WHEN COMEDY COURTS CONTROVERSY
INDIA’S TWO NETFLIX ORIGINAL STARS HOLD FORTH ON SNIDE HUMOUR IN SENSITIVE TIMES
“Controversy is dialogue.” –Q “I had love at first sight. People today have love at first swipe!” –Vir Das
In July last year, filmmaker Q’s
BrahmanNaman became the first ever Indian acquisition by Netflix. Its dark humour and suggestive storyline was the perfect recipe for a Netflix Original. Earlier this month, Vir Das became the first Indian stand-up comic to release an exclusive show on the platform. We got the satirist and the comic together for an exclusive photoshoot and a delectable tête-à-tête.
“What’s that one thing that you indulge in?” I ask them. “Hats. I’ve got around 150,” says one. “Weed. And not the unwanted kind,” says the other.
In person and in their work, they’re as different as peas and carrots. One turns up wearing white; the other black. One makes thousands LOL and ROFL when he takes to the stage with his witty, sarcastic and often mean comedy; the other elicits nervous laughter and awkward silences with his dark satire on screen. One has appeared in several Hindi films; the other resolutely refuses to watch any. Yes, they’re like peas and carrots, these two. But put them together in a room, as we did for this photoshoot, and they go together marvellously well – just like, what else, peas and carrots!
Many of you would be familiar with one of them already: comedian and actor Vir Das. Apart from acting in films like DelhiBelly and Go
GoaGone, Vir also routinely tours the country, performing stand-up comedy, and at times, some music. Reportedly, he’s India’s highest selling English comedian till date. Little wonder then that Netflix has put him in the league of stand-up greats like Russell Peters, Louis CK and Kevin Hart.
But a few months before Vir achieved this feat, another Indian had grabbed the headlines for similar reasons. It was filmmaker Qaushiq Mukherjee, who goes by the singular Q. His irreverent dark comedy film BrahmanNaman, a “homage to 1980s teen sex comedies”, became the first Asian original to be acquired by Netflix just as it entered India. And just like that, Q broke new ground, all over again.
It was in 2010 that Q first received the spotlight with his film Gaandu. Everything about that film screamed controversy from the beginning – from the title to the expletives and of course, the nudity. However, while the critics on the international film festival circuit were busy calling the film “a stunning visual and narrative feast”, Indian media was suddenly turning cheeky, with bold headlines and cuss words in the copy.
“Gaandu sort of changed paradigm in the way that language was used in cinema – the fact that the title was a swear word and that it could be justified,” says Q. “And then it got printed in the newspapers! These were benchmarks as far as language in Indian cinema was concerned.” He’s quick to give credit where it’s due and points out that two years later, Vir’s DelhiBelly became the first Hindi film to employ cuss words as part of the narrative.
For Vir too, swearing out loud isn’t foreign territory. Back in 2005, stand-up comedy was the purview of the posh and the upper crust – “very country club, 45-and-above sort of thing”. “Suddenly I was this kid who came in and said the F word and talked about his balls and stuff !” Vir giggles. His comedy appealed to a young audience, and soon there was a crop of young stand-up comics sprouting across the country, looking to Vir as a trendsetter. “The whole comedy scene in India is on the rise; it’s a very promising space right now,” says Q. “It’s still a fraction of what it could be, but we’re getting there and word is getting out – and Vir has played a big part in this.”
CLUB OF MUTUAL APPRECIATION
Although their brand of humour is starkly different from each other, their understanding of comedy isn’t. “I thought BrahmanNaman was fantastic!” says Vir. “I’d been waiting for someone to tackle that genre of comedy, and Q did it really well. I’d love to work with someone so talented; if the script is right for me, I’d love to do a Q film.”
Q too agrees that working with Vir would be a pleasure, considering how well they bonded during the short span of this photoshoot. “He’s an interesting guy and the fact that he’s more than just an actor, that he’s a thinking person and that he has an opinion on things is something that appeals to me. Plus, he’s got great comic timing!”
“You cannot dissociate the content from the controversy. I don’t create these controversies to hype or to sell. For me, controversy is dialogue” - Q
One might dismiss this mutual appreciation for each other’s work as polite banter, but look closer and it goes beyond that. Quiet and reserved in real life, both Q and Vir are consummate comedy people who let their work speak louder than their personas. They also draw their humour from similar sources and situations. “All the dark humour in my films stems from our reality. We live in very dark times. And comedy is possibly the one way of making any sense of these things,” says Q.
As for Vir, his sense of humour comes from his country and the people in his life. He says: “I’m obsessed with human behaviour, I talk of the little things humans take for granted or do not think are funny. At the same time, the country I live in, the policies I’m governed under, Indian culture, our place in the world – all of it features heavily in my stand-up comedy.”
Besides, there is also the fact that both of them have skirted controversy throughout, because as Q points out, “You cannot dissociate the content from the controversy. Controversy is created because of the subjects I deal with. There is no value to this controversy; I don’t create these controversies to hype or to sell. For me, controversy is dialogue.”
Vir, whose sketches are edgy bordering on vulgar, and at times, take a dig at things that are considered holy or taboo in India, is nonchalant as well about the controversies that emerge. The key, he says, is to tackle it with intelligence. “Whenever I get into controversial situations, the one question I ask myself is, ‘Did the audience laugh?’ I’m okay with the answer because I’ve a very wide demography of audience – from 17 to 60-year- olds. So if a majority of that crowd is laughing, then I’m okay with it.”
KINGS OF HEARTS
Then there’s the matter of the heart. Old-school romantics both, they believe in true love and companionship in this age of fleeting flings and one night stands. Q, who was previously dating Rii, the lead actress of Gaandu, is currently in a “very different kind of relationship”. He says that he deeply believes in the idea of love and understanding between the opposites – regardless of sex. “I’m very happy with the current situation. It’s very invigorating to find a sense of well-being and rationality. Because I’m in an anarchic mode most of the time, it’s wonderful that my partner can bring in that balancing and stabilising factor.”
Vir on the other hand, has been happily married for over two years now to his girlfriend of six years. “I had love at first sight; people today have love at first swipe. I can’t really relate to that, it’s a new version of love. It’s taking on new definitions every day. But it’s there. Love exists. For me though, the idea of love is that I’m f **king nuts and you just find somebody who’s as nuts as you are and be crazy in a cage together.”
So what advice do they have for the Tinder generation? While Q suggests you watch his films to understand millennials and their issues and where they’re going wrong, Vir is only too glad to share his pearls of wisdom. “You’ve to be willing to compromise more. Somewhere along the way we just stopped making an effort. You have to make more of an effort than just swiping right. And just believe in love and be a little more crazy!”
“Back in 2005, stand-up comedy was ‘very country club’. I was this kid who came in and said the F word and talked about his balls and stuff!” - Vir Das
SMIRK OR SMILE? BrahmanNaman by Q (left) was Netflix’s first Indian acquisition