Follow Mint Lounge

Latest Issue

Home > News> Big Story > Vir Das lands on his feet

Vir Das lands on his feet

Vir Das is perhaps India’s most successful comic performing in English. As he embarks on a journey to Hollywood, here's the story of how he weathered controversy and found his voice

Vir Das is one of India's most popular comics
Vir Das is one of India's most popular comics

Around 20 years ago, a motormouth young upstart popped up in Mumbai with barely comprehensible ambitions. Vir Das—Weird Ass, to repeat a now retired joke he made often—wanted to become a stand-up comedian. To which any reasonable well-wisher back then might have asked: What the hell even is that? No such profession existed at the time. Sure, some of us may have heard of a Russell Peters doing diaspora jokes, and, in fairness, regional comedy has always had a grand old history here, but this was all very new to an urban, English-speaking audience. “The only thing that was around,” he tells me, “was very ‘SoBo (posh south Mumbai), 45 and above, Wodehouse-ian stand-up. Here were kids doing dick jokes, talking about their sex lives, talking about being broke.” It didn’t make sense. Nevertheless, he moved into a small apartment in Bandra and got to work.

Today, Das is one of India’s foremost comedians, someone who fills auditoriums. He plays regularly at prestigious comedy venues across the world. A voice respected, admired, loved (and hated, because that’s how it works). He’s fast becoming a global comic voice. In fact, he was the first Indian stand-up to get his own Netflix special (Abroad Understanding, 2017). Das has tasted success in Bollywood, a star turn in 2011’s cult hit Delhi Belly propelling him to a spot at the big boys table. A burgeoning Hollywood career beckons, with a new show fronted by him in the works. He has just announced a 33-country world tour starting in September.

Also read: Finding the soul of comedy

Through it all, he has been playing music festivals with his comedy rock band Alien Chutney, with some of the most celebrated indie rockers the country has produced, singing comically explicit limericks (often about human anatomy).

In 2021, Das became persona non grata among a section of Indian society: police complaints across cities waiting to be turned into FIRs (they eventually weren’t); TV channels screaming profanities and inanities at him; no one in the entertainment industry willing to be found anywhere within a 5km radius of Vir Das. He was radioactive, and he thought he was finished. He lived to tell the tale.

Das is freakishly productive across multiple disciplines. “He makes the rest of us look f***ing terrible,” laughs Aditi Mittal, a comedian who has been around since the early years of English stand-up in India and has built a formidable and loyal following here and internationally. She cites Das as pretty much a mentoring figure in her early days. Kunal Kamra, a political comedian who’s no stranger to controversies himself, tells me, on WhatsApp, how much he admires the discipline with which Das functions. “The constant work to put himself out there, writing content so consistently… his overall energy, even after so many years, is totally inspiring.”

Vir Das in the series ‘#TenOnTen’
Vir Das in the series ‘#TenOnTen’

Das is discontent by design; he hates comfort or safety nets. “I am happiest when I feel like there’s something impossible in front of me,” he says. “The bottom rung of the ladder is my happy place. The top rung is where I get restless. I haven’t experienced it very much but I am not happy there. I haven’t really ‘enjoyed’ a success yet. I have just replaced it with another impossible thing to do. I like that system.”

With a new 33-country world tour and acting, writing, and directing projects in Hollywood, Indian cinema and the streaming space, Das seems to be on the verge of taking the next step in his journey. He wants to put out work that will outlive him, that will be remembered.

Perhaps it has something to do with him feeling like an outsider all his life. Das grew up in Nigeria before being shipped off to boarding school in Sanawar, Himachal Pradesh. A brief stint in Delhi University followed, after which he went to the US, to Illinois, and majored in drama. He has never really fit in anywhere. In Nigeria, he was the Indian kid. In Sanawar, he was the kid from Africa. In Delhi Public School, Noida, he was the fancy kid from boarding school. In a way, he has leaned into that sense of isolation, of not belonging.

Das says he has just finished work on a Hindi streaming series for children. It’s the first show he has co-directed and co-showrun. It’s “happy, innocent, childlike”. In the works is something at the opposite end of the emotion spectrum: an Indian horror film he will direct. Not campy or a horror comedy; a proper, scary horror film. “I think you know I can be funny now,” he says. “Hopefully you do, by this point. So let’s try to do some different shit now.”

