The very first Netflix special by an Indian comedian has some good jokes and heartfelt observations amidst an ocean of banality.
Vir Das wants you to know that he’s a nice guy. That’s the impression one gets, at least, from his Netflix special Abroad Understanding, a first for an Indian stand-up comedian. The one-hour show, helmed by Marcus Raboy, features Das making the best use of his affable charm and being much more at ease than he has ever looked in one of his many mediocre Bollywood outings. To prove that he is aware of this, Das even takes a potshot at himself for acting in the 2016 sex comedy Mastizaade (something this writer, who has had a thing or two to say about it in the past, applauds him for).
The good news is that there is enough to like in Abroad Understanding, which cuts back and forth — stylishly, with a camera that swivels and glides around — between Das performing nearly the exact same set in New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium and a comedy club in New York City.
The 37-year-old, who talks about living in Nigeria, India, and the United States, brings an interesting sense of perspective to certain topics, such as when comparing the sizes of American supermarket aisles to schools in Bombay (a slight exaggeration, but relatable) and entire colleges in Africa.
Would the latter be true for South Africa, though? Such mild but glaring blind spots dog Das’s bits, robbing his observations of the ring of truth — an essential component of great comedy — and rendering many of his jokes somewhat inert.
For instance, a bit about how Prime Minister Narendra Modi flies Air India, in comparison with Donald Trump, who flies on Air Force One, is filled with pedestrian, juvenile punchlines, finally ending with that grand-daddy of ‘uncles drinking Royal Stag whiskey jokes’ about how Air India’s flight attendants need to lose weight.
Then there’s a cliché about the manner in which Indians eat food with their hands. Then there’s a bunch of generalisations about Indian movies that are tired clichés/haven’t been true for a long time, such as how physical intimacy is depicted by cutting to a shot of two flowers rubbing against each other. Then there’s the suggestion that ‘lulz’ is an Indian invention, not something that gained popularity on 4chan. And then there is a head-scratcher of an impersonation of the Mughal emperor Akbar who, in Das’s head, sounds like one of those Libyan hijackers from Neerja.
Of course, this sounds like nitpicking and, to a certain extent, it is. But this is precisely what makes all the difference between the kind of comedy you’d experience at a regular open-mic and one that is available on Netflix for millions of people around the world to watch.
Amongst the more poignant observations are his more thoughtful segues on what identity means to him, or how America is essentially in an ‘arranged marriage’ with Trump, or how religious texts are like an ancient version of The Times Of India (one of my favourite jokes).
There’s no underestimating Das’s intelligence and sensitivity, but one gets a sense that he’s only going to work so hard to get a laugh, following which it is entirely the audience’s problem if they don’t find it funny. If all stand-up comedians thought that way, their very art form would likely disappear within weeks.
That said, it is definitely heartening to see that Das’s ambition, although in excess of his abilities, is in no danger of being subdued.
His self-effacing charm may smooth over the (very) rough edges of his material, but the very fact that he’s made it this far and has contributed to the normalisation of the Indian accent, among other things, is commendable.
You might even be tempted to later comment that he ‘slayed’, even though you might struggle to remember exactly how he did so.
P.S.: Don’t watch it with subtitles, unless you want to slap your forehead in frustration at the mention of ‘Vernon’ when Das actually says ‘Varun’. It isn’t worth it.
(The author is a film critic and culture journalist who resides in Mumbai. Previously, he was the entertainment editor at a leading website and has written for a number of publications. In his spare time, he makes music. When free from all of the above, he travels.)