Vir Das on Telling the Truth with Toilet Humour

Vir Das is one of the biggest names in Indian comedy, and it's apt that his first name means 'brave' – the last time he was in town, things didn’t quite go as planned

Feature by Tamara Mathias | 08 Aug 2016
  • Vir Das

“My first Fringe was a devastating experience,” Vir Das admits, right off the bat. “We lost a shitload of personal savings, landed a shite venue in the middle of nowhere and ended up dancing the Bhangra and handing out free samosas on the streets of Edinburgh just to grab attention!”

Back home in India, Das operates at the nucleus of an increasingly explosive performing arts circuit. When he’s not jamming with Alien Chutney, his tongue-in-cheek comedy rock band that croons about everything from man boobs to Game of Thrones, he's either jetting off on international stand-up tours or shooting for Bollywood blockbusters. Finding a way to laugh at how a few weeks in the Scottish capital diluted his celebrity status says a lot about this down-to-earth comic.

Humour comes first for Das, but he has built quite a reputation as a comedian with a conscience. His recent TV commercial for He deodorant received enormous praise for the manner in which it lambasted the objectification of women in advertisements. In his spare time, he makes motivational YouTube videos that cover everything from tackling internet trolls to encouraging high school students not to be fazed by the Board Exam – India’s trial-by-fire, rite-of-passage national test that sees thousands of teenagers buckle under societal pressures to perform.

“The trick is to lead with humour and then get a little heavy,” he explains when asked about how he ensures his comedic material isn’t accused of trivialising the serious.

He does this best, perhaps, via the Vir Das Potcasts, a news comedy webseries that sees him pontificate on world politics from atop a commode. Das attributes the videos’ success to format; according to him the position a comedian takes is critical – no toilet humour intended.

“There’s a certain humility in saying, ‘I’m a professional idiot with an opinion. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I get it wrong.’ At the end of the day I’m a guy sitting on a toilet with his pants down. And audiences identify with that.”

This year he’s all set to perform at the Gilded Balloon with Unbelievable: The Dishonest Indian, a show that incorporates both the story of how he lost his virginity and his take on Islamophobia with seemingly no thematic conflict.

Das has just returned from a tour in the US where he gigged 30 shows in 40 days, introducing India to audiences who have only ever been given "the touristy, snake-charmer-head-wobble version before."

Unbelievable is about being unapologetically Indian in a world that often doesn’t understand some very basic facts about people from the sub-continent: "Not all of us are tech-savvy, we’re really not that different from you and, oh yeah, Indian men are amazing lovers,” he clarifies, when asked to tell it like it is.

Admittedly, one of the teething problems with being the First World’s first desi is getting round his homegrown accent. The comic deals with this by reeling audiences in with his opening disclaimer: "This is my accent. It is real. I’m not impersonating a relative. This. Is. The. Whole. Show."

“People laugh at that,” he says. “They’re suddenly on your side and just like that the context of the room is set.”

The version of Unbelievable that will be performed this August has been specially re-scripted for the Fringe. Das appears enthusiastic: “If you’re not Indian and have never watched an Indian comedian before, you’ll know a little bit more about India at the end of the show. And I think that’s a pretty good reason to come.”

Vir Das – Unbelievable: The Dishonest Indian, Gilded Balloon at the Museum, 15-28 Aug, 9pm, £11-12; Gilded Balloon Teviot: Sportsmans, 15-19 Aug, 11:45pm, £11-12.