Interview: 'I belong everywhere yet nowhere': Vir Das on latest Netflix special Landing, dealing with criticism and more

Vir becomes the first Indian comedian to have his fourth Netflix special. He tells us why he’s never cutting on humour, 'landing' India spectacularly in the global comedy scene and more.
Vir Das
Vir Das

Vir Das is a story of several firsts. From being the first Indian comedian to have a Netflix special to being the only Indian comedian to have his fourth one Vir Das: Landing streaming on the platform — he’s become one of the most desired Indian globally, after Priyanka Chopra. Credit to his brand of comedy that transcends borders, he’s been able to tickle the funny bones across geographies with fans pouring in from US, UK, Australia, Canada,Germany, Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, Japan and more to watch his shows. Couple it with his multi-cultural background of being born in India, raised in Africa, schooled in the US and again coming home to join Bollywood — it has enhanced his understanding of the diverse diaspora.

His style of comedy veers from witty takes on politics (Vir Das: For India) and taking a dig at the ‘isms’ in racism, chauvinism, voyeurism and nationalism (Vir Das: Abroad Understanding) with a discern tone to using slapstick humour to break away from his bag of intelligent jokes. He’s a man armed with a sharp knowledge of his sociopolitical and cultural milieu. That empowers him to spell out truth that is sometimes off-putting but is never bogus. He does court controversy with his acts (I come from Two Indias) but the same monologue rewards him with an Emmy nomination for his truthfulness as an artiste. While criticism or outrage might be a bugbear for the 43-year-old artiste, he’s convinced to make people laugh and carry his country with pride wherever he travels. That forms the intent of his latest Netflix special where he puts out a laudable laughable act of an Indian’s observation in many far-away lands. The act is a profound assertion of his identity as an Indian at home and an outsider in a foreign country — who observes harsh truth and translates them into acts of comedy. As long as Vir is writing such love letters to his country and the world, he has our ears. Perhaps that’s why, the comedian was trending on Twitter minutes after his show’s release. We speak to the actorcomedian-musician who talks about his multi-cultural appeal, vision for comedy and more. Excerpts:

How does it feel to be a global Indian?
Knowing that feeling, one has to give credit to Priyanka Chopra first. She is possibly the most global Indian. But yeah, it feels great to be in the list. If you put me in the room with all the comedians that have got many Netflix specials, I would rather ask for their autograph (laughs).

What was the intent behind the show Vir Das: Landing?
The central feeling attached to it is coming home after travelling the world. Metaphorically, it is about a flight landing home in Mumbai. The show is about the feeling of being at other places while also carrying India with you and what it means to be truly a global citizen. These are some of the broad themes of the show. It’s been written on the roads when I went to 25 countries this year and did about 183 shows. It’s about what you are really thinking about when you are in a foreign country like France or Australia where while observing the surroundings — there are these little snippets from childhood or from your home that cross your mind. They make you think about how you possibly got to the place where you are right now. So it’s about that kind of nostalgia. Apart from that, I have also tried to encapsulate global themes like cancel culture, politics, influence of social media, how the world is becoming more unsafe and more in the show.

You were exposed to different cultural milieu since childhood up until your growing up years. Did that culminate into this show?
I think it has. I feel I belong everywhere yet nowhere. I kind of live a life as a perpetual outsider and this show is about embracing that ‘being outsider’ feeling. It takes you a while, a little bit of craft and confidence to finally say at the end of it that okay, maybe I don’t belong to any one particular place but this is the country that I love and this is who I am… and I am going to do more of this. So you’re not trying to fit in anywhere. In a way, being an outsider to various surroundings and subjects has given me that comedic perspective.

So when you say you carry the country with you, what’s your idea of Indianness?
I feel there is a part of the Indian perspective that is truly global. Every big comedy market has local palatable versions of Indian content. There is an American Indian, a British Indian, an Australian Indian or Canadian Indian and so on… and those are very well-established points of view. But there isn’t somebody who is representing the 1.3 billion, going out and talking to them about their own country. So with this show, I want to say that what I am doing is not an immigrant’s story. I am not looking to fit in your (foreign) country or settle down in your country, but this is what I think about your country and my perspective is valid.

