Editor’s note: This interview is Part 2 of our conversation with Vir Das It has been edited for grammatical accuracy and clarity. This is not for the weak as it contains strong language. Be sure to read the start of this interview with Vir Das in Part 1 where we have an exclusive behind the scenes look at his show “Battle of Da Sexes”
Tell us your thoughts about the future of comedy
I think Hindi comedy is the future of India right now; most content is watched on the smartphone. I cater to only 20% of India with my comedy but I am fortunate to do movies and that’s how I achieve that balance. Having said that, you’re talking to the old guy of comedy right now. I don’t know how to go viral and all that shit. Genuinely, my first standup piece online was the Netflix special. It’s insane when I think about it. I was putting stuff up on youtube but it was music videos, podcasts, and random shit. I earned my fans on the road and I value that connection as they keep coming back. I don’t believe there is a fickleness to the relationship that you sometimes find online. I don’t know how young people find exposure these days
Soooo….how DID Netflix find you?
I don’t even know how! I think it was because I did a huge tour in India, making history selling the most number of tickets ever on a tour. Netflix heard and they caught me when I was in LA next. I wanted to shoot it in India but Netflix was the one who insisted that they believed I was more of a global talent.They wanted to shoot it in America entirely. And there was NO way I was doing that so I said let’s do both. That’s how the special came together.
How was it different performing in NYC versus back home?
In Delhi, I performed at the Indira Gandhi Stadium. There were 10,000 people there and it was a magical night. I’m a Delhi boy and a lot of people who had not seen me for a year or two came back to pat the homeboy on the back. Delhi has always shown up for me; the audience has always come through. It was safety. In New York, I was in a basement with 110 people who had no clue who I was. New York is legit, the toughest comedy crowd in the world! They see Louis CK and Dave Chapelle on a nightly basis in their club so they are not going to laugh at just anything. That was important to me; I went into that show to prove that I too can make these guys laugh, they don’t need to know who I am. Luckily for me, it worked out. *laughs* If not, it would have just been shot in India!
You’re also an actor. How does the flavour of comedy change in a film?
It’s completely different. Different types of films with different types of comedy as well. What people are waking up to is that India is 26 different countries with 26 different audiences. Each one of these audiences needs to be entertained. While the movie is one medium which reaches them all, there isn’t one kind of comedy which reaches them all. If you are bold enough to try 3 or 4 different types of things to get to those people, it means they will lean into one another. I have discovered that many in my audience have turned up because they have seen me in a commercial movie. It was the film comedy that I do that brings these people to my stage. That is the upside of Bollywood, you can’t argue with 1.2 billion people!
Be honest, have you looked at a comedy track in a film and thought “God, I would never perform that but I have to because it is Bollywood!”
You know, it has become fashionable to shit on Bollywood and downplay Bollywood comedy. But 2000 people move to Bombay every day to make it into the films. If you’re lucky enough to make a profession in Bollywood, take what you can and make the best of it. Sometimes you look at a piece of comedy in a film and you have to say “Maybe I don’t know everything. I am surrounded by 500 people who believe in this and I have to believe that these people know their job and what they are doing.” A film is very collaborative. In stand up, you can be a jackass off stage and “it’s okay” because you’re funny. In film, you have to listen to people and work with them.
In standup, you are the king of the show but in Bollywood, you are just one of the many. How do you deal?
Why would you want to do do this one thing for the rest of your life? I could not go from vanity truck to vanity truck to film set to film set for the rest of the year. Neither could I be on the road 52 weeks a year. I’m an artist; I need to play in my band, do a movie, tour in a year and do a bunch of different things. I’m more than one box!
Was this the life you expected when you were growing up?
I didn’t think about it. When I met Ashwin Gidwani for the first time, I was just a kid who moved to [Mumbai] and I wanted to do standups. There were no standups at that time. Ashwin was like “Okay, let’s do this.” The reason he did that was probably because I had mentioned one of my grand ideas, wanting to do the History of India show. That guy had enough foresight to say “Okay, I’m going to produce this show this kid wants to do because he is eventually going to write me a grand show, that will be the largest selling comedy show at all times.” Me? I just wanted to tell jokes on a stage. That’s all I think about; what is in front of me. Everything else beyond that is unplanned.
Tell us about Ashwin Gidwani!
Ashwin and I met at a play which both of us were watching. At that time, I was working at CNBC, doing a nightly comedy show. I was really frustrated because it was corporate comedy. I wanted to get on stage, do 90minutes of comedy and be the first Indian to go to mainstream theatres with standup. Ashwin said “okay” and that was it! We don’t converse too much about what we are going to do, we just do it. I’ll call up Ashwin and be, “I have a new one in my head” and his reply would be, “Okay, when?” “8 months from now” And then we get started. That is the end of the conversation. At some point, like 4 months later, he will call me up and ask, “What is it called” and I tell him, “Battle of Da Sexes.” “Okay, let me design the poster.” We are very symbiotic with each other. He is the kind of producer that lets you grow as an artist. It’s great to have somebody like that in your corner.
