There and Back Again

India Today - - LEISURE - —Suhani Singh

You’re walk­ing in a jun­gle, and you meet a lion. What time is it? It’s time to run.” That’s Vir Das’s ear­li­est mem­ory of a joke. He was 8, watch­ing a se­nior’s speech at a school de­bate, and wasn’t im­pressed. His as­sess­ment: “The joke is wrong. If you run into a lion, it’s time to die.”

Twenty-nine years later, the boy who didn’t laugh is the first stand-up co­me­dian from In­dia to get a Net­flix spe­cial, join­ing an es­teemed le­gion that in­cludes Louis C.K., Dave Chap­pelle and Kevin Hart. Das is con­scious of the pres­tige plat­form. “They say that in com­edy it takes 15 years to find your voice. I am a rank new­comer on the world cir­cuit,” says Das, who has been at it for nine-and-a-half years. “There’s no wis­dom or per­spec­tive to be ex­pected from a guy like me. I am just fig­ur­ing s*** out.”

Ti­tled Abroad Un­der­stand­ing, the

set is per­formed at two venues—a sta­dium in Delhi and a com­edy club in New York. Over an hour, Das shut­tles be­tween the funny and the se­ri­ous, al­ways be­ing sin­cere and oc­ca­sion­ally even poignant. “If you look at the is­sues plagu­ing In­dia and Amer­ica, they are the same,” says Das. “You can’t skirt around them and say friv­o­lous s***. Some­body is go­ing to get un­com­fort­able. But if you pref­ace your show with the right con­text, then you can say what­ever the hell you can.”

Asked if comics can say what­ever they want in In­dia’s cur­rent hy­per na­tion­al­ist cli­mate, Das replies, “Dur­ing the Congress [era], there was a lot of fod­der. We mer­ci­lessly went af­ter Man­mo­han Singh and the party. I think Modi has a great sense of hu­mour. His elec­toral speeches were witty. He is not the prob­lem. It’s the peo­ple who wor­ship that are the prob­lem. I have never stayed away from it. It has been largely OK.”

But one won­ders if In­dian comics can be as brazen as The Daily Show’s Hasan Min­haj was at the re­cent White House Cor­re­spon­dents’ Din­ner in tak­ing on the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment. “I love him,” says Das. “Yes, there would be con­se­quences in In­dia. Which is still not a good enough rea­son not to do it.” It is all about deal­ing with the au­di­ence. “When you’re in clubs and smaller rooms, and peo­ple pay a man­age­able amount of money to see you, there is a cer­tain cre­ative free­dom. You can mess around.” But Das is one of the few English stand-ups to sell out sta­di­ums. “When you’re sell­ing 12,000 tick­ets, not all of the au­di­ence will sup­port the party you sup­port. I can’t de­mean these peo­ple. You have to find more cre­ative ways to look at it.” He cites a wise­crack from his spe­cial, which called Don­ald Trump the US’s “ar­ranged mar­riage”—a can­di­date cho­sen by the el­ders for the young—as an ex­am­ple. “It’s a unique and In­dian take on some­thing that US late night show hosts talked about for two years.”

Hav­ing per­formed in both In­dia and the US, Das feels noth­ing is un­touch­able when it comes to hu­mour. But there is a dif­fer­ence in how au­di­ences re­act. “Indians, we can’t han­dle [not agree­ing with a funny joke]. It can’t be ‘I didn’t laugh, but you did, so I hate you and your fam­ily’.”


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