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Review: ‘For India’ Showcases Vir Das’ Ability to Evoke Laughter From Nostalgia—But is That Enough?

By Akhil Sood 17 April 2020

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Vir Das wants to have his cake and eat it too. On his new Netflix special, Das makes the audacious choice to get all the white people to sit together, separated from the Indians who form the majority of the audience. (Where did they all come from? Did he raid an IPL afterparty?) The white people even get a special dull red light shining on them. And then Das sets about using every cliché around ‘India’ that he—or I—can think of.

The format goes thus: first he makes a joke that only the Indians would understand, with the additional comic reward coming from the fact that there are all these oblivious foreigners who just…don’t…get…it…haha! It’s like an inside joke between Das and a billion Indians, with the ex-pats neatly sequestered. And then he explains that same joke to the whites, who get to laugh at how weird and wonderful India is. While the Indians realise that the things we accepted at face value are not so straightforward after all.

It’s like an inside joke between Das and a billion Indians, with the ex-pats neatly sequestered.

At its heart, the entire show is an exercise in wistful nostalgia; For India is Vir Das’s ode to India, to its many banalities and peculiarities. Nostalgia is a powerful device, but it perhaps works best when it’s presented in the form of erratic snapshots. Maybe, just maybe, 75 minutes of Das doling out every imaginable aphorism that a certain class of India has grown up both laughing at and romanticising isn’t the best use of his or anyone’s time.  

He structures the set to incorporate personal anecdotes, pre-internet memes, historical accounts, observational digressions, and some haphazard, anodyne political commentary. And so begin the tales. He kicks off the set with a bit on Chyawanprash, and how literally no one—not even Google—knows exactly what’s in it. (For what it’s worth, the very first hit on Google reveals the entire list of ingredients, but we can probably chalk that up to creative license.)

We move on, slowly, in between Das sipping his tea from a ceramic cup, to other ideas of India. There’s something about Fair & Lovely and dusky Indian actresses. A bit about how Indians are renowned for their hospitality, which culminates in an amusing reveal about why foreigners are greeted here with a teeka on their forehead. Parle-G and the art of dipping your biscuit in tea. The Jungle Book and, naturally, Tinkle comics. Delhi’s infamous love for guns; the self-regard Bengalis hold themselves in. And, completing the Nostalgia Bingo that Das seems to be playing—with roaring support from an equally redolent crowd—a riff on Old Monk rum, and how it’ll mess you up. All of these, of course, are things no Indian comedian ever talks about.

It doesn’t help that he delivers these gems with a faux-poignancy—replete with narrowing of eyes and gazing into the distance—and a certain amount of smugness, speaking each sentence like he’s just won an elocution contest, really ee-nun-see-yating every word. And then there’s the frequent headshakes and tilts—his hair bobbling around ever so slightly—that remind me of Rajesh Khanna trying to dance in old Hindi films.

Let’s be clear though: while the premises he draws from are trite and unimaginative, the jokes themselves are not. Das manages to mine the material for plenty of clever asides and gags, driving timeworn narratives to unexpected and rewarding conclusions. He’s comfortable with silence, patiently teasing out the stories and trusting his audience to stay with him. Even the sporadic bits of physical comedy that he—seated throughout the set—employs work well in their restrained use. Like his imagined reaction of children eating Chyawanprash, and how it makes their leg shake—an evocative bit meant to recreate the effects of Chyawanprash. It’s a reminder that Vir Das is a seasoned comedian who has honed his craft through years of hard work and great thought. To use the amusingly deferential jargon of the comedy industry, Das is a “senior comedian”.

Das manages to mine the material for plenty of clever asides and gags, driving timeworn narratives to unexpected and rewarding conclusions.

But then, what is Vir Das really? Where is his place in comedy? He was an early-mover in the post-Russell Peters era in India, helping to legitimise English standup comedy and building a successful career and legacy for himself. He’s managed to cross over into the glitz of Hollywood, and seems to be doing just fine there. He has a certain standing in the comedy industry, and has had a serviceable stint in Bollywood too; he even has a really bad comedy rock band. And he is—as he told us in his previous special—a generous tipper. But, beyond that hefty CV, what does he stand for as an artist? Does he have a larger vision or idea to offer, or is he satisfied just being a competent journeyman?

While his straight-down-the-middle politics and attempts at social commentary are comically naïve (at best), Das remains inoffensive and well-intentioned. He lacks edge but, to his credit, he’s not positioning himself as an edgy truth-teller or a satirist. He doesn’t quite fall into the observational mould, nor is he weird enough to register as an absurdist. He’s suitably brown for America, and brown enough for urban India—a juggling act where he’s trying to keep everyone happy, sacrificing edge for comfort. He is, in every way possible, solid; the guy you can count on for a breezy, if vacuous, blend of intelligence and goofiness. But then, for someone with the kind of experience and influence he has, this mastery of the craft should be a given. Demanding that he reinvent the wheel is unreasonable; expecting him to offer more than generic sweet-nothings is not.

Really, with For India as too his past work, the theme that seems to resonate is identity, longing, sentimentality. He misses home, the idea of it. He is a romantic, yearning for an imagined past and a sunny future. He relies on the temptations of hope—his own and his audience’s. Is that nearly enough, though? Is that all there is?    

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