You have been quoted saying “Shivani is your reality.” How romantic! But let’s be honest, how true is that statement?
Very true! I kind of lead a ridiculous life. For instance, for this show, I will land in Hong Kong at 1 pm, sightsee in the cab from the airport to the hotel, work for 2 hours on the show and then get on a flight out of Hong Kong. It feels you are kind of lost because you are not really anywhere: not really in Hong Kong, not in that hotel nor the airport. The only place you really belong is on that stage and at home. So it’s always good to have someone behind you who makes you feel like you belong somewhere. I get that from Shivani.
Does she think you’re funny?
Uhmmmmmmmmm. In pockets.*laughs* She is the first person to see the new show every time it comes out. Ashwin [Gidwani] and I have been working together for a fair amount of time, about 7 years and when you do as many shows as we have, we can lose perspective on whether the material we are doing is relevant or current. Shivani will come to watch every 10th or 20th show and this develops our perspective. She was the first person to see Battle of Da Sexes when we first started talking about it, when it was about 80% done and when it was 100% ready.
You’re really scoring points here on your marriage…!
Haha. You think so?
Were there lines Ashwin and you found hilarious, while Shivani was like “No, guys! That’s not funny, don’t put that in!”
What is funny is something your audience will let you know; this changes from night to night. [Battle of Da Sexes] is a show written about men and women and how they interact. What the men are laughing at and what the women are laughing at…your guess is as good as mine!
What does your mum think of the show?
She enjoys all of the shows! My mum, she’s a little conservative, so there is a little bit of an eyebrow raise but she understands. You do need to push the envelope a bit with comedy. But my parents have always been big supporters of the show!
So, tell us what does a typical Vir day look like?
Okay, so let’s do 29th of September. I performed in the O2 forum in London which as a seating capacity of 2300. It was kinda cool because when the Netflix special came out, we performed to110 people so it was nice as a change. We got off stage at 11pm and went to drink cider because that is my favourite thing in the world. Woke up at 6 am, landed in India and went straight into an edit of an Amazon series I am doing. Then, had a creative meeting on a film narration we have written that I will be starring in next year, like an Austin Powers type movie. Finished that at 4pm, went back home and hung with the family for a bit. Headed off again to the theatre for a soundcheck at 6 pm. Got on stage at 8pm, got off at 10 and went back home to have dinner with the wife. Then went to bed.
Wow, I think I could manage to drink cider and maybe eat dinner…
*laughs* There is not 1% of what I do that I don’t like doing. I love everything I am doing so there is no exhaustion that comes with that.
Come on, what is your secret to productivity then?
My secret is vodka. *laughs* I don’t tend to think about it. I have a micro approach to life. All I can think about is what is in front of me right now. Is there a joke in front of me, is there a line in front of me, is there idli dosa in front of me? That’s it. That’s all I think about.
You mean, you don’t meditate? Isn’t meditation the secret to everything?
No, it’s bullshit. You need to retain a certain amount of angst to be a comedian and I’m very happy with my angst.
So you used to do corporate comedy… would you ever go back?
It is damn good money! *laughs* I still do 4 corporate [gigs] a month and what people don’t realise is that it is a great place to test material. A comedy club is where people have paid good money to see you whereas in a corporate setting, the VP of Sales sitting in front of you has to be there anyway. So you get to test some new jokes.
Tell me a joke which you thought was funny and now makes you cringe.
In the first 5 years of my comedy career, I did a joke about how an American soft drink had released a bottle shaped on the body of an American actress and my punchline “it’s exactly like her, lots of fizz in it and empty at the top.” I discount the first 5 years of my comedy career.
How has your childhood influenced your comedy?
Being in India, Africa and then America gives an outsider’s perspective wherever you are, which has always influenced my comedy. I’m inside somewhere but always looking from the outside. I never really felt like a part of Nigeria and as long as we were there, I didn’t really feel like a part of India.
How has marriage influenced your comedy?
Marriage has taught me not to be schizophrenic. I’m a Gemini. I have 5 jobs: I run a company, I play in a band, star in movies, do stand up, write and produce. I think marriage has taught me to be one guy, in terms of consistency of personality. So no matter what I am, I come home the same guy.
So, now that you are married, what do married guys talk about?
I don’t know. I don’t talk to other married guys. I think once you are married, you find a lot less use for other married men. There is no perspective that one married man can give another married man that is remotely useful other than “Pass the parathas.” In fact, that should be the level of conversation – “Pour me a drink, pass me a paratha and shut up.” That’s a good conversation.
We hear your bulldog is called Dr Watson. Who is the Sherlock between Shivani and you?
Me! I am the biggest Sherlock Holmes fan in the world. Growing up, he was my superhero. We’re getting a cat called Moriarty soon.
Aren’t you afraid he will kill you?
I have that shit under control.
Battle of Da Sexes will be running for ONE DAY on 15th October, 3.30pm to 6pm at the Baptist University. For more information, please call +852 96918886 All ticket proceeds will go directly to Helping Hands, a non profit based in Mumbai to assist children with cancer and the One Humanitarian Award by the Rotary Club.