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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Vir Das For India review: Of the People, by the People and for the People

Vir Das has outdone himself. He takes his ‘bachpan ki yaadien', and ‘events that shaped India’ and makes a punchline of everything that’s happening around us — social, political, cultural — and goes for the kill, and he is unstoppable.

Rating: 4 out of 5
Written by Ektaa Malik | New Delhi | Published: January 27, 2020 5:46:19 pm
Vir Das Vir Das: For India is streaming on Netflix.

Vir Das For India creator: Vir Das
Vir Das For India rating: 4 Stars

Parle G, Old Monk, Chyawanprash, gay weddings full of sass….. Imagine these words and hum them in the same tempo as that of Billy Joel’s iconic anthem, “We didn’t start the fire”, which is in all fairness, a crash course in American history. The elements thrown in Vir Das’ latest stand-up special, For India, which began streaming on Republic Day — extra points for the placement — could very well be summed in a similar anthem. Das has outdone himself. He takes his ‘bachpan ki yaadien’, and ‘events that shaped India’ and makes a punchline of everything that’s happening around us — social, political, cultural — and goes for the kill, and he is unstoppable.

We start with Parle G, “the greatest biscuit in the world, with tea”, Chyawanprash — “which is peanut butter, if you hate your children”; and Old Monk, “This is just diplomacy in a bottle”, as Das sits on the steps of a door, wearing very slick dhoti-pants — very Antar Agni —- juttis, and sips something from a kullad. We really want what Das is drinking, as whatever it is, it is working spectacularly. He coins in his formula early on: ‘3 for you, one for me’ and we start to roll. The suave urban audience of this set, which was shot in Mumbai, also has a section for ‘Non-Indians’ — who are seated in a prime lit area — ‘as they pay in dollars’. Within the first five minutes itself he has addressed racism, colonialism, corporate branding and Bollywood. “The British had a very clear policy man. They were like, “We are beige”. Anything darker than beige, we oppress, anything lighter than beige is German, and we don’t fuck with those guys.”

Vir Das, who has dabbled with mainstream Bollywood, and has even had a few network appearances in Hollywood, has always been a stand-up comic in his heart. His last stand-up, Losing It, too was an earnest attempt, but with For India, he taps into what we think is his deep-seated love for history and his country. We come to Old Monk, which he uses as a test for Indian citizenship for all foreigners. “If we find a foreigner who likes Old Monk, we’ll just give them a fucking passport”, offers Das, and the house roared their approval. He goes on to say that Old Monk was the drink of choice at the ‘wrap party’ for colonialism. “You know Mounbatten, Jinnah, Nehru, Gandhi, everyone is there. … as usual no one is offering Gandhi any food. ‘Guys, they are leaving, I can eat now. I’m off duty, says Gandhi”. And of course, when a glass is needed to be salted for a Bloody Mary, they all turned to Gandhi, for a pinch.

After the wrap party, we move on the Second World War, the Vedas, Tinkle comics, a nod at Game of Thrones, The Satanic Verses, CBSE, the best selling newspaper in India, Wombay Times, Amar Akbar Anthony, and we haven’t even been ten minutes into the hour long special. “My career is over,’ It’s fine,” smirks Das with a knowing smile, that he has worked the room, and they are now eating out of his hands, as he sips from the magical kullad. Das is fearless, as he even has a set for Mowgli. How can a set on Mowgli be funny? It is, when you have a Narendra Mowgli, “who grew up to be the Prime Minister, forcibly hugging animals,” There is Howdy Mowgli as well and a new home minister Sher Khan.

Indian stand-up has long been divided into two segments: people who do political satire and commentary —they are far and few between — and the rest. Das has blended the two to perfection. He jokes about Kashmir and the recent abrogation of article 370. “We took Kashmir back. From who? ‘Ourselves”. Jallianwala Bagh tragedy too finds a mention, and so does Mother Teresa, and the 2012 Nirbhaya protests. The Kargil war, and Zomato are mentioned in the same line, with the same straight face. Omelettes are used to prove a point about homophobia and communal hatred, and old leadership in the country. Differences between Fatwas and how Hinduism doesn’t have a death sentence is also worked in, seamlessly. “If we want to target a particular community or person, we have to design an entire election campaign around that shit.” The Ram Mandir is equated to a Taj hotel, and how the actual gods of India, are the Ambanis and the Adanis.

Vir Das has gone where no contemporary Indian comic has ever gone before, maybe Shekhar Suman, in his heydays. He keeps us hooked, because one never knows where the next joke is lurking. Usually a stand-up has 5-minute sets, and there are big punch lines. But with Das, almost every alternate sentence is a punch line. The audience is perpetually shaking in their chairs. At times, when the messaging is so on point, the medium gets lost. And we make our peace with it. Here the medium is the message, it is super slick and the laughs are on point. As a bonus, it doubles up as a pop-culture, historical, geo-political time capsule. Billy Joel would be proud. Vir Das, you should be too.

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