“It’s three for you, one for me,” clarifies Vir Das (pictured) right at the beginning of his act to a packed, well-lit audience at Filmistaan Studios in Mumbai, as he opens his stand-up special, Vir Das For India, which is currently streaming on Netflix. There are three things that he and the audience agree on, and one where they fundamentally disagree. We have chyawanprash, Parle G, Old Monk, Gandhi, Nehru, Jinnah, General Dyer, and an orange orangutan — plenty for the audience and Das to agree and disagree on. “This was a tough show to write. It took me more than a year,” says Das, 40.
Das’s stand-up breaks the pattern of the usual template, wherein there are about nine-10 sets, each about 10-minute long. “For India, I have got about 50-60 jokes together for three-four minutes. Usually, for a stand-up, lets say I have a set about walking my dog, and if it doesn’t work, you cut it out. But here, with the format — of three for you and one for me – you cannot cut out a chyawanprash, or an Antila. This is all about the little things that make the country what it is,” he says.
Dressed in slick dhoti pants and sipping we don’t know what from a kulhad, Vir Das is seated on the steps of a door, and he is holding a chaupal of sorts. He laughs at the comparison. “I wanted the vibe, and to present it in a way that was remarkably different from the earlier two shows. The audience is seated in a well-lit space, and they are constantly interacting with me. I am not the star of the show. India is,” shares Das. “And when you want to talk about your country, you come from a place of humility, hence minus the swag. And this is the first special that I have directed,” he adds.
India, and anything Indian, is what we keep coming back to. We assume Das has spent the last year poring over history books and periodicals, because he doesn’t spare many important events that have shaped the course of the country. The Ram Mandir issue finds a mention, so does rigging of elections. There is also the discovery of India by Vasco Da Gama. But what about the backlash? “I think I have been quiet gentle. In my philosophy, it has always been joke first, the message later. As for the backlash, we can put up a picture of a puppy and people would still take offense. India is like a crazy joint family having dinner together. If we keep getting scared that they won’t like what you serve, then you won’t be able to cook anything,” adds Das, who has been on a steady diet of material by comedians like Ali Wong, Tig Notaro, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle.
Vir Das uses a set about a spoon and a kitchen to illustrate the abrogation of article 370 in Kashmir; whereas Mohan Meakin is roped in to talk about Jallianwala Bagh. But one wonders if there will be a time that political satire and commentary will be part of the mainstream Indian media and entertainment, as opposed to over the top and alternate space that it’s relegated to today. Will there be a Stephen Colbert or a Seth Meyers? “I like doing political material, but that material is based on human beliefs. Sure we crack jokes about Modi and Trump. But we also want the right wingers to laugh at the jokes, so for that you cushion the joke in humanity. Why divide and polarise, when you can bring them together with a few jokes? We don’t need to look down at an audience that has a different point of view,” says Das. He adds how even the Colberts are moving away from the Trump joke, as at some level it is not funny anymore, and “it’s hard to do a new Donald Trump joke as everyone has been there done that”. “The only recent one that I can remember is one by John Mulaney, where he compared Trump to a horse in a hospital, and it was brilliant as it was on such a random tangent. I aspire to be that good,” says Das.
While Das is an old hand in the Indian stand-up scene, he believes that India is still at a very nascent stage when it comes to humour. And that it’s very much a boys club. “We need more women in comedy, reality shows like Comicstaan are a big step in that direction. But I am not aware of what’s happening at the club level, because that is where change will actually manifest itself. As for women, we have a thousand Aditi Mittals and Sumukhis. We, at my company (Weirdass Comedy), try and work with more women creators and comedians. But we need more regional and Hindi comic writing, English still has a very limited reach in India,” says Das, as he affirms to not repeat himself in 2020. “If I have done it before, it’s a red flag for me,” he says.
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