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Vir Das makes Kolkata laugh, squirm and think

Following postponement in Bengaluru, Das gave Kolkata something extra special at Kala Mandir

Priyam Marik | Published 12.11.22, 05:57 PM
Vir Das entertained a jam-packed Kala Mandir for more than 90 minutes on November 11 evening, as part of his ‘Wanted’ tour

Vir Das entertained a jam-packed Kala Mandir for more than 90 minutes on November 11 evening, as part of his ‘Wanted’ tour

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“I’m finished, but I’m free,” said Vir Das, couching on stage, as a packed auditorium at Shakespeare Sarani’s Kala Mandir held its collective breath. It was well past 9.30pm, and the show had just entered extra time. “After what happened in Bengaluru, do you mind if I go on for slightly longer tonight?” asked Das. “Nooooooo!” screamed the audience in unison.

As part of his ‘Wanted’ tour (organised by the Mumbai-based Yosn Innovations), Das was in Kolkata 24 hours after his show in Bengaluru had been “deferred due to unavoidable circumstances”. A complaint was filed by the Hindu Janajagruti Samiti on the grounds that the show would “hurt the religious sentiment of Hindus”. The police were subsequently requested to cancel the gig in Bengaluru. Almost 2,000 kilometres away, Kolkata’s sentiments, however, were far from hurt, as a largely young audience — mostly between 18 and 30, who were asked by Das to identify their position in the generational ambit multiple times during the evening — welcomed Das with a deafening reception at the start, followed by a couple of minutes of standing ovation at the end.


‘For me, what Das does is beyond stand-up’: Derek O’Brien

Among those enthralled by Das was Derek O’Brien, Trinamool’s Parliamentary leader in Rajya Sabha. On hearing of the no-show in Bengaluru, O’Brien had tweeted an invitation to Das to perform in Kolkata, unaware that the latter was actually performing on November 11. “I had no clue that he was already doing a show at Kala Mandir. I saw a reply on Twitter and was able to get a last-minute ticket…. For me, what Das does is beyond stand-up. From the structure to the script to the timing, he proved why he is one of the top communicators in the world,” O’Brien told My Kolkata.

Breaking the ice on a pleasant November evening, Das set the mood for the show by clarifying something that most in attendance would have pondered at some point. “In case you’re wondering why the tickets are so costly, lawyers are expensive,” quipped Das, as he spent the first 15 minutes working the crowd. The central theme of the performance revolved around home and safety. Where do we feel safe? And is a safe place always home? Das, India’s most famous English comedian, spoke at length about what being at home and being safe mean to him.

Raised in Nigeria and India and educated (partly) in the US, Das has had a relatively nomadic life, but it has not stopped him from loving India the way he wants to, something he emphasised repeatedly to increasingly loud responses. Recalling the day in New York last year when he was nominated for an Emmy Award and called a ‘terrorist’ on national television in India, Das drove home the idea that there are indeed multiple Indias jostling against each other, trying to define what it means to love your country and be loved back. Unlike Kunal Kamra, who had also sent the crowd at Kala Mandir into raptures a fortnight ago, Das never indulged in overtly political comedy. And yet, he said what he had to — subtle, sharp and sophisticated as ever.

‘I don’t know if I’ll get to perform this show again’

As expected, Das addressed many of the hot-button issues of the day — from Elon Musk buying Twitter like an “Indian aunty buying fruits” to cancel culture and gender fluidity among Gen Z, from “post-truth” conversations flooding the media to Indian comedians “pushing the envelope”. For Das’s part, he revealed his own policy of opening envelopes. And no, it has nothing to do with being outrageous. Witty, wise, even a touch wishful at times, Das was inspired, almost like an artiste on borrowed time. “I don’t know if I’ll get to perform this show again,” acknowledged Das, before delivering a powerful monologue on the power of microphones, a device that has changed the world by “making big people talk about small things and small people talk about big things”.

One of the highlights of the evening came when Das, along with the audience, decided to identify how punching down works in comedy. “Who can we punch down?” asked Das, before coming up with the most hilariously absurd counterfactuals to expose the grim realities of political correctness. Here again, Das was intimately aware of his setting, casually dropping in references that would only work in the City of Joy.

There was far more horseplay from Das than what one is generally accustomed to on his Netflix specials, and a good deal more of candour, too. Personal stories of pride and embarrassment (sometimes embarrassment leading to pride) were narrated at length, but rarely without a larger context of social commentary. If Trevor Noah and Varun Grover were to mark the ends of global and local satire for Indian audiences, Das usually hits the sweet spot in the middle on that comedic spectrum. And he did so once again in Kolkata.

Das was in sparkling form, even if it took him half a dozen tries to say ‘phyana’

But there was more, as Das, apart from making people squirm in applause (the comedian’s paradox, indeed!), also made them stop laughing and take stock. Openly talking about what he felt when he and his family were bombarded with death threats and he was (in his mind) on the verge of being arrested, Das made the audience realise that even if comedians like himself roll from punchline to punchline seeming unflappable, they, too, can be rattled.

Bursting the bubble of serious, even sombre, reflection himself, Das segued into his final sketch, that of his experience on a first-class Fly Emirates flight, which tied all the loose strands from the 90 minutes that had preceded it to great effect. Brutally brilliant at saying the unsayable without being crude or crass, Das was in sparkling form, even if it took him half-a-dozen tries to pronounce phyana (Bengali for ‘foam’).

Underlining what so many Kolkatans felt after the show, O’Brien said, “The next time Vir is in Kolkata, I’ll be the first one to queue up for two tickets”, confirming that Das remains well and truly ‘Wanted’ here. O’Brien also extended “a standing invitation for 2023 to all comedians to come and perform in Kolkata.… Be it Vir Das, Kunal Kamra, Aditi Mittal, Kenny Sebastian, Sumukhi Suresh, Kanan Gill or anyone else who wants to do great comedy, I, on behalf of all comedy-loving Kolkatans, welcome them with open arms and hope to see them entertain us next year.”

Last updated on 12.11.22, 08:15 PM

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