According to me, the genre of comedy in India has undergone a major transformation in the last decade, especially when it comes to the number of comedians, the kind of sets they perform, and the channels used to distribute their content. Even as few as five years ago, there were relatively fewer options to choose from. You had to either bear with a cocktail of sexist, ableist, lowbrow content that continues to be passed in the name of humour or switch to reruns of Sarabhai vs. Sarabhai.
There have been very few who’ve managed to retain their audience especially when generation X and Y were transitioning from primarily using television as a medium to consume comedy to now watching it mostly on YouTube.
One could safely count Vir Das among those few comedians who continues to have a humongous fan following across mediums. You have seen him in movies, on television and on the pot. He has been a stand-up comic for about a decade now and is transcending national boundaries, as he joins the likes of Amy Schumer, Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari with this own Netflix Worldwide Original – “Abroad Understanding” (which by the way, starts streaming online from today).
I got the chance to catch up and ask the man of the hour a few questions. From talking about what his Netflix original is going to be about, to freedom of speech, trolls, and well, Mastizaade. Here’s what he had to say:
Rajkanya Mahapatra (RM): Congratulations on your own Netflix Original! Broadly, what is the set going to be about? And what do you think it gives you the chance to do as an Indian stand-up comic because you’ll be addressing a larger, more diverse demography than usual?
Vir Das (VD): I wish I had thought as deeply about it when I was writing it. I just went ahead and wrote jokes!
So, the show is broadly about a journey across the world. The reason I named it “Abroad Understanding” is because I feel like it is an understanding of being abroad, and it is also a broad understanding of who I am. The show is shot in two places: New York City and New Delhi. It cuts between an Indian crowd who knows who I am and an American audience that has no bloody clue who I am.
It’s a show that will really talk about being an Indian in the world. It’s an unapologetically Indian special. I feel like the Indian accent has always been, in comedy at least, a punchline not a perspective on the world stage. We’ve always been the funny bit. Be it Apu from the Simpsons jokes, or the funny grandfather. They’ve not had an Indian accent talk to them about Obama or gun control or Donald Trump, you know. It’s a show that addresses the Indian perspective on the world. It is also extremely personal. It’s about myself, my failures, it’s about weddings, my wife, my first kiss, stuff like that.
RM: You’ve been an actor and comic for about a decade now, and on several occasions, you have had to face people’s ire and seen other comics being dragged to courts and police stations for their work. How have these experiences affected your understanding of freedom of speech? How has it evolved?
VD: Look, I think freedom of speech is something that is self-determined. It can’t be enforced by a government. A government can harass you; an authority can make your life difficult but at the end of the day, they can’t really control your freedom of speech. Censorship is a little impossible from a scientific point of view. I think as an artist you’ve just got to trust yourself. I think if you keep worrying about what could get you in trouble, and write content accordingly that might be what gets you in trouble. I’m not a terribly vulgar comedian, I am reasonably patriotic, minimally intelligent, so I assume that whatever I write will come from that perspective. I am never going to censor myself. The only thing I can offer my audiences is that I am making fun of myself way more than I am making fun of everyone else. If I can chill the fuck out, so can you.
RM: With the recent outrage about Snapchat/Snapdeal and Sonu Nigam happening in the country, how sensitive/intolerant do you think we have become when it has anything to do with criticising the country, whether it is through humour or otherwise?
VD: I feel like social media, in general, is like this place where you throw some sort of seed drug into a high energy crowd with minimal focus. You can’t really pay attention to that shit because 98.8% of it isn’t real. If you have enough time on your hands where you can uninstall Snapdeal because you’re mad at Snapchat if that’s the kind of free time you have during the day, you could start playing the violin; you’ll be a classical violinist in one year.
RM: What do you think social media has done for comics in the country? Because even when you’re not doing shows, you’re still interacting quite a lot with your audience. Is there pressure to always be funny?
VD: Social media is more of a blessing when it comes to market your shows, liaise with fans, generate awareness. I have five million followers on Twitter that means I can sell tickets anywhere in the world. It has definitely been a huge blessing. Yes, I get trolled every single day, and that’s okay. You work very hard to have people both love you and hate you. Also, there’s no moderate reaction to comedy. You deal with an okay actor, an okay singer but a bad comedian makes you want to commit murder. You’ll love a comedian, or you’ll want to stab a comedian. There’s no moderate reaction and you kind of get used to that.
