(A version of this piece was published on the Indian news site WSN)
“When I’m stressed,” Sameena Zehra told me in London’s Covent Garden last week, “I make architectural floor plans to calm myself. I put in where the electric points go. If I ever have a plot of land and money to build, I will have hundreds of floor plans to choose from. But I really shouldn’t tell people about liking architectural plans.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it’s part of my general madness… homicide and everything else. When I have an argument with my husband, I plan the arrangements for his funeral in detail. I’ve planned my own as well. I’m going to have a Viking funeral.”
“I like the idea of people standing by a beach and sending me off on a raft and then firing burning arrows at it.”
“But before that, on the 4th of April,” I said, “you’re starting a new monthly comedy club in West Ham called WHAT?””
“It’s called the Cult of Comedy,” said Sameena, “mainly because I’ve always wanted to start a cult because I want loads of people who will do my bidding.”
“If I were doing cheap psychology…” I ventured. “Liking architectural plans, wanting a Viking funeral and starting a cult makes it seem like you want to control things which, I suppose, comedians want to do because they want to control and affect the audience.”
“I have no desire to control the audience,” Sameena replied. “But, in my own life, I have had a thing about wanting to control the things that happen in order for me to then go crazy – because you need the boundaries. I would never go up on stage with a half-finished piece of work.”
“Ideally,” I suggested, “you should go on stage with a script fully worked-out in extreme detail and throw parts of it away to fit into what happens on the night. Then you always have a strong skeleton to fall back on.”
“But you have to have courage to do that,” said Sameena.”And ability. I’ve been doing comedy for two and a half years and I’m not good enough to just ‘let go’. I’m still learning. I was an actor for fifteen years: I really enjoyed doing original writing, new plays. Sometimes I worked on plays that were still being written, which was fascinating.
“One of the reasons I moved from acting to comedy was I wanted creative control of my work. Really, as an actor, if I’d had one more offer or audition as an Asian shopkeeper or a terrorist’s wife, sister or daughter, I would have killed someone. I loved being an actor but I wanted to leave while I still loved it.
“Comedy’s amazing, because you write something and you take it out and do it. You don’t have to wait for a producer or a director or anybody. You just write it and do it and then you stand or fall on the quality of your work. I’ve given myself five years to get to a point where I have some sort of audience that likes my work.”
“You know my theory,” I said, “that you have to play the Edinburgh Fringe three years in a row. The first year, they don’t know you’re there. The second year, you get some attention. The third year, they see you as an established performer.”
“I may not be able to do Edinburgh this year,” Sameena told me. “I don’t know if I can afford it. But, if I don’t do a full show, I am going to go up for a week and do open spots and see other shows.”
“The danger if you leave a year gap between shows,” I said, “is you have to start from scratch again because not only do audiences change but reviewers change. So where is this place you want to be after five years from starting comedy?”
“I want to be touring my show and to have found my voice and be more courageous and have written a really good piece. I think my show at the Fringe last year – Tea With Terrorists – was a good show. The new one I’m writing – Homicidal Pacifist – I don’t know what that’s going to be like. After five years in comedy, I would like to have honed my craft and to have had fun doing it and I would like to have done it with integrity.”
“And,” I asked, “if you don’t reach that point after five years?”
“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” said Sameena. “I’ll keep doing comedy, I’ll just have to change my strategy.”
“So why are you now a Homicidal Pacifist?” I asked.
“Because,” explained Sameena, “I am a pacifist in my heart: I believe in non-violent civil disobedience. I believe that, when we use violence, it demeans and diminishes us as human beings… On the other hand, I occasionally have the urge to get a machete and run around an Asda supermarket with it.
“Here’s the thing. I love humanity, the adjective. But I do not like Humanity, the noun.
“The premise of my new show is that I’m working on a plan to cull the human race. It’s going to be thought-out and logical. There’s going to be a questionnaire. If you fail it, you get three years to fix yourself. If, after three years, you haven’t fixed yourself, you’re going to be culled.
“There’s going to be a culling aisle in the supermarket. Every supermarket will have one and there will be an announcement that goes: Attention! Customer announcement! Culling will begin in Aisle 3 in fifteen minutes.
“There are certain groups that will have a preponderance, like merchant bankers. It doesn’t mean all of them will be culled – because I’m unwilling to dismiss a whole group of people just because of the worst characteristics of 90% of them.
“That’s where I am. I’m very angry about things and I can imagine being in a news story that ends with the words: She then turned the gun on herself. But I hope I won’t. So I need to get it out of my system.
“I love crime fiction. It must be the homicidal inside me. I love Elmore Leonard and Steven Saylor, who sets all his crime novels in the Roman Empire. You get a whole milieu; you learn about the social history of Rome. Same with Dorothy L.Sayers: 1920s Britain. Same with C.J.Sansom who writes novels set during Henry VIII’s reign. I think I like the puzzles as well. I’m a great fan of puzzles.”
“And architectural floor plans,” I said.
“I’m writing a crime novel myself,” Sameena told me.
“Based where?” I asked, surprised.
“In modern-day London. I’ve always wanted to write a crime novel. It’s about a woman in her thirties who used to be part of a three-person team that did extractions in South American and African countries where people get kidnapped.”
“Extractions for companies?” I asked.
“Yes. And now she runs a private detective agency with a friend of hers.”
I asked: “Can I say that in my blog or will someone nick the idea?”
“Who cares if they nick the idea?” replied Sameena. “The one I want to write – the one I need to write before I die – is a detective novel set during the Moghul Empire in India. There was a Moghul King called Akbar The Great and the years of his reign are pretty concurrent with Elizabeth I in England. It was a Moslem dynasty and he was an amazing guy. It was one of his descendants who built the Taj Mahal.
“I’ve got a female detective in mind who is part midwife, part travelling mendicant. You need a character who can pass between royalty and the common people. She goes around solving mysteries and I would like to have the absolutely amazing tapestry of the Moghul Empire behind these everyday stories. Nowadays, because we’re all becoming Islamophobic, we’re forgetting that Islam was a real force for spreading knowledge. And women were educated. They had options. They even went into war. There are lots of famous Indian women warriors. They kicked ass.”
“You strike me as being very organised,” I said. “Isn’t being disorganised, doolally and mad almost a pre-requisite for being a comic?”
“A lot of people have said to me that comedians are mad,” said Sameena, “and stupid and bitchy. But I haven’t had that experience. By-and-large, the people that I’ve met have been generous and encouraging and lovely to meet. I’ve met the occasional arsehole, but I’ve just gone I’m not having anything to do with you, thankyou very much.”
“I like comedians,” I said. “But they do tend to be doolally in one way or another. That’s what makes them interesting.”
“Well, I’m quite mad,” said Sameena. “I’m quite aware of this.”
“No, no,” I said. “You come across as being a director or producer. Someone who’s creative but not mad.”
“I am quite mad,” insisted Sameena. “I hide it very well.”