Photo Credit: Netflix
Vir Das is, in his own words, a small things guy. The 40-year-old, best known for his stand-up comedy, doesn't stress about stuff too much. His biggest concern? Getting home in time to walk his nine-year-old bulldog Watson, whom he hasn't seen much of because he's been travelling. Das namechecks pollution — “if I had to pick a big issue,” he adds — before returning to the small things.
“I act, I do stand up, and I do music,” Das tells Gadgets 360 from Chennai. “And I've done a heavy amount of acting and I've done a heavy amount of stand-up, but I haven't made a lot of music. So I've been missing my band a little bit.” If you haven't heard of his music career, Das' band is called Alien Chutney, self-described as India's first comedy rock band.
“Alien Chutney has always been one of those things that I think Vir saw as a holiday from the stand-up and acting,” the band's pianist Kaizad Gherda, who has known Das for 12 years, says.
Within the other two, it's largely been stand-up recently. Das hasn't had a film role in over two years. That's in part due to his deal at Netflix, where he released his first hour-long stand-up comedy special — Abroad Understanding — in 2017. That led to a 36-country world tour in 2018, plus a second special — Losing It — in late 2018.
“I consciously didn't [do fiction] because I fell back in love with stand-up,” Das notes. “You don't get to perform in Oslo and try and figure out what they find funny without some serious commitment to that process. And I just hadn't done that before. So, I took a year-and-a-half to really get good at stand-up.”
But that's been slowly changing. In early 2019, Das was part of the short-lived ABC action comedy-drama series Whiskey Cavalier — it aired on Colors Infinity and can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video — which was cancelled after a season. In late 2019, Das acted in sketches for Jestination Unknown, an Amazon comedy travel reality series he also hosted.
That's set to continue in 2020. In addition to two unnamed films, Das has a series called Hasmukh — he wouldn't reveal the platform attached — about a comedian who's a serial killer, which he has written, creative produced, and acted in. Das thinks it has elements of crime dramas Dexter and Fargo. It's currently in post-production, so expect to see that on your screens soon.
“It's nice to do some Hindi stand-up, and it was nice to murder people every episode, I enjoyed that as well,” Das adds with a chuckle. “Hopefully, an avatar of me people will not expect.”
Before that, Das can be seen alongside Preity Zinta in an episode of Fresh Off the Boat — it airs on Hotstar Saturday — the immigrant sitcom that's currently in its sixth and final season. On it, he plays someone “who has infectious enthusiasm and zero pragmatism. He's fully 900 percent into everything but has no clue how to do it whatsoever.” If it does well for its network ABC, it could end up being turned into a spin-off series.
Das says it was “the luck of the Irish” how the Fresh Off the Boat role came together. In July last year, he was at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal when he got a call. Das flew down to Los Angeles to meet with writer Rachna Fruchbom and executive producer Melvin Mar. 48 hours later as he landed in India, he was told he had the job.
And then there's the new stand-up special — his third, which makes him one of just six comics to hit that milestone on Netflix. Titled For India, it's out Republic Day — Sunday — on the streaming service globally. With it, Das also makes his directorial debut, co-directing alongside Ajay Bhuyan, whom he previously worked with on Jestination Unknown.
“I really got into the theme of this special,” Das adds. “And the shot-taking and the breakdown and how visually a special — yes, it's a piece of stand-up comedy but it's also a piece of cinema. There is an artistry to how to shoot a special. I learnt on this special to not have the fancy stage or the fancy lights or the swag suit or the big set. There's basically no set in this special.”
That's not an exaggeration. In For India, Das — in loose-fitting clothing and a pair of jootis — walks out of a blue door that's placed in the middle of nowhere and then takes his place on the three steps that follow. The only thing next to him is a kulhad. The audience, sitting on lit-up chairs, surround him in a semi-circle.
“I really wanted this special to feel intimate, because you can't do a special about India without making Indians as much a part of this special as the artist,” Das says. “Usually the audience is dimly lit; we've deliberately brightly lit. So if a joke works, you can see them laughing at it, and if they're uncomfortable with a joke, you can see that too. You're watching the audience as much as you're watching the comedian.”
That intimacy isn't a natural environment for Das, who admits he's never been a “conversationally confident” person through his life. But those inhibitions magically disappear on stage, he adds: “Ever since I was a kid, school grades, debating, dramatics, ‘What's the Good Word?', quizzes, poetry recitals, anything on the stage, I was up for it.”
Das was born in 1979 Dehradun, a small town on the foothills of the Himalayas, some five hours north of India's capital New Delhi. Just a few months old, the Das family — including his elder sister, Trisha — moved to the bustling Nigerian port city of Lagos, where he spent most of his early childhood. But his parents wanted him to have an Indian education, so at age nine, he was sent off to a boarding school in the sleepy town of Kasuali, five hours west of his birthplace.
After splitting his time between India and Africa throughout school, Das came down to Delhi — his family had also moved back in the interim — for college, opting to study political science. But halfway through his degree, he packed his bags and moved to Chicago on a scholarship. There, Das would have his first taste of stand-up, writing and performing a 90-minute show in the final year of drama school.
