Stand-up comedian, actor and a rock star of sorts, Vir Das performed before a full house at Kala Mandir on Friday with a little help from laughter-club buddies Aditi Mittal and Ashish Sakya. t2 caught up
Why did you choose to study economics and theatre? What’s common to both?
Actually, I was sent abroad to study economics but I secretly started taking theatre lessons. After doing this for two-and-a-half years I called my parents to confess. I went to the USA on scholarship, otherwise my parents couldn’t have afforded my trip. They advised me to pursue theatre as long as I studied economics. Finally, I aced my theatre classes and scraped through in economics!
Stand-up comedy was unheard of when you arrived in India but now it’s filling large halls like the Kala Mandir.
For some reason I have achieved mentor status. When I started, the audience was in the 35-and-above age bracket. Now my fans are teenagers. The fact that college kids want to make this a career has greatly helped the scene. For a long time I had no one to collaborate with, which was very frustrating. But then I found a collaborator for one of my most popular shows, History of India, According to Vir Das. I’m happy that the show has become a source of livelihood for many but it [stand-up comedy] may well suffer the fate pool parlours did in the ’90s; it may lose currency and once again get restricted to a club of 10 performers. Look at what happened to Indi-pop. It was popular till 1999-2000 and then disappeared only to make a comeback. Only the good singers survived.
How is your approach to humour different from others?
I feel my approach is stupider than most! I always feel I don’t have punchlines. I’m not a “topical” comedian; I don’t do “news comedy”. My comedy is “observational”. I talk about little, stupid things — from going to the bathroom to buttons to falling in love. I like the idea of talking about things you thought were not funny. My idol is Bill Cosby who could do 10 minutes on brushing teeth and once he was through, people didn’t brush their teeth the same way again!
What’s more challenging: cinema, theatre or stand-up routines?
Probably films. I don’t think I’d survive if I were just a Bollywood actor. Last year I worked on six films and all of them will release post-February 2013. Last year I spent 290 days shooting and the only way I managed to survive was by ducking out for a stand-up routine every three-four days. I like films... it’s an exercise in patience. If I write a joke and test it on an audience I would know in three minutes whether it’s funny or not. With films I wouldn’t know whether I suck or not for eight months. Films are about minute details; stand-up comedy is about pace.
Many of your jokes deal with sex. What do you do when these are not well received?
Well, these days I do projects that allow me to mix it up. History of India was clean with no reference to sex and no profanity. I have a comedy rock band called Alien Chutney, which is the most vulgar thing I have ever done (laughs). What I’m doing in Calcutta is completely new… it’s a list of things that piss the nation off. It touches on religion, grammar, politics, money, purchasing power of Indians… not so much sex.
What’s pissing you off so much?
Nahin nahin, I’m very happy. The good thing is that I’m neither completely in Bollywood, nor am I only a comedian. I’m like a stray dog. It’s actually a very happy place to be in. I’ve visited eight countries in 11 days and performed for over 16,000 people. It was nice to test my routine among the big boys.
What’s in the pipeline?
Six of my films will release in 2013. And I’m going to release two albums (with Alien Chutney).
Aliens make the best chutney because...
It’s green. It looks as weird on the way in as it does on the way out.
That awkward moment when...
The elderly aunt in the first row secretly laughs at all the sexual things you’re saying.
Someone you find impossible to laugh at...
Montek Singh Ahluwalia. He’s serious and eloquent.
Laugh at or laugh with...
That I don’t know. I laugh at everybody and everybody laughs at me. My business is laughter and if they aren’t laughing, I’m f****** up.
If not a comedian…
I would have been a musician. But I already am one! If I weren’t a musician, I would have been an actor. But I am an actor. And if I weren’t any of them, I would have been a teacher.
There was a lot of “elbow-to-boob contact” at Kala Mandir on Friday. Thankfully, it didn’t go beyond stand-up comedian Aditi Mittal’s (below) script! “Call me a woman of science,” she insisted in the opening act, which was followed by fellow comics Ashish Shakya (above) and Vir Das, who were in town for a show organised by the Calcutta South Round Table 17. It was “bloody” funny to hear the 24-year-old describe how talking about sanitary napkin in public is like mentioning Voldemort in Harry Potter –– “that which must not be named”. Ashish, popular as @stupidmaximum on Twitter, picked on, well, Bengali men while Vir Das wrapped up the evening with an act that made stand-up comedy look oh-so-easy-peasy. “My name is Vir Das and I am not a Bengali,” he began and by the time he was done, we were still rolling in the aisles. Pictures by Bhubaneswarananda Halder