"People asked me to leave when I first came to Bombay to become a comedian": Vir Das
One might be tempted to believe that a lockdown – and the unforeseen reality that it has brought along with it – could take the edge off Vir Das’s quick wit. But the funnyman wastes no time in proving me wrong. Within a few minutes into the conversation, the actor-comedian who has now become an almost regular face on desi, deals me his signature humour with a side of reality-check.
“I think comedians are pretty well trained for the lockdown,” he says. “We travel to a city and spend the whole day in a hotel room and then we come out for one hour.”
A little too dark for these trying times, eh?
But anyone familiar with Vir’s brand of comedy will know, that he is not one for watered-down content. Or as he says, “middle of the line, accepted by everybody content.”
He heaps up everyday occurrences in a plate of satire and serves it to his audience in generous doses, sans censorship. Perhaps, this is the reason why his comedy has been able to strike such a chord with millennials and the digital-first viewers of the OTT generation.
Actor-Comedian Vir Das
“There's a psychology that the audiences have now understood that people on OTT are pushing themselves to go beyond what they're normally capable of. At least, that’s what my production house is doing,” he says, acknowledging that his foray into the digital space with his company, Weirdass Comedy, has a lot to do with ‘pushing the envelope’.
Utilising this platform, “to be invited into not just people's houses, but now their devices - you're invited into somebody's smartphone – to really push the envelope a little bit and that," says Vir, "is the biggest benefit of OTT."
The struggle to land in Bollywood
That said, it is not like Vir jumped into this new-age format right from the get-go. Like any good story, even his is filled with several hits and misses, the biggest among them being his first encounter with the entertainment industry in Mumbai.
“I came to Bombay some 12-13 years ago and I said I wanted to be a comedian,” he recalls. “And everybody told me to leave. Because there was no such thing as an English comedian working commercial spaces in India.”
This was around 2007-2008. Vir, now a doctorate in performing arts (he was conferred the title by the university of Knox in Galesburg, Illinois, where he graduated from and first explored stand-up comedy) was back then new to the Indian comedy circuit. In fact, it wasn’t until 2010’s Badmaash Company, a crime comedy in which he starred alongside Shahid Kapoor, Anushka Sharma, and Meiyang Chang, that the actor tasted mainstream success.
The movie propelled him into the attention of commercial filmmakers, and what followed next was a series of box-office hits, including Delhi Belly and Go Goa Gone, and a debut on American network television in the form of ABC’s action-comedy, Whiskey Cavalier.
While these successful outings put Vir Das on the domestic (and even global) entertainment map, they did little for his classic comic timing, sharp wit, and his style of polarising content. This is where Netflix comes into the picture. The American streaming giant put Vir at the front and centre of three stand-up specials – A Broad Understanding, Losing It, and For India – setting the stage for, what fans now readily-relate with, the English-language comedy in India.
“I was never going to be a good Hindi comedian,” quips Vir, “because I feel like that genre is very well established.”
Enter Hasmukh, a dark show about a terrible comedian
To say Vir has an understanding of what’s funny around the world, wouldn’t be an exaggeration. Born in India, he has in the subsequent years, lived in Africa and attended college in the US. All of which combined, has lent him a truly global perspective and also a flair for English comedy.
He says, “I think in English. I've been brought up in a mix of different countries, so my first language for writing is very much English.”
And interestingly, this is where the idea of Hasmukh also comes from – to go beyond the English stand-up specials and do something broad and commercial.
The dark new Netflix comedy, which marks Vir’s debut as an actor on the OTT platform, is a marked deviance from the actor’s usual body of work. It kicks off in the back alleys of Saharanpur, in Uttar Pradesh, where Hasmukh (a small-town comedian played by Vir) must continue his killing spree to keep his onstage mojo going.
“Hasmukh is supposed to be the complete opposite of who I am,” says the actor, laughing off the suggestion of any similarities between the character and the comedian. Although he adds on a quick note, “there’s a certain darkness (about Hasmukh) that I have never explored on-screen, to be a murderer and a killer.”
Dark comedy, polarising content?
A grim and bleak plot, however, is not the only uncharted territory in Hasmukh. The show also skirts on the edges of dark humour and polarising content, thankfully a territory that Vir is quite familiar with. With 100+ comedy shows, a dozen films, and three Netflix specials under his belt, it is safe to say that the actor has mastered the art of combining sarcasm with comedy.
“You love it, or you hate it,” he says about his type of humour, adding, “I've made peace with that. And I feel like my audiences have as well.”
Vir goes on to share his two cents about trolls, negative comments, and offence-taking moral police saying,
“That's the thing about offence, it’s never given, it's only taken. Nobody writes a joke with the intent of offending people. I don't try and offend people; offence is something that you brought to the table and took for yourself. Offence does not exist until you take it.”
And hence, all the more reasons to develop a thick skin when it comes to naysayers. As a comedian in India, engaging in freewheeling conversations on everything under the sun, from politics to dunking Parle-G in chai, being immune to trolls comes with the territory.
Says Vir, “Somebody calling me an anti-national or this and that, I should have a thick skin about that.”
He adds, mean jokes on the internet are the least of his problem right now, as he continues to maintain a cool head and his signature quirks, serving up humour by the numbers in these difficult times.