In the second half of Vir Das’s first stand-up special for Netflix, the comedian segues into a long story about a surfing trip he took with some friends in South India. The moment in Abroad Understanding isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, nor is there a punchline, but it is honest and revealing. It’s a discussion about racism and how everyone is inherently different from each other. It’s the best moment in the special and it has everything the rest of the jokes lack: insight.
Over the past couple of years, online streaming services such as Netflix, Hotstar and Amazon Prime have turned their attention towards locally produced content in India. The comedy group All India Bakchod signed onto Hotstar for the second season of On Air With AIB. Amazon snapped up the top Indian comedians. Das is the sole Indian comedian on Netflix. In a bid to promote his special in the United States of America, he also became the first one to appear on Conan O’Brien’s talk show.
As a consequence, a large part of Abroad Understanding, which was filmed in New York City and New Delhi, is devoted to Das attempting to present a different side to Indian comedy. He will not be making fun of a relative, nor will there be a reference to Apu from The Simpsons, Das tells his international audience in the opening minutes For once, the Indian accent will not be a joke but a perspective.
Over the 67-minute show, Das showcases diverse material. The actor-comedian’s energy never falters. Instead of only telling a joke, he enacts it with multiple accents. He does not shy away from political controversies back home. There are references to the beef ban and to right-wing forces and their “subliminally fascist policies”. He points out the absurdities in all religions, such as “No meat on Tuesday”. But he does not seem completely at home doing these bits. Like most Indian comedians, he chooses to play it safe. Every time he makes a joke about one religion, he must make a joke about another.
The only criticism Modi aims at Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for instance, is a reference to his frequent trips abroad, a joke we have heard before. By contrast, American comedians have been mercilessly lampooning Donald Trump in every other show.
Das’s take on American politics is better informed and more provocative, and he seems unafraid to offend. While comedians around the world have made fun of Trump, no one has yet likened him to the US version of an arranged marriage, as Das does. But he becomes a little overeager to touch upon all the incidents that have made the news over the past year. A lot of the material amounts to a recounting of events, which prevents him from a deeper examination of one topic.
Without enough to draw on, Das occasionally veers off into territory that Indian comedians often venture into. Are there new ways to talk about the lack of punctuality among Indians? Any joke about virginal Indian engineers is one too many.
The comedian is at his strongest when he is commenting on cultural peculiarities. There is no pressure to add a hilarious spin to familiar incidents. Das is able to bolster the storytelling with his personal experiences. When he is talking about his first kiss or his failed engagement, Das is able to do what most good comedy should: provide a new way of looking at the familiar.
At the end, Das tells audiences that all he wanted to do with Abroad Understanding was move past Indian comedy that relied on “head-bobble jokes and funny accents”. A mission that he is more or less successful with – if only he could have been funnier in the process.