Deepika Mhatre cooked meals, washed dishes and bathed babies for years as a domestic worker in Mumbai, until she discovered her true talent - stand up comedy.
Aside from entertaining denizens of Mumbai's hip comedy scene, Mhatre has become a voice for India's largely-voiceless domestic workers, many of whom face discrimination daily.
"Our employers like our work, but not us," she told
"We keep their homes clean, but when we are in the same lift as them, they don't like it. We smell, they say. They like us to remain invisible."
Mhatre's unexpected path to comedy began when one of her employers - who was nice and "unlike other madams" - organised a talent show for domestic staff. Others danced and sang, but Mhatre told jokes about their jobs.
Her set was a surprise hit, and she said her employer and a reporter present at the event were so impressed that they introduced her to a friend - comedian Aditi Mittal, who helped her break into the scene in Mumbai.
Mhatre was spotted and approached by a journalist during a talent show at a housing society where she was performing for the first time.
“Our madam arranged a talent show for us maids and asked us to perform whatever we were good at. A journalist, who was present at the event, liked my show and suggested that I should get in touch with Aditi Mittal (stand-up comedian),” she said. Soon after, Mittal visited Mhatre and prepared her for her first stand-up comedy show.
A few months after that show, Mhatre did her first stage performance that was received well. “Many people came up and congratulated me. There were others who even apologised for the discrimination I have faced,” she said.
Her audience mostly comprises people of the same strata that she makes fun of. “I told my ‘Madam’ that I am going to crack jokes on you. She just laughed.
People don’t raise a voice because they fear to lose their jobs. I am not scared of anyone. These women need us maids more than we need them. If we leave their work, they are at a loss. We can always find new homes to work in. Comedy is my way of raising voice,” Mhatre said.
In a field largely dominated by men, Mhatre has managed to carve a place for women who are from a different section of society. “Every woman should progress in life and should not back down in any circumstance. Stand-up comedy boosts a woman’s confidence when she takes the stage and talks to people,” she said.
Now that one of her videos has gone viral, Mhatre has been approached by several television channels to feature her in their shows. Her children, who earlier dissuaded her from participating in such shows, are now proud of their mother. “My children were apprehensive at first but now they proudly say that I am their mother. Even women in my society now recognise me.”