Vir Das is back at the Fringe after three years. This time, his show is about love. ‘What is special about the Fringe that brings you back?,’ I ask. We meet at the student cafe at Edinburgh University, on a typically dreich evening. Das has just wrapped up another sold-out set. To mark it, he orders green tea.
‘I come here to see other people do bold, innovative stuff. And then I go home and I try to write better. I don’t always watch stand up (comedy) here, I try to mix it up.’, he smiles.
‘There aren’t a lot of Indian artists, though, are there? Even though comedy has evolved in India in recent times?’
‘Hardly any, he admits. But just having a comedy scene isn’t evolution either’, he argues. ‘Comedy in the West has arrived, there are names who can deliver the same effect in a tenth of the time we have. As an industry in India, we are so young. Evolution will truly happen when we go beyond existing, when we can hold our own on a global stage.’
Das certainly can. He’s one of the founding members of the modern comedy industry. He was also the first in India to have his own Netflix special, and now he’s got another one too. So I probe about that, ‘With an international crowd, how do you strike that balance between personal themes, and universal?’
‘I think it’s okay to talk about things people don’t get immediately. I don’t get the first laugh, but I can ride the second wave. People come with an expectation to be entertained, so I have to give them that. You also have to consider the dynamics of an hour – and how you introduce, reminisce, set the scene and deliver punchlines. And I make it hard for myself by switching content around too, so I can end on something universal, but unexpected. But I am still learning…
As far as themes go, I do not want to be the guy whose perspective is attached to his nationality. You know what I mean?,’ he quizzes.
I do know what he means. International artists frequently rely on the ‘quirks’ of the host society vs their home country. But it isn’t what Das does, he’s learnt to skip the standard jokes about the locals and dive straight into his content, which is quite fearless, and very refreshing.
‘Do you ever rely on local knowledge then, to appeal to the vibe of a place?’
‘I never fit in and do not try. I’m too much of a comedian for Bollywood and too ‘filmy‘ for stand-up. Too Indian for the West and too Westernised for the Indian audience. So I learn; and I try to get better at my content,’ he smiles disarmingly. Das is an attractive man, and it’s hard to not see it. It’s worked well for him on the silver screen, with his repertoire of Bollywood movies, which have turned into cult classics – Delhi Belly, Go Goa Gone.
‘What about Hollywood, then, and your TV show? What about representation there too?,’ I prompt.
‘Every sixth human on the planet is an Indian. We don’t see that in movies, do we? In my show Whisky Cavalier, I am the CIA Weapons Expert Jai Datta. It’s a great role with its own plot and character arc. But that wasn’t the poster child for ‘representation.’ Datta just happened to be Indian because the role was written for me,’ he rests his case.
‘Will there be more?’
‘Yes,’ he says with enthusiasm. ‘There’s a new American TV show on the cards, one that I’ll produce. Also coming up in India is the dark comedy thriller Hasmukh, which I have written and I also play the protagonist – a stand up comic who is a serial killer. And there are a couple of movies that I’m working on too. My fan base post-Netflix is the youngest it has ever been, so I need to also consider the range of the people I am trying to appeal to and work my craft accordingly.’
‘Will you continue to do both movies and stand up then?’ ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘for the forseeable future.’
Switching to a slight detour, I ask him to elaborate on his comments about trying to be a male ally for women in the industry. ‘I spoke to a lot of people in the industry,’ he says. ‘And they said, ‘Just listen. We need to set the narrative, so let us talk’. So that’s what I did. And there’s so many voices, so much to learn. Where I grew up in Africa, for example, feminism is about being able to vote or read, things we take for granted in India. But now, I just absorb all those perspectives and listen to try and help where I can.’
‘Do you mentor more junior people in the industry, a number of whom are starting to become big names abroad?’
‘Comedy is very democratic. The funniest guy tonight could be a newbie, whilst an old hand could totally fail too. So being junior isn’t the same as in other fields. But I am the ‘what the heck do I do!’ call for some, yes.’
We must wrap up now, as Das is off to an artists’ event. As I watch him head off, I wonder if I should have asked him about how stardom feels. I can already picture his answer, a tilt of his head and that boyish grin, I think he is quite untouched by fame, still, and that’s where the charm lies.
Vir Das: Loved is @ Gilded Balloon @ The Museum until Sat 10 Aug 2019