“Vir Das is absurd. One doesn’t go about saying such things publicly, isn’t it?”
Vir Das, a comedian at the vanguard of the Indian standup comedy circuit, has been a little provocative — spotlighting the good, bad and the ugly of the land he calls home. Or has he?
In a six minute monologue at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, Vir Das managed to do what has already been happening in India for a while. He built a wall. Between the two genres of the country he thinks he is from. The scrupulous, righteous, accepting, and warmhearted half that he is proud of, is juxtaposed with the intolerant and chauvinistic half that is going to be hard at work to make sure that he doesn’t forget this performance for a good while.
The narrative around Das’s oration has been a dull, albeit expected one - so much so that it would be surprising if Das couldn’t predict every bouquet or brickbat, word for word. Social media divides itself into two teams - those who stand by Das and agree with what he says (without or with a pinch of salt) and those who question the veracity of his content interlaced with those who do not - the latter questions the rarefied air that they think Das supposedly breathes and instead questions his right to accuse, given his past. While he talks about the two Indias he comes from in almost every sentence, the sentence that, to my eye, seems to have generated the most debate is Das’s quote:
“I come from an India where we worship women during the day but gang rape them at night”.
So, let’s look at this storied past that supposedly takes away Das’s right to speak.
Das, mildly infamous for his malnourished stints in content creation in the film industry, which is often on the backburner with his other content more than propping up his reputation as an entertainer, has been accused of hypocrisy, given his acting in a movie with a script that portrays women in the context of sex. This fact, by itself doesn’t need any further discussion. The film industry has been notorious in this regard and “item songs”, coupled with the objectification of women as eye candy, amongst a plethora of other “patriarchic” practices are the norm, within and without the screen, on most days of the year - something that not only does the country ignore en masse when sitting in a theater, but also consumes actively.
Yes, Das was, and perhaps still is, a part of this industry and has actively contributed to it in some way. Whether such content is or should be acceptable, however, isn’t what he talks about here. And what he talks about isn’t any less true, regardless of his past.
In metrics such as justice, inclusion, and security for women, India ranks a regal 148th, out of 170 countries in 2021— doing little better than countries with histories of dictatorships, military coups, war crimes, and civil unrest. In a past report, India was ranked the worst country in the world for women, thanks to “high risk of sexual violence and being forced into slave labor”. Every single female friend I have spoken to regarding this in India feels a curtailed sense of freedom and underlines the mishaps and transgressions they have faced with a sense of helpless annoyance and cornered frustration. The second class treatment that a woman has received in most parts of the country is not a matter of debate and, Das, by bringing this up, has not just put the spotlight on the issue itself, but on those who respond to it in negative tones, brandishing their allegiance to unadulterated idiocy.
A magnifying glass need not be taken to other instances which validate Das’s speech. When Das speaks passionately about India’s unity, and the travesty it often exhibits on demand, he says:
“I come from an India where we bleed blue every time we play green, but every time we lose to green, we turn orange all of a sudden.”
Ask Mohammed Shami, the Indian cricketer who was on the receiving end of social media’s brick showers when the team he has so passionately represented lost to Pakistan in a recent World Cup, so much so that his own captain had to try and shut down the trolls. Furthermore, this very captain had to endure the abuse on the personal front when his wife and daughter had to bear obscene threats of horrific actions - adding substance to Das’s narrative so far. Still not convinced? Let’s look at something else then.
Das also said:
“I come from an India where we can laugh so loudly in the comfort of our own homes that you can hear us through the walls, and yet, I come from an India where we break down the walls of a comedy club because you can hear laughter inside.”
Does Das’s country has freedom of speech? Munawar Faruqui can testify. He was thrown in jail for a humorous take on a major religion.
A standup comedian. Thrown in jail. For making a joke.
Standup comedy with veiled digs at such power to shut down on speech has now become the norm, making performers choose between wanting a flourishing career and not wanting to go to jail. So, was Das wrong in pointing this out?
While he leaves a lot on the plate for one to ponder about, to call his narrative anti-national, or dirty laundry, is nothing but a silly distraction from, and worse, dismissal of, its content. Das ends his speech with a Mark Antony-esque flourish where he says that he is proud of one of the two Indias he comes from, and that India is the one he wants to see thriving. While it might take a while for that India to thrive, he has cast a loud stone at the other India which has to be quickly stamped out. Stealing a line from the Washington Post, Vir Das spoke about Two Indias- both responded. It is only upright to continue this dialogue. While I write this, I realize that I add not one original fact or argument to this debate, and yet that this is a debate is deplorable. I write, to not make a point or a post, but to add a voice, to Das’s own.
Within six minutes, the on-screen serial killer (read: Hasmukh), kills the defenses of a country’s misogynists and zealots. And champions a change.