The history of India, according to Vir Das
Not too many people watch the History Channel and think to themselves "This thing would be awesome with a laugh track." But Mumbai comedian Vir Das differs.
"I love anything that’s in black and white grainy footage," says India's most-hired stand-up comedian. "I look at so many things on The History Channel and go that's SO funny, or hey, this happened? That's hilarious!"
The two fat tomes sitting on his desk tell you he's not lying. They're giant books about the History of India, one by esteemed historian Ramchandra Guha, and the other by (fittingly enough) Khushwant Singh, the raunchiest nonagenarian in the universe.
It's all research for "The History of India VIRitten", Das's latest stand-up special that opened in Mumbai this weekend.
History of India opens oddly enough, on Jawaharlal Nehru's birthday and charts the history of India, through stand-up comedy. It's a risky proposition for more than one reason.
For starters, India's notorious culture-cops: the politicians.
"Here's how I look at it," Das says. "Barack Obama visited India, everybody made a billion jokes. Ditto with the Commonwealth Games. Are you telling me, that if 100 years from now someone tries to joke about these exact same things, suddenly it's sacrilegious?"
VIRitten tackles some of India's most sacred cows, from the construction of the Taj Mahal to the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi's infamous National Emergency of 1975.
"Vir presents the funny elements that have been a part of our heritage and how much there was to laugh at in our struggles, how much humor there is in heritage," says the show's producer Ashvin Gidwani. "History is hugely funny, we just haven't been reading it right. Your perspective on history depends totally on your historian. Who says your historian can't be as twisted as your history?"
Is Das at all worried about the show coming off as anti-Indian?
"I spent one and a half years writing this. Why would I spend 18 months writing about something I hate? I love my country, and nothing can change that. I'm hoping the audience sees that sentiment."
Showing off his research, he adds, "Even Akbar's court had puppeteers outside, parodying the day's events."
Back to school
VIRitten actually dials history even further back than Akbar and the Mughals, and even the Mongols. In fact, Das begins his show as far back as he possibly can.
Das' opening act, Kavi Shastri, gets things off the ground with an irreverent geology lesson about the very formation of the Indian subcontinent.
"Wasn't it Carl Sagan who said, if you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe?" grins Shastri.
And in case you're really challenged up there, you should survive just fine thanks to the giant slides and animations (over 200 of them) that will form the evening's backdrop.
It's no slap-dash job this, and even as we speak, the team is putting final touches on a parody of Amitabh Bachchan in the 1970s, on the questionable dressing style of Mughal kings, how the British won India through the violent use of flags and how the Lodhi dynasty’s greatest victory was a flower garden.
"My setup here is actually information that most people in the audience have dreaded for years. If you went to school in India, you dreaded the information we have on this show. But, the aim here is to take that history textbook and make it funny," says Das.
He wants the show to make people remember the history of India without that sense of schoolboy foreboding, but there's no denying that facts, especially weighty historical facts, often get in the way of a good story.
Das argues that his new show isn't a factually correct account of history. It's his "demented view of things." As is the case with most comedy, for him too, fact becomes just a launch-point for flights of fiction and wry observation.
Das' last comedy special, Walking on Broken Das, played to sold-out crowds around the country, and was a critical success. This round, he makes no effort to deny the pressure.
We spoke to Das the day before D-day. Is he nervous? "Yup," he says. "I've never had a larger audience, and expectations are high. But then again, you know within five milliseconds of getting onto that stage, whether the show works or not."
"The History of India VIRitten" opened at the Sophia Bhabha Auditorium on Sunday, November 14. It will repeat November 20 at the Nehru Centre and December 5 at Tata Theatre. Tickets available at BookMyShow.com