Interview: Comedian Vir Das at Edinburgh Festival
Household name in India brings show Walking On Broken Das to Fringe
This article is from 2011.
A Harvard graduate and gross-out film star, Vir Das is a household name in India. Jay Richardson met him on his home turf before he tests himself at the Fringe
As the most populous and one of the fastest growing democracies in the world, India is embracing unprecedented change, not least in its demand for English-language comedy. No one sells more tickets globally than Indian-Canadian comic Russell Peters, while The Comedy Store’s year-old branch in Mumbai hosts some of the UK’s best headliners and local acts up to five nights a week. Next year’s Fringe promises an influx of comedy and theatre from the sub-continent, but at the vanguard is Vir Das, whose Walking on Broken Das arrives here for nine nights.
‘Edinburgh is a chance for me to pit myself against what’s out there, to see where I stand,’ the Harvard graduate explains. With a stand-up and character act initially developed in American strip joints and on cruise ships, he’s already toured England, Australia and Asia extensively. ‘A lot of people do comedy about India but they’re not from India, it’s a Kwik-E-Mart perspective. I want to provide a genuine view and maybe one on how we see the West. Did you know Indians are the only people who can lovingly beat the shit out of you at drinking?’
Although supported by Rohan Joshi, he appears as his own opening act, a mystic with flowing hair delivering one-liners on Indian stereotypes: ‘to get the elephant in the room out of the room’. Nevertheless, it’s ‘a very personal show, in that I talk about my grandmother, my grandfather and the first time I had sex.’
One of the first Indian stand-ups to tour theatres, I saw the 32-year-old perform his 60,000-plus selling show, History of India, at Mumbai’s Sophia Bhabha Auditorium in early July. Charting the ancient, Indus Valley civilisation’s path to contemporary political corruption, indicting The East India Trading Company and Liz Hurley along the way, this ambitious, cheek mic-presented lecture was inspired by Eddie Izzard’s theatrical shows and remains the only occasion I’ve stood for a national anthem before a gig.
Three days later, terrorist bombs ripped through Mumbai, a terrible reminder of the nation’s difficult ongoing progress. But that week, Das’ life was already changing dramatically. His role in a cult Bollywood comedy had transformed him from a comedian and promising actor, with bit-part appearances in ITV sitcom Mumbai Calling, to a bona fide film star, unable to walk his British Bulldog, Mr Watson, without being stopped for photos.
Like Zach Galifianakis, who cancelled his 2007 Fringe run, Das postponed his festival debut last year to shoot a contrived caper in which three friends stumble into deep shit. Internationally, Delhi Belly might have grossed a fraction of The Hangover, but the riotous, diamonds-switched-for-diarrhoea farce seems set to spawn a new genre of Indian cinema. One critic called its snappy blend of gross-out humour, sex and swearing, ‘Bollywood’s most daring, cheeky, irreverent, blasphemous, raunchy youth film to date … the lurid content … has never been witnessed on the Hindi screen before!’
Unlike the downtrodden, uptight Arup he plays in the film, Das is chatty and affable, indiscreet about the prevalence of Bollywood hair implants and his co-stars’ lack of sexual chemistry. But he considers himself an angry stand-up: ‘I’m very whiny about what I don’t understand. It’s called Walking on Broken Das because I wrote it after a break-up, a horrible personal situation.’
Writing his routines in film-set trailers, the workaholic seems tired but content as we chat backstage. Performing 90-minute sets while plugging Delhi Belly, he recently wrapped his first serious film lead. He’s in an improv troupe, sings in a comedy rock band called Alien Chutney and runs Weirdass Comedy, a collective of comics offering services that range from ‘funnying up’ Bollywood scripts to founding India’s first open mic nights. He intends to record an album and direct a television show shortly, but insists he’ll always return to stand-up. ‘It’s got me into every room I’ve ever been in,’ he maintains. ‘I’m not from a Bollywood background or a film family and in ten years’ time I might not have a film career. But I’ll always be funny.’
At 25, and visiting his parents in Delhi, he’d planned to return to England to teach theatre. But an invitation to perform in Mumbai led to his first television break. Having grown up in various parts of India and Nigeria, he first tried stand-up at Knox College in Illinois, then later, Harvard, keeping his scholarly change of ambition from economics to theatre from his parents. ‘I think of myself as an Indian comedian but I’ve had British and American schooling’ he reflects. ‘I always had this feeling of not fitting in anywhere, of observing situations from the outside.’
While a security guard and dishwasher in Chicago, he began attending open mics. ‘I was booed off, 11 weeks in a row,’ he smiles. ‘I was saying, “Hey, you know what’s funny about cockroaches?” and I got slaughtered. But the best way I get good at something is if you tell me I can’t do it. In week 12, I had a meltdown: “You Americans are just stupid, ignorant hicks! You have no idea how important Indians are. We drive your taxis, we sell your newspapers, we sell you condoms and food, our doctors check your wives and children! Without Indians you’d be starving, stranded, sexually sterile and stupid!” And I got my first laugh.’
Woody Allen notwithstanding, he prefers British comedy to American – ‘it’s drier and requires more thinking from the audience’ – but cites Sam Kinison, Dave Chappelle, Eddie Murphy and Saturday Night Live as inspirations. ‘That was an interesting time for America and led to interesting comedy. And that’s what’s happening in India right now.’
Vir Das: Walking on Broken Das, City Edinburgh, 226 0000, 12–20 Aug, 7.30pm, £10 (£8).