RM: What kind/type of humour do you think remains unexplored in India, and why?
VD: I think comedy rock and musical comedy is a big vertical that is yet to be explored. I am focusing on getting high concept comedy written. My company Weirdass Comedy has written narrations because I believe there’s room for an Adam Sandler, a Ben Stiller which is good in the west and great in the ecosystem of really cool e-comedy. The stand-up comedy audience is huge, but they’re not making movies for such an audience. People pay ₹5000 for the front row seats at my shows but the same person I am pretty sure would like to watch a really cool movie for ₹400, and it’s a mystery to me as to why we don’t make that. That’s the process that had begun with “Delhi Belly” and “Go, Goa, Gone” but for some reason, we haven’t made films like that since then.
RM: You’ve time and again spoken up about how rape threats on social media are not okay and how we’re also a part of the problem and you were trolled quite a lot for that. However, you have also worked in movies like Mastizaade that continue to objectify women and treat them as sub-human. Would you then call yourself a part of the problem too?
VD: Well you know, the way I look at it is reasonably simple. The reason Mastizaade failed was because it was a bad movie. Indians need to draw the line between what happens onscreen and offscreen as well. I’ve played a drug addict in six films, but I don’t do drugs. I’ve killed about 20 people in films, but I don’t commit murder in my daily life. And I feel if you’re open enough to a sex comedy in English and you go out and watch an American Pie, or go and watch a stand-up comedian talk about sex, you should have the same amount of open-mindedness for Hindi sex comedies as well because it’s actually the same content.
Having said that, about objectifying women in Mastizaade, it was a leading actress, a beautiful woman in a double role, headlining the film, making a wonderful pay cheque, owning her sexuality, and being the lead of a movie and that’s something not enough people talk about either. So, having said that, we did make a bad film, there were a lot of flaws in that film. Would I be part of a sex comedy again? Probably. And I will probably work harder to make it a better film. Every joke I crack is not going to be good or bad. If you think that (Mastizaade) is going to stop me from speaking up for women’s rights or about any social causes, that’s a bit unfair, and I will continue to do that. When I speak on my social media, I am speaking up as a son, a husband, a brother, as a man. I’m not speaking as Rohan from Mastizaade. And I feel like, If I can make that distinction, eventually the audience will be able to do so too.
RM: The kind of backlash that you get for being vocal, for expressing dissent is quite high. What are some of the things you do to make sure the hatred doesn’t affect your creativity?
VD: So, I never block trolls. I mute them. Just to let them think that they’re doing a good job. Cool revenge. Look, like I said, I don’t think about those things, the wonderful thing about, and the curse of having three careers is that you don’t get lost in either bubble. So, if people are hating on you for a film that you’ve got, you don’t have time to worry about that stuff because you’ve got a world tour coming up. If people didn’t like a joke that you cracked, you’ve got a rock song to write. What I tell myself is that look no matter what happens, they shouldn’t be able to call you just one thing.
RM: Has it ever happened that you’ve chosen not to say/write/express an opinion to avoid trolls?
VD: In India trying to avoid trolls is like avoiding oxygen. You can’t avoid it. You could put a picture of two flowers up on Twitter, and somebody is going to hate that too. Like I said, the solution to all of this is to keep ploughing, to keep doing what you do. For every ten trolls that write something mean, there are 2000 people who write something nice. And for every 2000 people who write something nice, there are going to be more trolls. So to be a jackass is to make those 2000 people love you more. In fact, if you’re a troll, you’re increasing my fan base, and that’s something you’re not realising.
RM: What message would you like to give to today’s youth?
VD: I don’t think you understand how powerful or free you actually are and once you do, you’ll realise that you’re really the most powerful force in the country right now. You just have to not worry about speaking up, speaking out and getting involved because really, no one has the kind of power, no leader, no adult, no media person, no artist has the kind of power that you do. You can get savvy and get involved right now and half of the country’s problems will get fixed if you get angry about them.