Vir Das is trending; he’s being attacked now because of a video he made after his first real show in the US about India. Comedians always find it difficult to be relevant as people don’t take them seriously. It’s even more difficult being a comedian in a polarized world because jokes are rarely politically correct. Something is funny only if it is riding on the edges of norm and convention. They do so in a manner that is funny as otherwise nobody is going to pay to hear them. Social commentators on the other hand say serious things with the objective that the perception of being erudite is further enhanced. Two different objectives but guess who will attract more attention—the comedian of course, even if the joke is not funny. Even if he is just lampooning a society, culture or people.
The reaction is not about Vir Das’s joke—it was not a joke to begin with, it’s a written speech to evoke attention. Das wanted to make a video and social comment about India, Indians, and much else in between. He wanted to make it interesting so he decided to do it in rhyme. If two sentences rhyme a bit they sound not only interesting but perhaps make the speaker sound clever too! At the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington, he chose to depict India’s different dichotomies through statements that were full of non-truth, made in rhyme, to provoke and attract attention.
An important venue, expensive tickets, and a crowd largely of rich bored NRIs, willing to listen to speeches by comedians. Not an extempore speech but a planned, written one, and the video released later, edited with canned laughter and claps added to it. A well-orchestrated performance to kick off a US tour, maybe.
Comedians use the trick of embarrassing a crowd with observations as it evinces an embarrassing laugh to escape it. But this was not comedy. It was a speech made on foreign soil about India to NRIs and released over YouTube—it did what it was made for. Attract the outrage and polarized brigade on social media. Which pounced, punched at it, proceeded to dissect the motivations and objective of a comic giving speeches.
Vir Das begins with the comparison of worshipping women during the day and gang raping them at night. A statement that has attracted the most attention as it has been made by a provocative attention-seeking comedian. If he had made the same statement in a WhatsApp group, there too, he would have been jumped upon and berated for his insensitivity. He was making the statement in the US, which has a higher percentage of reported rapes per million than India. But that fact does not matter because a comedian is not looking to express the truth—he is looking to show extreme dichotomies that shock and provoke. Rape contrasted with worship does it much better.
He also talks about kids wearing masks but our politicians hugging people without masks. Again, it shows extremes and presents dichotomies—even attracts a few claps. A comedian does what he is good at, showing extremes to get an applause for it, while not being a comedian but a social commentator about the state of India. Vir Das the thinker, maybe.
He also goes on to say that the Air Quality Index (AQI) in India is 9000. An assertion that can be easily disproved as it is a number. The AQI maxes out 999 so 9000 is a figure that only a performing comedian can conjure from thin air. AQI above 300 is considered hazardous. He also goes on to say in the same breath that “we sleep on the roof and look at the stars.” I don’t know how many people in India sleep on roofs in the winters, and how many stars can you see with the smog. But that does not matter, facts do not matter—shocking the audience does. Rhyming is far more important.
Another one follows, ‘we scoff at sexuality, but we F**k till we reach a billion people.’ Using an expletive, and again the two Indias: one that scoffs and the other that F**ks. Sexuality is the same as sex? Does not matter whether it makes sense or not. A comedian on a US stage is looking for social media attention and he will ensure that he gets it. The only way to get it is, of course, by taking a swing at all that a billion Indians think of as holy subjects. Well not all—he takes digs at journalists too and the only journalism he knows is about anchors in suits giving hand jobs to each other. Oh wait, he also knows about some women on the street with laptops telling the truth!
He is bipartisan in his commentary about old and young politicians and their fathers and mothers. It is all to evoke a clap and laugh. Shashi Tharoor of the quick fingers endorsed Vir Das and his commentary and called it brilliant. Without perhaps realizing that Vir Das was also commenting on the Congress leadership.
But maybe it’s not about a laugh at all? Maybe a confused comedian is giving up his comedy and wants to become a commentator on social issues and the country. A comic wanting to be taken seriously is the irony of our times. Should such behaviour be condoned as part of freedom of speech. No, falsehood, lies and hate in the public sphere cannot be. A video on social media is a comment in the public sphere, performers need to decide whether they want to be taken seriously or they want to be funny. If they want to be serious about their comment, no lies, no random rhymes to please the crowd. Choose, or the mob will choose it for you.
The author is a senior journalist and associated with a think tank based out of Gurgaon. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.