Q Contraire: Vir Das May Be Right, Vir Das May Be Wrong, But Is Vir Das Funny?

Few would debate that India is becoming increasingly intolerant of free speech, motivations notwithstanding. Comedians are bearing the brunt, but how many of them are really funny. Musings of a true comedy fan.

When comedian Vir Das faced an onslaught of criticism and calls for police to investigate over a comedy monologue that spoke of the country’s contradictions on women’s safety, religion, COVID and politics, he generated a healthy amount of debate.

“I come from an India where we worship women during the day and gang rape them at night,” Das who has had several Netflix specials, spoke to his flock at a sold-out show in Washington DC, at the Kennedy Center no less, that hallowed hall that has honored everyone from Steve Martin to Led Zeppelin, and has had Presidents in attendance.

While no Presidents presided over the proceedings at Das’ show, as he emphatically observed in his signature dry tone and an accent uniquely and ironically his, given the title of his special, some said: ‘I come from an India where we take pride in being vegetarian, and yet run over the farmers who grow our vegetables.’

The routine performed on a US tour by Vir Das, one of India’s most popular comedians, went viral in India this week after it spoke of ‘two Indias’ – conflicting aspects of a country bordering on the absurd.

This is a feeling many urban, as well as rural, Indians grapple with, in a nation trying to assert itself as a modern, progressive place, while fighting, sometimes the suffocating, forces of regressive traditions and mindsets.

His routine finished on a popular note, with him speaking of the pride he had for India and asking for the audience to cheer for the motherland. It’s another thing that the audience would mainly have consisted of people who may have had distant relations with their roots, or as recent transplants, were busy trying to sever theirs on their westward ‘journeys.’

Regardless, so far so good, Das hit all the touchpoints in an increasing world of ‘Ted-Talkisation’ of comedy, where comedians choose to pontificate, rather than produce punchlines, in the quest to ‘transcend’ comedy and hit home some poignant insights, or so they think.

Chappelle does it, Gadsby did it…and now Das.

The only thing is, the other two are funny. Is Das, really? That’s the question.

After the video was uploaded to YouTube, the monologue went viral across social media, and as expected, the polarized responses pointed – just as Das had – to a divided India , where freedom of speech is now regularly clashing with hardline nationalist sentiments, and the space for political comedy is shrinking.

Again great points in theory, but is Das really performing political comedy a la Bill Hicks, who like Chappelle and Gadsby, was ‘funny’?

Comedy may be subjective, but then there is subjectivity, and then there’s plain bad, which transcends comedy too.

If you comb through comedy nerd-dom and Reddit forums about the state of comedy in the country, Das does not feature as a popular choice with an audience who grew up on the likes of Hicks and Chappelle. At best he is given props, for being the trailblazer and stalwart in the always-fledgling Indian ‘comedy scene.’

He may not be funny and his specials may be mediocre at best, but he was first, is the refrain.

A valid one, and one must add, Das is great at compering Bollywood shows, where he is in his element lampooning the best of moviedom, which is easy pickings anyway. So on his day, he can definitely deliver the goods.

That should be enough, but is it? Not to fans of comedy and political satire.

By all accounts, Das appears humble in interviews, and does not take his stature seriously, but if he appears to be trying to speak to that stature as an elder statesmen, the result is what it appears, of a person trying too hard.

The outrage was as expected where politicians on both sides spoke of the ‘vilification the nation as a whole in front of the world’ due to the geographical location the monologue was delivered in. Others, however, celebrated Das’s routine.

‘The video is a satire about the duality of two very separate India’s that do different things. Like any nation has light and dark, good and evil within it. None of this is a secret’ Das explained in a statement posted online. He added, ‘I take great pride in my country and I carry that pride across the world.’

That was fair, this was Das the citizen speaking, and he spoke on stage as that, as well. That is what it needs to be taken as, the plea of a citizen, not a comedian.

Comedians in India are a nervous lot, with political comedians getting two or three shows cancelled every month. Venues are refusing to host certain comedians and comedians are even scared to improvise on stage anymore in case something they say goes viral and they have to deal with the authorities, not to mention the clear and present danger from the more unruly elements of society.

In January, Munawar Faruqui, a Muslim comedian, was arrested and detained for almost a month for a joke, after he was accused of allegedly hurting religious sentiments. Despite Faruqui’s subsequent release, his shows have repeatedly been cancelled after threats, and he has since decided to ‘quit comedy.’

It’s becoming a popular opinion, that comedians are spitting facts, while journalist and netas unintentionally serve up some humor.

Das even reacted to the outburst, saying people shouldn’t laugh if they don’t find it funny and his monologue also included the statement that people will watch it and lament that ‘this isn’t stand-up comedy, where is the joke, while realizing there is a gigantic joke, it just isn’t funny.’

While it was a great attempt to make a poignant statement on the state of affairs in the country, and a successful one, perhaps comedy fans would do good to pay heed to that line closely, and nod in agreement, just not in the way Das wanted them to.

ComedyIndiaTwo IndiasVir Das