An American sitcom is currently under development too. The WAG (Writers Guild of America) and SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild—American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) strikes have delayed things but he’s optimistic and waiting on good news once Hollywood reopens. The show, titled Country Eastern, has been greenlit by Fox and he will write and star in it. “That will hopefully be the perfect meld of Alien Chutney, me and stand-up,” he says. A Hollywood action film will follow soon. Frequent appearances on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show—the celebrated TV host and comedian with whom he shares a mutual fondness and respect—as well as podcasts and interview spots have endeared him to American audiences.

Vir Das in the Netflix special 'Abroad Understanding'. Image courtesy Netflix
Vir Das in the Netflix special 'Abroad Understanding'. Image courtesy Netflix

In effect, he wants, in an abstract way, to be among the pantheon of all-timers; he mentions Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle often and cites South African comic Trevor Noah as a figure to emulate in terms of where he came from and his success crossing over to the mainstream. Does he think he’s there yet? “Not yet. Nowhere close. I have much yet to do, much honing to do. But I definitely will get there.” As we fret about all this heavy stuff over a Zoom call, Das—in an apartment he recently moved into—looks out of his window. “My first apartment in Mumbai was three doors down from here; one tiny room on St Paul’s Road. And now I am here. It’s a weird kind of full circle.”


I am in Pune for work; the year is 2011. My friends in the Maharashtrian city take me to one of those huge community clubs, surviving on government subsidies, that become an evening space for the city’s elite—if not always the wealthiest—groups of uncles and aunties to socialise. Sort of like a Gymkhana, but it has a different name. In a lawn they have set up a big projector screen, some irregular carpeting, wobbly red plastic chairs. Delhi Belly, the cult screwball caper which has been out for a few months, is playing on the screen.

In hindsight, it feels like Delhi Belly seized upon a cultural moment, and, in a way, defined it. Slick rapid-fire slang, escalating farce, themes of friendship and bonding, greying moralities, crime and drama, actions and consequences. A Western slacker comedy tailored for a maturing Indian crowd.

Das was cast as one of the three main characters, a bitter, retro-permed, down-on-his-luck cartoonist who gets sucked into a vortex of criminal shenanigans. He received a Filmfare nomination for his role. In a 2021 oral history in the online publication Film Companion, director Abhinay Deo says he was very keen on working with new faces so that the audience wouldn’t know what to expect. “The casting process was exhaustive. I wanted someone who would understand the humour and Vir, because he’s a stand-up comedian, got it.” There’s a scene in the film where Vijay Raaz’s menacing—and perpetually bemused at the stupidity around him—villain ties Das by the neck, with a tie, to a ceiling fan. A little later, Das—riding pillion on a rickety old scooter—has a guy chasing him grab the tie around his neck. This scene, Deo explains in the same article, was shot exactly the way it looked. “No trickery. Vir, poor guy, went through a lot of pain shooting this sequence. The guy behind him weighed 125kg and was actually pulling his tie. Kunaal (Roy Kapur) was actually riding the scooter. Vir’s hands were tied behind his back, which made this even harder to shoot. We needed different angles so we kept doing different takes for almost an entire day. It was a real ordeal for Vir.”

The thing about Das, though, is that he dives into everything with bloody-minded conviction. Delhi Belly was an early influence, as well as other film industry stars. “I used to write the Filmfare awards (Das used to sometimes write the gags and banter that the actors hosting the awards would share on the mic). You are sitting at Shah Rukh Khan’s house at 3 in the morning. You are 26 years old, you are just happy to be in his house, or Aamir Khan’s house. But then you realise, ‘Oh man, this guy has done two workouts, gone and done a shoot, then a brand meeting. Now he’s giving me 150% at 3am. He will sleep for five hours and do this whole thing all over again.”

