about the progress she is witness. Outlining that communication is essentially three things: "the communicator," "the message," and "one who receives the message," she said:
Comedy has always been the most powerful form of communication… I do consider comedy to be the litmus test of democracy.
As an artist, Vasu talks about things that are important to her: the environment and human rights. As she prepares to write her next skit, she brings together thoughts of everything she cares deeply about and communicates those through her jokes. She believes the purpose of her comedy is to disarm her audience and, as they are about to explode into laughter, deliver a necessary message.
To the untrained eye, Vasu seems to be balancing several roles as a somatic therapist, professor, environmentalist, and stand-up artist. Still, Vasu believes that everything she does is connected and directed towards a single monolithic goal: "healing."
It's about healing others, healing myself, or healing the planet.
She said these words as she narrated an incident where an audience member thanked her for "making the last few days of their best friend happy."
But all of Vasu's endeavors require tremendous zest. And as a diehard fitness enthusiast and triathlete, Vasu does not lack the energy to put in a hundred percent in achieving her goal of healing. "We (comedians) work as preventive doctors," Vasu said, explaining that no matter what she does, she always remembers her responsibility of providing hope to people and herself.
Vasu's message has already reached tens of thousands and is making its way to more people every day, but when asked if she considers herself a role model, her reply ended with acknowledgment of the love and respect she has garnered through her work. When she is able to help someone, she is happy, though she believes her work concerns herself and all of the things she dearly cares about.
Vasu is also thankful to her role models that include her teacher, family, and friends who have been her support system through her triumphs and losses as she continues to spread awareness through frolic and laughter.