‘Vir Das: Landing’, the stand-up special which has won the Emmy Awards, is the comedian’s defiant response to the political backlash he received for his monologue on the ‘two Indias’ that highlights the country’s contradictions
Sometimes, it takes a comedian — and not the media, the fourth estate of democracy — to tell the truths about a country, without fear or favour. The most abject and unpalatable truths that can send the powers that be scurrying for cover. But it’s an exercise fraught with dangers in the India we are living in, where the seemingly harmless act of cracking a joke becomes akin to walking around a minefield; even if one tiptoes or treads cautiously, there is an entire ministry of hurt sentiments eager to be offended. So, stand-ups do what they do at their own peril. And power, every now and then, comes back — as is its wont — at the comedian with a vehemence, through its well-oiled machinery of hate.
When Vir Das (44), who has become the first Indian comedian to win the International Emmy for his fourth Netflix stand-up special, Vir Das: Landing, wrapped up his performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in November 2021 with the recitation of his poem — ‘I Come from Two Indias’ — that highlighted the paradoxes of the land he came from, he could not have foreseen that it would create an uproar back home. And draw the right-wing ire to an extent that several police cases will be filed against him for ‘defaming India on foreign soil.’
After the video of his six-minute monologues went viral, many BJP leaders lambasted him. He was trolled on Twitter (now X). He was termed a ‘traitor.’ Worse, he was cancelled, with several producers backing out from his projects. Incidentally, 2021 was also the year when Das was nominated for an Emmy in the best comedy category for his 2020 stand-up special Vir Das: For India, produced by his production house Weirdass Comedy, in which he had, ironically, drawn on Indianness — our quirks and contradictions — and what it meant to be an Indian.
His sweet little revenge
In Vir Das: Landing, the actor-comedian, who has done about 182 odd shows around the world so far, talks about how he, in his heart of hearts, wished that he didn’t win the Emmy then for it would only ‘offend’ his haters in India even more. He didn’t, but the system was already after him. Like many other stand-up comedians, including Munawar Farooqui and Agrima Joshua, he was consistently targeted; his shows were disrupted, with mobs attacking the venues and threatening the organisers.
But Vir Das did not give up. In December 2022, he was back with the show that has created history. In Vir Das: Landing, which is both personal and political, he reiterates some of those truths about India, and his own self, in ingenious ways, and has his sweet, little revenge. In a manner that only a comedian of the caliber of Das can do. It is as heartfelt as his poem about the two Indias, in which he didn’t mince words. “I come from an India where we worship women during the day and gang rape them at night…I come from an India where we take pride in being vegetarians and yet run over the farmers who grow our vegetables," he had said in the monologue, referring to the incident in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh, where Union Minister Ajay Mishra Teni's son, Ashish Mishra, had run over his SUV on the protesting farmers in October 2021.
Pulls no punches
Sharp, incisive, impassioned, intelligent and (just a wee bit) angry, Vir Das: Landing pulls no punches. It does not merely speak truth to power, it is a punch in the face of those who abuse it, one wisecrack and statement at a time. “Patriots love their country and just do things about it. Nationalists love themselves and the cult of themselves and they use their country to advertise it. It's just narcissism with a flag,” Das tells us, urging his audience not to ever “let anyone tell you how to love your own country.”
Shot in New York City in 2022, and with the idea of home as its central construct, Das begins the show with a realisation that plays on the back of mind of every comedian worth his salt: “I am doing comedy in 2022 (when the news is fake, but the comic books are real). I could be arrested, assaulted, stabbed, slapped, even worse, discussed on Reddit,” he says, as the audience bursts into a thunderous laughter. A promise to NYC follows soon after: “I’d love to take you home.” Throughout the show, he riffs on a mish-mash of issues: from colonialism to abortion laws in America (“a travesty”), from his own childhood to the dynamics of power in today’s world, from the dark thoughts he harboured during the trying times to the scores of messages of support he has received from strangers since 2021.
He tells us: “If you are ever at the receiving end of hate or feel like your nation is lost in it, from my family to you, I just want you to know that love is always playing right underneath. You just can’t hear it in the darkness. You have got to hang out till sunlight and you’ll hear it.” Das did the same, and he is talking out of experience. Das's delivery is pitch-perfect, his timing enviable. As his literary bent. Recalling a childhood incident in which he was beaten up for cracking a joke, he shares how the episode taught him the power of words: “Words have meaning. Words cause and defeat violence. Words are memorable.”
Just for the laughs
In a playful act of subversion, Das says that he now carries Indian soil with him wherever he goes because has vowed “never to defame India on foreign soil ever again.” Early on in Landing, he is seen sprinkling the actual sands of Juhu beach on the beach.” He says: “Every single time I made fun of my country tonight, I made sure I was standing on Indian soil.” At some point in the 66-minute show, he declares, “I belong to the floor. The floor is home,” reminiscing how he feared he would never be able to perform again.
“I leave you tonight and I go back to that India. Which India am I going back to? Both of them. Which India am I proud of? One of them. Which India is proud of me? None of them,” Das had said, somewhat presciently, concluding his monologue — “a satire about the duality of two very separate Indias that do different things.” When he was cancelled, he was left alone to fight his battle. He alludes to a sense of loneliness he felt in the Landing. But he is not embittered, realising fully well that “hate is yelled, but love is felt; it’s unfair to expect people to yell love.”
“Bagging the International Emmy award for the best comedy is an incredible honour that feels like a dream,” Das said in a statement. “For India... For Indian Comedy. Every breath, every word…,” Das wrote on X after the awards were announced. “This award is not just a recognition of my work but a celebration of the diverse stories and voices from India. Stories that make us laugh, reflect, and, most importantly, unite. This one is for India, for Indian comedy and for the community of artists at large,” he added. The win for Das validates his art, and also reaffirms the fact that comedy is no crime. As a stand-up, Das is merely transmuting personal truths, and those of his country, into gags. Just for the laughs.