Vir Das’s latest Netflix special For India ends on a poignant note: “We get told every day what India is by people who have power. And yet these people come and go like the wind. These little things that make us smile, they stay.”
Das is referring to the preceding 70 minutes of his observations on all things Indian – from the mysterious ingredients of chyawanprash to the solubility of Parle-G biscuits, the profound importance attached to the Vedas to the decades-long property dispute over Ram’s birthplace, Taj Mahal and Old Monk.
It’s fun and games with the slightest touch of the politically provocative. In the audience are Indians, and some non-Indians, for whom Das pauses to explain the context. What is Old Monk? Old Monk is “diplomacy in a bottle”, since if a foreigner likes the rum, he is guaranteed to be given an Indian passport. For India was released on Netflix on January 26.
“If I could tell you four things about my country, what would they be?” Das told Scroll.in about the inception of For India. “It is the dissection of one man’s idea of India. I wish the viewer finds some common ground with that idea. There are big things discussed like tragedies such as Jallianwala Bagh or 26/11 and also small things like biscuits.”
Das has performed stand-up comedy for around 15 years, and with each of his recorded specials, he looks forward to giving himself a challenge. For his latest Netflix show, he “just sat down in front of a door, creating a mellow atmosphere, and limiting all physical gesticulations”. Instead of “telling nine big stories in one special”, he focused on what he called 55 small stories.
While it appears that making jokes for a living draws the ire of everyone across the board, particularly online, Das feels that there’s no problem with being “trashed”, since one has as much freedom to criticise a comedian as a comedian has to make jokes. “Life is more than Twitter,” Das said. “What someone tells me in 280 characters is not an attack. If you come to my house with sticks, that’s an attack. I don’t feel attacked by anyone.”
In fact, contrary to the prevailing sentiment among some comedians that audiences have become too sensitive to humour, Das said, “The audience hasn’t become intolerant. People have always liked or disliked a joke. If there’s a line to be drawn about certain topics, the audience draws that line, and they cannot do that unless I make the joke.”
Since there are no taboo topics for Das, nothing called offensive humour exists for him. “What Ricky Gervais does is plain comedy, not offence comedy,” Das said. “It’s not a genre. What’s funny or offensive is subjective. I am offended by potholes, pollution, lack of women’s safety, not by jokes.”
Das has a lot of faith on his audience’s ability to field barbs. “A comedian can be political, religious, edgy, sexual, whatever, but you must be funny at all costs,” Das said. “If the joke doesn’t work or the audience is uncomfortable, they’ll let you know. So in For India, the audience is always well-lit and not in the darkness as they usually are.”
What about a well-lit audience is most fascinating to see? Das said, “It’s when you crack a joke, people laugh, and someone leans towards their spouse or partner to say something in their ears. I am always curious to know what they say.”