Vir Das is trendy; he is under attack now because of a video he made after his first real show in the United States on India. Comedians always have a hard time being relevant because people don’t take them seriously. It’s even harder to be an actor in a polarized world because jokes are rarely politically correct. Something is only funny if it lies on the border between norm and convention. They do it in a fun way, otherwise no one will pay to hear them. Social commentators, meanwhile, are saying serious things in an attempt to further improve the perception of being scholar. Two different goals, but guess who will get the most attention, the actor of course, even if the joke isn’t funny. Even if it only makes fun of a society, a culture or a people.
The reaction isn’t about Vir Das’ joke – it wasn’t a joke to begin with, it was a speech written to get attention. Das wanted to do a video and a social commentary on India, Indians and many other things in between. He wanted to make it interesting so he decided to do it in rhyme. If two phrases rhyme a bit, not only do they sound interesting, but maybe they also make the speaker smart! At the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington, he chose to portray India’s various dichotomies through untruthful statements, rhymed, to provoke and attract attention.
An important venue, expensive tickets, and a largely crowd of bored wealthy NRIs, ready to listen to the comedians’ speeches. Not an improvised speech but a planned and written speech, and the video released later edited with canned laughs and added applause. A well orchestrated performance to launch an American tour, perhaps.
The comedians use the trick of embarrassing a crowd with observations because he displays an embarrassing laugh to escape it. But it wasn’t comedy. It was a foreign soil speech on India to the NRIs and posted on YouTube – it did what it was done for. Attract outrage and the polarized squad on social media. Which threw himself in, punched him, proceeded to dissect the motives and purpose of a comic giving speeches.
Vir Das begins by comparing the worship of women during the day and gang rapes at night. A statement that attracted the most attention because it was made by a provocative actor in search of attention. If he had made the same statement in a WhatsApp group, there too he would have been pounced on and berated for his callousness. He was making this statement in the United States, which has a higher percentage of reported rapes per million than in India. But this fact does not matter because a comedian does not seek to express the truth – he seeks to show extreme dichotomies that shock and provoke. Rape in contrast to worship does it much better.
He also talks about children wearing masks but our politicians hugging people without masks. Again, it shows extremes and presents dichotomies – even attracts some applause. A comedian does what he’s good at, showing extremes to get applause, while not being a comedian but a social commentator on the state of India. Vir Das the thinker, perhaps.
He also goes on to say that the Air Quality Index (AQI) in India is 9,000. A claim that can be easily refuted as it is a number. The AQI hits a maximum of 999, so 9000 is a number that only a successful comedian can conjure up out of thin air. An AQI above 300 is considered dangerous. 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 rooftops in winter, and how many stars can be seen with smog. But it doesn’t matter, the facts don’t matter, shock the public, yes. Rhyme is much more important.
Another follows: “We don’t care about sex, but we fuck until we reach a billion people.” Using a curse, and again the two Indies: one who laughs and the other who F ** ks. Is sexuality the same as sex? It doesn’t matter whether that makes sense or not. A comedian on an American stage is looking for social media attention and he will make sure he gets it. The only way to get it is, of course, to get into everything a billion Indians consider holy subjects. Well not all, he also attacks journalists and the only journalism he knows concerns the presenters in costume who give handjobs to each other. Oh wait, he also knows some women on the streets with laptops who are telling the truth!
He is bipartisan in his comments on old and young politicians and their fathers and mothers. That’s all to evoke an applause and a laugh. Shashi Tharoor Quick Fingers endorsed Vir Das and his commentary and called it brilliant. Without perhaps realizing that Vir Das was also commenting on the leadership of the Congress.
But maybe it’s not about laughing at all? Maybe a confused comedian gives up his comedy and wants to become a commentator on social issues and the country. A comic strip that wants to be taken seriously is the irony of our times. Should such behavior be tolerated within the framework of freedom of expression. No, lies, lies and hatred in the public sphere cannot be. A social media video is a comment in the public sphere, artists have to decide if they want to be taken seriously or if they want to be funny. If they want to be serious in their comment, no lies, no random rhymes to please the crowd. Choose, or the crowd will choose it for you.
The author is a seasoned journalist and associated with a Gurgaon-based think tank. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.
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