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No laughing matter

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By Mother Madhur says that stand-up comedian Vir Das is actually a pretty serious sort when off the job AS TOLD TO ARUNDHATI BASU
  • Published 19.08.06
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Comedian Vir Das is used to raising laughs when he goes on stage or steps in front of a camera. But his mother Madhur has seen the quieter and more thoughtful side of the funnyman. She’s also the person who figured out how to coax him to work harder when he was slacking off at school. Today, Vir Das has four shows on the small screen — News on the Loose, Cricket First, Lo Kar Lo Baat and Bid 2 Win. He’s also looking for a break in Bollywood and will start shooting soon for two big banners. Also, he has done a series for Hallmark called The Curse of King Tutankhamen’s Tomb and a comedy rock album, Alien Chutney, both of which will release this October.

Madhur Das started her career as a teacher in Dehra Dun and Delhi. When she shifted to Africa with her husband, she took up a course in mass communication. In 1995, she returned to the country to dabble in filmmaking. While she produced the films, her elder daughter, Trisha, joined her as a director to work on documentary films. Their film Fiddlers on the Thatch, on the children of Kalimpong, won a national award in 2005 in three categories. When her daughter got married the same year and left for Singapore, Madhur left filmmaking and started working with WWF-India as director, business development.

Vir:

I was a problem child from the very beginning. Academics were a big hassle. I scraped through each level because of my extra-curricular activities which included dramatics and basketball. I failed in virtually every subject except my favourite, English. At one point my parents put their foot down and said that extra-curriculars were not happening if I didn’t study.

I was a naughty child and really talkative at that. My mother knew that I had to be handled very strategically. She started talking to me a lot in order to educate me while my father got me into reading newspapers — a habit that has stuck. Today, I read nine newspapers every morning.

Anyway, there was always a limit with my mother that I couldn’t cross. If I asked her questions at a stretch, I knew I had to let her be for at least half-an-hour. But she never hit me. She got somebody else to do the spanking — the boarding school.

I was very attached to my family comprising my mother, father and elder sister. So when I was sent to the boarding school at the age of nine, I had trouble getting used to life there. I am a comedian, I believe, because I am a rebel. And it all started in boarding school where they always have a strict set of rules. I was perpetually rebelling against them.

The discipline I went through early in life was essential I feel. Because I went not through rebellion, but I underwent a revolution. I was not much into confiding in my mother, except one hour before I knew I was going to be caught.

I had a curfew only on weekend nights to be back home by midnight. It was relaxed, however, when I was in college. The smartest way my parents disciplined me was when I was 21 and finished with my studies. They had supported me all through, but then they told me I was on my own. From then on, I did odd jobs that included being a waiter, construction worker, dog walker and door-to-door cutlery salesman, to sustain myself till I hit it big in the comedy circuit.

Nowadays I catch up with my mom when I go to Delhi for shows. I veto a five-star stay to stay at home. I chat with her about work, the celebrities I meet and the women I date. In fact, to her credit, she’s sat through with the strangest girls. The thing about Mom is that she’s quite chilled out and not possessive. So the girl I marry will have no problems on that front.

Madhur:

Since we lived in Africa, we were very focused on our children inculcating Indian values. So when Vir was nine, we packed him off to a boarding school — Lawrence School, Sanawar in Kasauli. But he gave us a real tough time and was always planning to run away. He now says that attending boarding school did him a world of good, but he didn’t feel that way then.

There’s something about him that is very focused. For instance, he wanted to study in a college in Delhi. He was good in English, but he was not sure how he would fare in the exams. So he decided to try through the sports quota. He played basketball with great enthusiasm and the result was that he even made it to the state level. He got into Venkateswara College soon afterwards.

Back then, we spent a lot of time together as I’d shifted to Delhi with my husband. I am always asked one question, which crops up because of my son’s profession, and that is — “is Vir Das a funny person at home?” I must say that he likes to keep his professional life apart from his personal life. At home in fact he is pretty quiet and serious. At a party if you happen to ask him to be funny, you will probably be at the receiving end of a glare.

Halfway through college, Vir wanted to go abroad to study. We told him that we couldn’t send him, so he got a scholarship and headed for Knox University near Chicago. But one day, he called to say he was doing double majors in economics and theatre.

He joined a bank in Chicago soon after graduation. But later he dropped finance and got into theatre full time. We’d always dreamed of our son being an investment banker and naturally, were disappointed. But Vir got a full scholarship for a master’s degree in theatre in Alabama. He also started doing the comedy circuit in the US.

Around this time he came back to Delhi for five months. I remember his first show — Not For Members Only. My husband and I were shrinking into our seats in embarrassment because Vir’s sense of humour was so in-your-face.

But then we looked around and saw the audience giving our son a standing ovation. It was a proud moment. Initially we used to be a bit shaken and not very comfortable with his profession. With time however I’ve started feeling otherwise — I am proud of him now.