Sweta Mantrii, who took to stand-up to talk about disability
Meet Sweta Mantrii, who took to stand-up comedy to talk about disability
Apart from stand-up comedy, she has addressed the issues of disabilities through her writings, with one of her ideas eventually building into a 12-minute documentary, titled Disability — a State of Mind.
We are either looked at with pity or we are suddenly inspirational. There is no in between,” says Sweta Mantrii, writer and disability rights activist, based in Pune. She took to stand-up to have a conversation about her disability and the issues that come with it. Born with spinal bifida, Mantrii now finds people calling her “inspirational”. “There is this stereotype that just because we are differently abled, we are angels sent from heaven,” she says, reinforcing the need for differently-abled people to be treated as normal. Mantrii performed her piece titled With this Ability on June 21, at the Book Establishment Café, Pune.
“When I started doing stand-up, I realised that it makes me feel good as a performer while talking about the topics that I can’t address otherwise,” she says. With a 20-minute set followed by an interactive session with the audience, Mantrii aims to use comedy to initiate a dialogue. “There’s this perception ki agar koyi road pe khada hai toh usko road cross karwana hai. At least ask a disabled person if they really need to be helped,” she says. Two years after she began stand-up, Mantrii is confident that “most people don’t know how to behave around differently-abled people”. She highlighted the need to break the barriers and stereotypes that come with people and disability.
Mantrii came across stand-up on YouTube, when she was stuck at home for two months in 2016 after a fracture. “I thought, ‘Arrey wah, even I am sarcastic, so why not club it with comedy on disability?” says Mantrii. With no background in comedy, her journey started off as an experiment.
Her first show which coincidentally happened around World Disability Day (December 3) in 2018, turned out to a first-of-its-kind. While her work did garner immense praise, the audience seemed uncomfortable with the truth bombs. She explained the initial narrative that stand-up comedy in India has to offer, exposes audiences to male-dominated content with character-centric comedy. “Over time, I realised that people had started getting uncomfortable with the direct, frank conversations; they don’t like to own up to their faults,” said Mantrii, highlighting that turning personal stories and problems into her narrative lead to audiences finding the subject too touchy and uncomfortable. “I have more of a Karan Johar audience than an Anurag Kashyap audience,” says Mantrii, with a laugh, although she believes in looking at life without rose-tinted glasses.
“My sarcasm and self-deprecating jokes were usually coming off as rants. And they don’t like having fingers pointed at them. People felt too “privileged” to be laughing at a disabled person,” she says.
Her comedy has now evolved with time. While she admits to being jittery before a show, she feels a lot more confident now. “I now take the first few minutes of my set to make the audience feel comfortable, and then I drop the big bombs,” she chuckles. From overbearing relatives at functions, her parents being overdramatic, to awkward conversations on Tinder, her piece has a lot in store.
Apart from stand-up comedy, she has addressed the issues of disabilities through her writings, with one of her ideas eventually building into a 12-minute documentary, titled Disability — a State of Mind. Shot entirely on an Ipad, the documentary focuses on unfriendly infrastructure, lack of representation in mainstream media, interactions with individuals regarding their sexuality and marriage, and the overall lack of inclusion of differently-abled people in society.
The hard-hitting concepts resulted in Mantrii facing severe backlash for raising important arguments. “I was told to stop cribbing. As an educated person coming from a financially stable family, I was considered too privileged to be addressing those issues,” says Mantrii.
On an everyday basis, Mantrii explains, she has to consider spending more than the average able-bodied person to access basic daily necessities, be it using public transport or a public restroom. “From rickshaw guys charging me double the metre rate to having to buy coffee at a cafe every time I need to use a restroom, there are times when I have to work my way around things,” she says.
She has been addressing the issues of being disabled for over seven years now. She had started the “Give Some Space” initiative with a friend and raised awareness on disability issues through Facebook. Her page spoke of aspects such as non-disabled friendly infrastructure and mainly highlighted the idea of inclusion in infrastructural and city planning.
Her bedroom is currently adorned by a colourful visual showcasing the restaurants in Pune that provide non-disability friendly washrooms. With smears of bright blue and purples, the cardboard canvas with the map of Pune etched out, has landmarks in the shape of toilet seats to tell the struggles of finding disabled friendly restrooms.
When asked about her inspirations behind the stand-up comedy, her mind immediately goes to David Chappelle, for his unapologetic style of comedy. “I am nowhere close to his level of comedy, but hopefully one day, I will be able to stand in front of an audience and make jokes without thinking about consequences,” she says.
While Mantrii is not the only one who uses her disabilities to bring home a larger idea, she certainly provides food for thought.