WHEN COM­EDY COURTS CON­TRO­VERSY

IN­DIA’S TWO NET­FLIX ORIG­I­NAL STARS HOLD FORTH ON SNIDE HU­MOUR IN SEN­SI­TIVE TIMES

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - FRONT PAGE - Text by Satarupa Paul Pho­tog­ra­phy by Aalok Soni

“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.

OPEN­ING ACTS

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

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