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Review: On ‘Landing’, Vir Das Explores India’s Shrinking Space For Dissent & Showcases His Evolution As An Artist

By Aditya Mani Jha 3 January 2023

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There’s a problem comedians have to eventually deal with if they enjoy anything resembling consistent success: their standard repertoire doesn’t work anymore because the audience no longer sees them as plausible ‘Everymen’. Take the time Dave Chappelle invited Elon Musk on stage at his show, for example. Musk was supposed to deliver the “I’m rich, biatch!” punchline from an old, famous skit from The Chappelle Show. Of course, Musk flubbed the delivery and was promptly booed, but really, nobody wanted to see a joke originally about Black Americans receiving reparations being delivered by the richest man on earth. Musk’s origins in apartheid South Africa only adds to the distaste. According to multiple accounts of the night, even Chappelle was taken aback by how badly this stunt failed.

It’s tricky, talking about your own success. Everyone has their own way to do it. In his latest special Landing (released last week on Netflix), Vir Das opts for a mixture of unironic sincerity and the odd risqué detour. “I’m not a victim or a hero,” he says towards the 15-minute mark. But he does talk about the trouble he got into for his Two Indias video shot at the Kennedy Center, including multiple lawsuits and being called “traitor” and “terrorist” on prime-time TV.

Though there’s also plenty of Das’ signature material about Indian parenting, inter-generational conversations and straddling two cultures (“too Indian for the West, too Western for India”), this is the true core of Landing—a mature performer’s response to a shrinking space for dissent (artistic or otherwise). This branches out into entertaining mini-rants about patriotism and nationalism (“just narcissism with a flag”). It’s not even always comedy, really, but a bit of powerful social commentary thrown in does feel like one of the themes of the last few years (Hannah Gadsby, Jerrod Carmichael), doesn’t it?

To Das’ credit, he never lets the conversation become boring or self-centred (which the camerawork doesn’t make any easier, zooming in at least thrice to remind us that Das’ sneakers have his name on them). Instead, we get amusing segues that field-test the privilege discourse (“think about it, a Syrian Muslim refugee Trump baby”), compare trauma-notes with his American colleague (“a mob on Twitter? Interesting…”) or just generally go for the childhood-ruin, a reliable comedic tool (“at least 50 per cent of your grandparents went to an orgy… or a tambola night or whatever they called it”). These bits contribute something to the overarching narrative in each case, without overwhelming the central narrative.

At the true core of Landing is a mature performer’s response to a shrinking space for dissent (artistic or otherwise).

“Why does Indian comedy not push the envelope?” Das asks, talking about the most irritating articles he sees in the West. “Well, we opened the envelopes and there were court cases inside it. The dates were stamped on the envelopes.”

Das is similarly brisk and effective while talking about stuff like “going to an Indian engineer before I would consider going to a white doctor”. This is funny twice over because in my experience, Indian engineers would not only entertain such a request, some of them would find it flattering.

The bits that weren’t as strong for me in comparison were his routines about NRI uncles and aunties—all the individual little jokes themselves were fine (some, like having the sex chat with desi parents, are even hilarious) but they all somehow converge and end up with Das in precisely the kind of finger-wagging position he makes fun of elsewhere. Don’t lecture us on what it is to be Indian if you’re not here, Das says, even as he bristles against such binary framing earlier in the set.

On the whole, I liked Landing and I liked the places it took Das to. Since 2020’s Inside Out, especially, Das’ comedy has become more stripped-down. The delivery has become a bit more thoughtful and expansive and willing to embrace slowness, even as the comedic persona becomes a little more self-consciously avuncular, with a delicious hint of old-man-grouch.

Honestly, I’m into it. I feel like a certain amount of the familiar from older performers feels safe and comforting. The televised equivalent of homemade chicken soup, if you will. The smartest, most self-aware among these performers find increasingly artful ways to talk about being not-young and not-hip. Das has clearly thought long and hard about his craft in recent years and Landing is further evidence of his ongoing evolution.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Aditya Mani Jha

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based independent writer and journalist. He’s currently working on his first book of non-fiction, a collection of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.

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