India celebrated 71 years of being a republic last January, as Vir Das took to Netflix to pay homage to his country by releasing Vir Das: For India (2020). The comedy special marks his third Netflix special after Abroad Understanding (2017) and Losing It (2018). A Republic Day release, For India goes beyond the strictures of a comedy special. Throughout most of his videos and in his Netflix specials, Das uses comedy as social commentary, to engage in dialogue about current issues that plague the country. Vir Das: For India is an ode to his India: the India that has been his reality.
The show’s set design is rooted in a nuanced cultural traditionalism as Vir Das sits atop a flight of stairs against the darwaaza, occasionally sipping his kulhad ki chai. A substantial section of the audience is non-Indian, “seated in their very special section, just like the airport” as he “periodically through the show takes time to explain references and context”—here, Das represents India to the foreign eye, quite literally, as he familiarises his non-Indian audience with most cultural references and India’s current political concerns. The stand-up comic Sorabh Pant has called Das the “Priyanka Chopra of Indian comedy”, as the latter chooses to represent the ‘image of India’ globally. Some might argue that this comparison is an oversimplified hyperbole; however, the motive behind the comparison holds water. As the only Indian comic with four Netflix specials, a series, and a growing popularity, Vir Das becomes India’s cultural ambassador on Netflix India. It is interesting that his specials are on Netflix, a platform that is without a doubt fabricated to be global. Although India has varying intersectional realities at play, Netflix India becomes an umbrella that sometimes chooses an amorphous sense of Indianness. In For India, Vir Das talks specifically about “his India” that panders to the educated, urban, middle-class individual, while conveniently remains palatable for the non-Indians. Belonging to that demography himself, Das is painfully aware of his privilege and never misses a chance to hold up a mirror for his audience.
Humour becomes his way to make people witness the disjointedness of what it means to be ‘Indian’. When the show starts, one feels excited to go on this joyride: a tour of India with Vir Das! However, as the show progresses, he engulfs the audience and unsettles them as he talks about the ‘real issues’, evoking discomfort through laughter. Vir Das employs his brand of humour in the face of adversity, where his comedy challenges power, evoking not a ‘ha-ha’ but a ‘stay-afloat’ kind of laughter. In a recent FC Front Row interview, he mentioned, cheekily, “the comfort is for you (audience), the poke is for me.” His comedy, especially in For India, “pokes” the audience and requires them to feel discomfort. What starts as light-hearted conversation about cultural tropes of chyawanprash, Parle-G, and mainstream Hindi cinema, then progresses into a conversation about colonialism, its aftermath, caste disparity, religious friction, even 26/11, and a seemingly innocent Jungle Book reference that turns into hard-hitting political commentary. When his comedy is a reckoning of nostalgia, his target audience remains the desis, as he consciously addresses only the Indians in the room, never alienating the non-Indian gaze, but not necessarily including them in these moments either.
Since time immemorial, we, as Indians, are often told what India is, by the people in power. India has always been boxed, defined, and compartmentalised, whether through colonialism initially, or the current holders of power, who dictate the idea of India, culturally, financially and politically. Playing with a significant cultural anecdote revolving around Parle-G, Vir Das assures his audience, “he who has the biscuits, gets to tell the story”, subtly acknowledging the shift in power: he now has the biscuit. When he tells us how his India is “more sensible, edgier, funnier, more respectful,” one wonders, is it really? Well, if it is, then Vir Das has the biscuit and will get to eat it too.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.