She fell into comedy as a way to relieve the stress of her graduate studies, and now Dubai stand-up comedienne Arzoo Malhotra has made it to the very stage that first inspired her two years ago – the world-renowned Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Finding her way back
Comedy was a "detour off the original plan", says Malhotra, 26. First, she took a course in environmental studies at the George Washington University in Washington DC and then earned a master's degree in food security from the University of Edinburgh.
Travelling to Edinburgh this summer brings her full circle. Malhotra's first show was in the Scottish capital in May 2017. She stumbled across comedy while studying and realised it offered her respite during a tough time. "I was super stressed out with school so, for a laugh, I thought I'd try my hand at an amateur comedy night at a local comedy club there," she says.
“I had the time of my life and have been performing ever since.”
Understandably, she is grateful to have been accepted on the bill for one of the world's most famous festivals. "I'm so excited because I have loved going to the Fringe as an audience member for the past two years and it's surreal that this year I get to go back as a performer," she says.
Malhotra is just the third act from the Emirates to perform at the Fringe. And she is, she admits, a bit nervous. "More than anything, though, I feel grateful that I have the opportunity to do this. Not everyone gets to do what they love and I feel very lucky that I have that chance."
By day, Malhotra is a data scientist and research analyst in agricultural development and environmental management. By night, she tells jokes – wherever she can.
What being a 'third-culture kid' taught her
The comedienne was born in India, and moved to Egypt when she was nine. She went to the US as a teenager, but now lives in Dubai. Being "a third-culture kid" has played a huge role in her writing. "I always grew up with a sense of being in between; in between places or identities or stages of my life," she says.
Malhotra's parents took her to her first comedy show aged 12, in New York, and now they frequently attend her shows. They never burdened her with their expectations of what they thought her life should be. "They chose to root for the hopes and dreams that I found for myself," she says. "I'm really lucky in that regard."
She admits she was anxious the first time they were in the audience for one of her shows, worried they would be put off by the adult language and content that sometimes features at gigs. "The funny part is, in the end, they were more relaxed about it than I was," she says. "They understand that this is a performance and that sometimes that stuff is a part of the show."
A large part of her act draws on her Indian heritage. Malhotra knows she’s not what many people expect from an Indian woman, calling herself “the worst Indian ever”. Her favourite food? Steak.
She tackles issues of identity and stereotypes in her comedy, admitting that she is far from the idealised version of any of the categories she falls into: Indian, immigrant, woman or professional. "There are all these stereotypes out there, things like 'Indians are good with computers' or 'women all like the colour pink'. Those stereotypes can breed intolerance and can be really stifling to people," she says. "I've never fitted the narrow, one-dimensional caricature of any stereotype, and to be honest, I don't think anyone ever does. That's why I joke about that stuff; so I can make fun of this silly idea that where you're from or what you look like is this absolute determinant of who you are as a person."
Her bubbly, self-effacing monologues reflect her own raw insecurities with an authenticity often only found in comedy. "My jokes come from a place of honesty, and that sometimes means being honest about my own imperfections," she says.
Malhotra says perfect people with perfect lives are neither funny nor relatable, believing that sharing imperfections and laughing about them can be cathartic for audiences, as well as, for herself.
And after landing a gig at one of the world's most prestigious arts festivals just two years after launching her act, what's next? More festivals, big venues – the likes of the Comedy Cellar in New York or the Comedy Store in Los Angeles? "That would probably be the highlight of my life," she says.