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Rewriting the comic history of India with Vir Das

Vir Das has five films slated for release this year, besides the second edition of his three-day comedy festival and a brand new comedy show. His secret? He doesn’t sleep much, Akhil Sood learns.

AKHIL SOOD  3rd Jan 2015

Vir Das says namaste.

Q. We've seen a steady rise in stand-up comedy in India over the past few years. What are some of the most glaring changes you've noticed?

A. There's a lot more supply and demand right now. So, in order to get the audiences interested, in a sense, a lot of people have stopped doing stand-up comedy now; they're starting to do sketches, concept comedy, YouTube. That's part of any comedy bubble bursting. But it's going to be a circle where, eventually, you'll have to return to your core art form. I think it's going through that phase. We're trying everything; at the end of it, to survive, we're going to have to become comedians.

Q. Between stand-up comedy, films and your comedy rock-band Alien Chutney, which is the most satisfying? How do you find the time to juggle between the three roles?

A. I'm not sleeping much. They're all different steps on a ladder. The good thing is that I'm on different rungs in each area. In stand-up comedy, I'm on a higher rung, but in films I'm a rank newcomer, and in Alien Chutney we're at the bottom of the barrel [laughs]. We're this cool, stupid band that people seem to like but nobody seems to know why. And they show up at our concerts. I don't really know what's going on with this band and why people are taking to it the way they are. But I'm happy they are. For me, the mixture of all this stuff is a nice grounding experience. I don't feel too successful in any of these areas; it's something to bring you back to the audiences.

Q. Tell me a little about the Weirdass Pajama Festival, the second edition of which takes place later this month across India.

A. We've had a lot of festivals that do a lot of things and also feature comedy. But this is the first festival that does only comedy, the largest in India. This year, we're covering three cities — Mumbai, Pune and Delhi. The idea is simple: get 100 comedians from all over the world down to India and have them gig all over the city at different venues. For instance, if Shazia Mirza from the U.K. is performing in Mumbai, she will literally begin her day at Score (Malad), then head to the Barking Deer (Lower Parel) in the middle of the day, and end her day at Irish House (Colaba). And she'll do this for three consecutive days. We'll have different comics doing up to three shows a day at every single venue. Then we also have grand flagship shows.

The closing show for this festival is called Comedy Death Race. It's basically 40 comedians on stage doing whatever they want for two minutes each. It's like WrestleMania meets standup comedy — we gong you off, count you down. Nowhere else will you find 40 comedians on the same ticket. Apart from that, we've got a salute show for Johnny Lever featuring a host of Bollywood funnymen — including the likes of myself, Vinay Pathak, Suresh [Menon], Anupam Kher, the whole gang, anybody who's worked with Johnny Lever. We present an award to him and then he takes over the stage for about an hour; that should be fun.

In Delhi, I'm performing with six young comics from the U.S. It's called Vir Das and the American Invasion. We're also doing a roast of Suhel Seth, which is kind of a cool, Delhi-specific show for which he's written a great routine too. Pune will feature the American Invasion and my new show as well.

Q. What is the vision behind the festival?

A. The long-term vision is to match the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where the festival is bigger than the artist. It becomes a hub for the city. For instance, last year we had five or six international comics coming down, and it went so well and we hit really big numbers. So this year we were inundated with emails from international artists, and we've got 34 international artists coming down.

With the comedy market especially, you would usually be familiar with all the artists. The aim here is to present the artist in a concept or a zone that you haven't seen that artist in before. You see Vir Das here, and he's lying and doing all sorts of nonsense. The festival is about comedy concepts rather than comedy artists. For a festival to survive, you have to innovate on programming rather than artists. That's the vibe of the festival this year.

We tend to look down on our national language quite a bit. The minute something is in Hindi, we automatically assume that it’s not evolved.

Q. Tell us about your new show, titled Unbelievablish, which you will debut at the Pajama Festival.

A. Unbelievablish has kind of a cool concept. It combines dishonesty, comedy and art. I'm just going to stand on stage and narrate stories. The audience will have to decide whether I'm lying or not. Things like how I was technically dead for four minutes, or how I've flown an Air India plane for five hours, or how the President of India and I have chatted about lesbians. I'm going to tell you outlandish, vulgar, insane sh*t, and you have to decide whether you believe it or not. It's an interactive show. I'm used to doing very large scale productions — History of India: VIRitten, Battle of Da Sexes — but this is the most personal, edgy thing I've written.

There's also going to be a fair amount of art. I'm going to be drawing things on stage. It's the most outlandish thing I've ever done — History of India takes from fact, Battle of da Sexes takes its way from science, but this show is just crazy; that's the only way to describe it. You may just come out of this show not liking me very much.

Q. Online and with live shows, especially when it comes to English language comedy, there is a lot of innovative and edgy content — podcasts, sketches, parodies. Do you think comedy on television — Comedy Nights with Kapil, for instance — where the humour can be perceived to be crass or immature, has evolved at the same rate?

A. To each his own. The TV comedy market is the TV comedy market. It's doing amazingly well. Indian stand-up comedy in English will never see that kind of scale or fan following. I'm pretty sure Kapil Sharma, for example, does similar numbers to Russell Peters in a year [in terms of the people he performs in front of].

As for the content, we tend to look down on our national language quite a bit. The minute something is in Hindi, we automatically assume that it's not evolved. We have a tradition of Hindi comedy, we have the Hasya Kavi Muqabla. The reason I'm a comedian today is because I saw Johnny Lever performing in a garden in Lucknow in front of 12,000 people when I was 13, and I thought that was the coolest thing I'd ever seen.

There's something in comedy called "respect the kill". No matter what the joke is, keep in mind that the comedian is larger than the joke. The fact is that you're able to go out there on stage, be omnipresent, deliver the joke and kill with it. That's what you respect. Kapil Sharma is an amazing comedian; he has great timing, a great mind, and he kills every time he goes on stage.

Q. What are your views on crowds in India at stand-up comedy events, and the notion of heckling the comedian on stage? Is that something that bothers you?

A. Compared to international crowds, Indian audiences are usually a little colder for the first two minutes. You have to work a little harder in those two minutes; but once you get them going it's a lot of fun. Tough foreplay, great sex.

As for hecklers, I welcome a heckler as often as I can. It's good news for me; I'm always happy with that kind of a situation, where I can give it back to them. Every heckle is an opportunity and I welcome hecklers and latecomers.

 
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