Soon after, Das was on his way to a master's degree in theatre in Alabama. But life had other plans. Das returned to Delhi for five months before he started grad school. During that time, he got another lick at stand-up. Loving it and wanting to become a full-time comic, Das dropped out of university in three months.
His upbringing has made him “the perpetual outsider”, Das notes, “and that's something that I've had to make peace with. I'm very Indian for American audiences and very Western for Indian audiences. I'm way too Bollywood for music festivals and I'm way too indie for Bollywood. But I do believe that not getting lost in either one of those bubbles is a very valuable thing.
“It took me a while to figure out comedically that I couldn't write for a particular audience because I didn't come from a particular audience. I just kind of had to write for myself and pray to God that the audience came along.”
Back in India in the early 2000s, Das did anything and everything that came his way. That included stand-up specials, hosting TV shows, doing improv, and being part of a larger comedy ensemble. During one of those specials, Das thought of pairing comedy and music.
“The only reason that I play with Alien Chutney is because it stands out,” Gherda says. “Even though the song has the same joke or the same punchline, it always lands differently for different crowds. Vir may have to twist it and turn it for different cities when we tour India. It's not like we're trying to play it perfectly. We're trying to ensure that the joke always remains funny.”
Around the same time, Das would make his way into Bollywood, which included a leading role in the black comedy thriller Delhi Belly. Alongside, Das wrote a play called History of India.
In fact, that was the original title for the new special — now called For India — an insider told Gadgets 360, before it underwent an overhaul of sorts. It still retains the essence, which involves Das looking at “what it means to be Indian in today's world. A mix of nostalgia and social commentary and just little s--t from India that I thought was funny.”
For an hour and 15 minutes, Das talks about everything from chyawanprash to Ram Mandir, making a big deal out of little things and making light of controversial topics. He channels that outsider perspective by working two crowds — one Indian and the other foreign — in the same room. Every time he lands on a very-Indian thing like chyawanprash, the lighting changes as Das addresses the Westerners to explain it in their words.
What's more interesting, in terms of what Das discusses, is the how. By and large, every time he wants to arrive on a political joke, he approaches it via a cultural association, be it a film, a book, a drink, or Indian uncles. It's a clever bait-and-switch, though viewers will likely see it coming after the first few instances. Mowgli is linked to Amit Shah, and Indian uncles are tied to Babri Masjid.
“Sometimes you're like, ‘I want to write a joke about Doordarshan's Jungle Book.' And then you arrive at a political joke somewhere just because that's kind of floating around in your subconscious,” Das explains. “I did want to write a show that brought all Indians to the table because I think that the show — sort of a celebration of India — would need it as well. But at the same time, you don't want to stay away from things that — I do have beliefs.”
For India is also like a homecoming for Das, who hadn't shot a special in the country in two years. And it kicks off a self-proclaimed “interesting” year, he says: “2020 is a year I decided not to repeat myself. The movies that I'm doing are extremely different and challenging. I don't look or sound like myself. I have a new show that I'm touring the world with and it's an incredibly personal show.
“I'm going to release a hip-hop album at the end of the year, which is something I'm excited about because I think I'm [terrible] at rap, and I wanna see if I can try and take Alien Chutney in a new direction. We're getting into the studio in a week to lay down like seven tracks.”
“I think he's pretty good at that, because we previously had done a song called ‘Government Man' in that style and he was a little nervous as to whether everything would land or not,” Gherda remarks. “But it became quite a catchy and popular song. I think it's given him confidence to do right in that zone now.”
“I love playing big music festivals with my band. I don't get to do that enough,” Das adds later, asked what he misses the most about his early years. “And I really enjoyed the job at CNBC. Because I was just this kid who they let on the nine o'clock news bulletin to joke and I had nowhere near the intelligence or maturity of anybody in that office building.
“But they still put me on air on prime time, so I used to enjoy just being a kid raised in the newsroom. That was interesting. Sometimes I miss being part of a topical comedy show, and I think that's something I might do later in my career is get back to the Jon Stewart, John Oliver kind of game.”
In his fifteen-or-so-year career so far, Das has explored virtually every art form available to him. Gherda says he does “a billion things” and adds: “There were days when it was just us. And Vir used to answer a call, and Vir used to quote for us, and Vir used to organise a car, and Vir used to book our tickets and our hotel. He had the motivation to do this without the celebrity attached to him.”
Is there something Das can't do? “If I know that I can't do it, I usually want to do it,” he replies, before adding with a laugh: “Even if I'm going to be terrible at it.”
That fearlessness has made him one of India's highest-earning comedians. Das' biggest fear is “not having it. I never want to get to the point where I'm not nervous before the show. I never want to get to a point where I'm not nervous about some of the products that I'm putting out. I never want to have a first day at work on a new project where I'm not terrified, because I think those three are good signs about artistic evolution.
“If you constantly feel like a newcomer, and you're probably not good enough to do it, chances are you'll work that much harder.”