In Karachi, we have a complicated relationship with ‘sex-talk’.
Puberty secrets enveloped in hushed giggles are whispered across school corridors growing up, and if you’re lucky, you find a safe digital space where you can ask questions, explore and deconstruct and analyse anything and everything that piques your interest.
But for many, there is no ‘sex-talk’ and the journey of discovery begins with stained bedsheets or stained pants or even a confusing dream that our society most often does not deem fit to acknowledge, let alone explain.
Puberty becomes doubly confusing because spaces that would enable an understanding or exploration of what is happening to your body are far and few in number – and so, many grownups in Karachi lay trapped in a sexual adolescence forever: confused, afraid and unwilling to even ask questions about that which ‘fits’ and suits their purpose of reproduction. It’s not something we talk about, and it really isn’t something we joke about. Women, especially, just bear it.
But there’s a drag queen in town, and she’s not only joking about it – she’s waging a full fledged war against stigmatisation and sexual repression. Miss Phudina Chuttni does stand-up comedy sets every so often in Karachi, lighting little fires that rage across the city. Her thematic inspiration is sexuality – but she uses it as a springboard for all sorts of political and social commentary.
Jokes beginning with raunchy descriptions of illicit encounters build up to clever jabs at Ali Zafar’s recent performance of misogyny, jokes detailing illicit preferences serve as insightful windows into class privilege and the disconnects it nurtures in the city. Miss Phudina Chuttni is funny, she’s clever and she’s out to burn down the patriarchy.
I recently had the privilege of attending her show, and then speaking with the personality behind the persona, Muhammad Moiz, about the craft and its costs. Both experiences were enlightening, exciting – and they left me ever so hopeful as I witnessed a Karachi in which strangers felt safe sharing a space where they could laugh about an act that almost everyone is expected to partake in, but no one is allowed to talk about.
The thing that stood out most about the performance space was the fact that it was brimming with people – expectant Karachiites of all ages, seated on chairs, huddled in cramped corners, even in the performance area itself. The room felt cozy, and once Miss Phudina Chuttni took to stage, it even started to feel safe.
As a rule, she never picks on women, and even as she does audience work with men, she never punches down. Comfort is given a lot of importance, to the extent that the only disruptive presence in the room was told to leave the space by Miss Chuttni because she did not want the individual to feel unsafe or uncomfortable due to the nature of the content, nor did she want the audience to feel unsafe because of the presence of someone who was uncomfortable with the comedic material.
‘The audience being uncomfortable makes the performer uncomfortable,’ shared Muhammad Moiz when we got the chance to catch up a few days after the show. He described standup to be a ‘bilateral process’ sharing that he is constantly observing the audience’s response to different ideas and words, and molding his material accordingly – a process which results in eighty percent of his show running on improvised material.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this process is the internal negotiation that it requires with every risk woven into the content, intrinsic to the subject that it explores. Moiz described, ‘Whatever is happening is within a power structure – there are those who through comedy criticise that power structure, but I am trying to subvert it. I am rattling the power structure, the cage. My drag queen is not ashamed of sex and she talks about it in a way that in our society mostly men do.’
That subversion is perhaps what makes Miss Phudina Chuttni so interesting, and her comedy so unique – it is jarring to see a female persona joke about sex with a sense of abandon, almost as if she belongs in a world where that space isn’t occupied and guarded by men, and men alone. As the women in the room hooted and roared with laughter at Miss Chutni’s takedown of men, there was an unmistakable sense of collective catharsis that spread through the space over the course of the evening.
Miss Chuttni does not only rebel against gendered systems of oppressions she is also out to decolonize our relationship with language. She did a whole segment on Urdu ‘sex words’ – detailing how some of them are so much more beautiful than their English counterparts and questioning the discomfort associated with those words.
While the commentary was packaged in jokes that left you rolling in laughter, it also left you thinking through and engaging with internal biases. Moiz shared with me, “I’m very anti-colonial. I’m all about brown pride. I’m from the North where we’ve felt the effects of colonial rule for very long,” going on to add, “Whatever art you create should always be political and intersectional, and that is what Miss Phudina Chuttni represents.”
For Muhammad Moiz, the process of crafting the persona has also been an extremely interesting one. He described how he felt that Pakistan was very ready for a drag queen for a number of reasons – a strong theatrical history, and the visibility of drag personas on TV being two important ones.
While he did consider most of those representations to be tone deaf, sexist and transphobic, with the exception of a few characters such as Moin Akhtar’s Rosie, he felt that the larger visibility created room for the work he is doing today. His drag queen is just like him, he shared, “She’s urbanised – a regular, every day urban Pakistani. She had to have a desi name. I wanted to create a desi as hell drag character.”
A part of crafting authenticity and ensuring relatability has come from drawing inspiration from the people around him, and the intimate stories they share – Miss Phudina Chutni tells us exaggerated and hilarious versions of those very stories. But the relatability of the content, despite the heavy exaggeration it is layered with, also stems from an understanding of the audience.
Moiz shared, “Most of our writers don’t understand our generation and its problems. They don’t know how to write for us. I wanted to change that.”
And with that understanding, also comes his strategy – “I don’t want to mainstream queer spaces, I want to queer mainstream spaces” – an important conversation to initiate, and a mission I am excited to see unfold with the support and consent of the larger queer community in the city, of course. Moiz himself is also in the process of understanding the space Miss Chutni is coming to occupy in the city – a space that he hopes she can occupy without being subjected to toxicity, and a space that I hope continues to feel safe for Miss Chutni and her audiences alike.
While Moiz has not received any threats because of this work, he described how he does have to bear an emotional cost that is exhausting. That cost was visible in the show itself when Miss Chutni asked the disruptive audience member to leave – the encounter was upsetting for the audience and I can’t imagine how upsetting it must have been for her. And yet she continued to entertain, perform, challenge in a way that made the space feel safe again.
Her work is important not only because it is accompanied by a welcome release of endorphins, it is important because it is political. Miss Chuttni has started an extremely political conversation as she has created a space in which sex is a normal bodily function, which almost everyone partakes in, desires, enjoys, doesn’t enjoy, understands, finds confusing – and even laughable. A rare space in Karachi.
The stigmatization of sex is oppressive, and that oppression cannot be challenged if it isn’t even acknowledged. Miss Chuttni’s acknowledgement comes with an important side of laughter. Highly recommended.