You’ve been in the comedy industry for a decade. How would you look at its evolution?
Comedy has become a valid alternative to various sources of entertainment that have existed in our country. Earlier, if you had a certain amount of money, you would like to go for a music concert or a movie, but now people are prioritising comedy shows. Recently, I read a data report that showed how Indians spent more on comedy than buying IPL tickets this year. I mean who had ever thought that one could beat cricket, that too with comedy in India… but it’s happening (laughs)!

Why is comedy not treated as a nuanced art form like dance, music or theatre?
I think it is because we are still in a nascent stage. Also, it has to do with what language you are doing comedy in. Hindi comedy in India is treated with a lot of nuance because it is far more intelligent and poetic if you do it well. With me performing in English, I know there will be a certain kind of audience that I will never be able to tap into and I have to make peace with that. But we have a larger English speaking audience in India than we have in America! So if you tell me that I get to only perform for 260 million people that will be an irony in itself (smiles).

How does our country perceive satire?
I feel that it’s being accepted and embraced more than ever. The audience is growing to be diverse. For instance, the Landing show has many dramatic moments and it can make you deeply uncomfortable at times. But today, we have an eclectic audience that’s accepting such shows. That was not the case earlier. For instance, at the time when comedy was not that much flourishing, a show by me or maybe Zakir Khan would go out to just regular comedy fans. And you will get a very predictable reaction from them where either they will like it or not like it. But in today’s time, the audience is growing and evolving. So when your audience grows to a certain sizable amount and you have new people who are watching comedy for the first time, then there will be different kinds of reactions because it’s the first time they are exposed to this kind of an art form. You have to welcome them and honour the fact that they are on board. So the reception for satire is far better today but is also varied. It is no longer just appreciating or not appreciating a show. The reception has gone beyond that and is met with discovery and also outrage at times.

Speaking of outrage, don’t you fear the consequences?
Yes, like any artist, I do! But I don’t think you can predict what is going to be controversial. That is not in my hands, so what I focus on is to just do my job with conviction. Having said that, your content may become controversial, but controversy should not become your content. These days, anything from a joke to wardrobe to a visual can offend anyone. The only thing you can do is to be focused on your craft.

You’ve to combat fear many times, what keeps you going?
I think it’s laughter. I’m here just to make you laugh. I am an idiot! I will make fun of myself more than I ridicule anybody else. So if you come to my show, you’d have one resounding thought that Vir Das is an idiot (laughs) and I am flattered to hear it if that makes you laugh. At the same time, I’m receptive towards feedback. All we can do as an artiste is to just take the feedback, head down and mouth shut. In fact, I respond to criticism far more than I do to praise because it teaches me a lot and keeps me growing. One big lesson I’ve learnt over years is that your reputation doesn’t belong to you — it belongs to other people. So just keep doing what you’re best at and let other people decide whether you are hot or happening or not happening.

What is the kind of jokes that audience most relates to?
The ones about truth. Whether it’s about your chachaji (uncle) or a public figure like Elon Musk — if it reveals a truth — it will make people laugh.

Most often you don’t know the people in the room you are performing for. In case you have an audience that does not connect with the set you’ve prepared, what do you do then?
It’s very simple, until the joke is not about you, people will laugh. But if you come to my show there might be 550 jokes in 90 minutes. A couple of them maybe about you and you may not enjoy that. But hopefully, there are 500 jokes that you may laugh at. So individually, all the people will have one or two jokes that may not sit well with them, but you have to give them enough that they do enjoy the other parts. To me, the mark of a great artistic performance is not just good jokes. It is when the audience goes out of the hall and knows who you are. That is difficult to pull off with an act but to me that is the pinnacle of a successful show.

Vir Das: Landing is currently streaming on Netflix.
Twitter: @RanaPriyamvada

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