Vir Das: I’m doing a standup, not writing a board examination
The popular comedian in conversation about his latest show, Vir Das: For India, which makes him join a elite group of comics who have three standup specials with Netflix
You are joining a elite group of standup comics to have done three specials for Netflix. What do you make of this?
I’m a fan of everybody else in that group. My first standup was Abroad Understanding, and the show was cut from performances in two cities, New York and New Delhi. My next show, Losing It, was a proper American special that was shot in San Francisco. When I was approached for a third and given the freedom to come up with something, it seemed like a good time to do an Indian special. I wanted all three to be thematically, visually, cinematically different from each other.
This is the first time you are directing as well. As a comedian, what are some aspects you need to keep in mind when doing a show for television?
Well, one can’t just go ‘story, story, story’. Some have to touch you, some have to make you silent, some have to allow you to breathe… In this special called For India, the country is the star, not me. It’s a humble take. Visually, you may have noticed that there’s no fancy set. I’m sitting, and there’s just a blue door behind me. Netflix wasn’t sure what I was going for when I told them about the blue door idea. They trusted me though. With this show, I knew that it wouldn’t work if I went really big or small. I had to start from something like Chyawanprash and gradually scale up.
You spoke about how India is the star of this show. Given your stature as an Indian standup comedian, and the possibility that audiences from across the globe could take away information about the country through your show, would you agree to having responsibility over portrayal of the country?
I don’t think I am bound by such responsibility. I’m only trying to commit to each scene, and have fun. In this show, I set the format right at the beginning when I tell the audience about the ‘three for you, one for me’ idea. I cover different aspects of India, of course, and I’m also constantly explaining some of them to foreigners, who are a part of the audience. It’s quite hard to write this three-to-one format, and I can’t suddenly change it for just one portion. I can’t, for instance, remove the Taj or the Buland Darwaza portions.
I acknowledge that my shows have a bit of messaging, but that’s not the primary intention. I talk about aspects like the Jungle Book in this show, and if the material somehow organically lends itself to, say, jokes about Modi, then I do that too. We are too vast a country; I’m simply talking about my version of India. Hopefully, you will agree with most of what I say. If there ever should be a comedian who gets every single person on board with all his jokes about the country, I should call him a magician. I’m not that guy.
Indian cinema is often perceived to be only about Bollywood. I couldn’t but notice that your material about India is mainly centred in urban Hindi-speaking centres like Mumbai and Delhi.
I’m an Indian who grew up in Nigeria. I’m thought to be too Western for Indian audiences, too Indian for Western audiences. I’m too Indie for Bollywood, too Bollywood for Indie cinema. At some point, it became clear to me that it would be futile to try and cater to everyone. I’m talking about my perspectives about India, and hopefully, many will be able to relate to many of them. After all, it’s a standup show, not a board examination. It’s all right that my India is different from yours. That’s the beauty of this country.
I’m also told that standup comedians from the South—like cinema from the region, I suppose—don’t find much acknowledgement from their Hindi peers. Would you agree?
The truth is, I’m not really part of the comedy scene, not in terms of what happens on the ground anyway. I know that there are successful comics in the South like Aravind SA, Karthik Kumar, Praveen Kumar, Put Chutney… I love the work these guys do. But if there’s a prevailing sentiment that they are not acknowledged as they should be, I can see why it exists. However, I wouldn’t be the right person to speak to this sentiment.