I’m a nice guy in real life but I’m an unequivocal bastard on stage and very proud to be so,” says Vir Das, laughing. In India, where popular stand-up comedy means laughter challenges on television and Johnny Lever, Das has managed to create a niche. He doesn’t do mimicry, doesn’t do Lalu Prasad jokes, enacts female orgasms on stage and offends his audiences to a point where some of them walk out. And, he does all this in English, but still pulls in the crowds.
Das, who grew up and studied both in India and overseas, first performed in India in 2004, doing his routine at a small show in Mumbai. That got him an offer for a bigger show at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi later that year. The tickets took a while to sell, but his act got a standing ovation. Television shows followed, as did his first Bollywood film—he played the romantic lead in Vikram Bhatt’s Mumbai Salsa (2007). These days, he has roles—“mostly lead roles, not comic characters”—in Aamir Khan Productions’ Delhi Belly, Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal and a film produced by Manmohan Shetty. It is no wonder that he is surprised by his own success. “I can’t tell you how or why this is all happening to me,” he says, looking quite incredulous.
Hairbrushed: Das knows he has 5 minutes to grab the attention of his audience.
I meet Das at an editing studio in Lokhandwala, where he is working on the promos for his next show in Mumbai, Walking on Broken Das (he did the show in New Delhi in November). I get a sneak peek—one bit has him joking about the angst of an Indian male who has to get past the heavy, flowing ghagras to undress his bride on the wedding night. Das is offensive all right, and cocky, and manages to raise a few laughs. The two shows in New Delhi, he tells me, sold out in 14 hours. It will also travel to Dubai, Bahrain, Muscat, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Africa, England and Spain.
Das says the exposure on TV and in films has given him the recognition to do what he initially wanted to do with stand-up comedy in India: “Take it public, work in big theatres and crowds. As opposed to Russell Peters coming down to India, we’re now taking India to the world.”
Offstage, he claims, he is not a funny guy at all. His mother Madhur adds that she never saw a funny side to him, and he was expected to become an investment banker. It was at Knox College, Illinois, US, where he studied theatre along with economics, that Das started exploring stand-up comedy. When they attended his first show in India, Madhur recalls, she and her husband had slid down in their seats in embarrassment. But the audience reaction and the subsequent fame took her by surprise.
“Some relatives who had stopped talking to us after seeing his performance now call us up for tickets,” she laughs. His humour is risqué and has left his “conservative UP family” a bit shaken, but his mother says Das is perceptive and everything he jokes about has an element of truth to it.
“The comedian is the guy who sees the ghost,” Das says. His shows will neither change anyone’s life nor provide any social commentary; he only talks about the small, simple things happening around him. “I do passive research, research comes to me in terms of friends and family and Discovery channel,” he says. “I talk about sex a lot because I assume everyone has had it and knows about it.”
He says he takes a hairbrush and rehearses the script in his apartment. “And then I pray,” he adds, laughing. There are no rehearsals for opinions from friends. What he thinks funny, goes on stage. “That’s why it’s a suicidal profession. If I can’t get you in the first 5 minutes, I’m officially f****d.” As recently as three years ago, in Hong Kong, he performed for an entire hour to complete audience silence. “You die a thousand deaths, but then you get back on stage with a vengeance. One in every 200 gigs is just going to be a bastard of a gig.”
That’s why Ash Chandler, the first stand-up comedian in India to perform in English, says what Das is doing is fantastic. “I have immense respect for anyone who can hold audience attention with just the spoken word,” he says. Chandler recalls how, at a performance at a corporate event when he had started out about eight years ago, the audience was laughing with him, while wondering “why the MC was talking for so long”. “They were looking for the ‘performer’ who would come and do something on stage besides talking,” he says.
Das is set to direct a television show (he can’t divulge details) and come out with a music album (with funny lyrics, of course). A few years down the line, Das hopes to be rich, seriously overweight and have a drinking problem. Till then, it’s the laughter that’ll keep him going. “Surprised laughter is my favourite,” he says. “But what I love is the silence. When I start a joke and then pause before my punchline, those 3 seconds of silence between a giggle and a punchline laugh, when you know something funny is going to come...”
Vir Das will perform Walking on Broken Das at the Tata Theatre, NCPA, on Sunday at 6.30pm.