Vir Das co-starred in the zombie comedy 'Go Goa Gone'
Vir Das co-starred in the zombie comedy 'Go Goa Gone'

From here, Das spent a few years (early to mid 2010s) working in Bollywood. He appeared in films such as Go Goa Gone (2013), Shaadi Ke Side Effects (2013), Revolver Rani (2014). He was doing reasonably well. For a few years, he allowed himself to get sucked into the trappings of stardom. “I think you are all entitled to that one or two years where you lose yourself. The first time you get known, somebody’s holding your phone, and someone is giving you a smoothie. If you yell “sandwich!”, koi sandwich le ke aata hai (someone brings one),” he says, laughing.

He knew his growing celebrity would eventually take a toll on his stand-up. “It only works if you are sticking with that (movie star) life. If you are going to do stand-up, that life will get in the way. You will never interact with a real person. You will never have a real experience. Suddenly you are writing a joke about your vanity van. That’s when you are lost.”

In 2016, he fell in love with stand-up again. He was in Los Angeles, where he did a spot at the Laugh Factory. “I was just like, man, this feels so good! I killed. And I think I killed between Whitney Cummings and, like, Dane Cook, and these other big acts. I decided, now I want a Netflix special. This means I have to travel across America and discover what stand-up is again.”

Around this time, he realised he had a gift. And that he could do something real with it. “The way I see it now,” he says, “if I really work for another decade, really, really give it a lot of hours, I think I can be a comedic voice that is remembered.” Chappelle and Chris Rock only got good around their 20th year, Das says. And he has been doing this for 17 years.


Das was one of the very first people to try to set up some kind of an independent English comedy scene in the country. With only a handful of comedians—among them Ash Chandler and Papa CJ—around, he set up open-mic nights at Blue Frog (the now defunct bar and performance space in Mumbai), called Hamateur Nights. This attracted a lot of young comics at the time and Mittal mentions that many established comics of today learnt the ropes there. Ravina Rawal—founder and CEO of DeadAnt Media, which runs the dedicated Indian comedy website DeadAnt (disclosure: I often write for the website)—first got to know Das at a comedy workshop he hosted at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi in the 2000s, when he was still living in the US. She has tracked his career closely since, tells me he provided a new approach to stand-up comedy. “Suddenly, there was a new entry point, or an entry point at all.”

In a teaser posted on his social media pages on 14 July, Das announced an ambitious 33-country world tour for his new set, Mind Fool. The promo was done in a style originally popularised on the now defunct platform Vine. It travelled from there, on to Instagram via TikTok, and is now often referred to as a Reaction video or a Remix. Essentially, you take cut-up bits from one video, repurpose them by adding your own interjections and remarks, editing different words and sentences to comic effect (comedian Jose Covaco is a master of the form, often taking viral news videos from India and inserting his absurdist takes into them).

There’s a a clip on Republic World’s YouTube page titled “Is Vir Das Abusing India in American ‘Comedy’?”, in which journalist Arnab Goswami makes it clear it’s not comedy, it’s stupid, even if some idiot, some low-life, finds it funny. On this particular promo, we get a few cut up words from the clip by Goswami and then we cut back to Das. And back and forth. Towards the end, Goswami declares, “It is stupid...” Cut to Das: “… and that’s what it makes it beautiful. You’re beautiful.” Cut to footage of Goswami, who breaks into a coquettish smile. It’s all very silly and loads of fun. When I ask Das about it, he smiles quietly to himself. “I have no idea what you are talking about. I didn’t cut any promo! It’s a random video that showed up in my inbox. I have nothing to do with that whatsoever.”

Vir Das has had to weather controversies of late. Image courtesy Netflix
Vir Das has had to weather controversies of late. Image courtesy Netflix

The new special sees Das confront ideas of growing up. “At the centre of it is not knowing how to ‘adult’. At some point, I think there is a class on adulting. Because of touring the world, not having children, being in the entertainment industry where you are ridiculously pampered, I seem to have skipped that chapter. And I started thinking: Are other people the same way? And when you start to research that, you find out that most adults are just children who are pretending to have their shit together,” he says. Of being in a full-fledged adult body, for the sake of society, or your children, and yet feeling like a child the entire time. These ideas of growing up, and Das realising how much younger than him his audience is—he’s 44, while most of his audience is 22-30, according to his tracking numbers—form the material here, as he wants to address those feelings and perceived divides.

Rawal tells me how, while Das was always very polished, his work has grown over time. “He has a background in theatre and when he came in and was doing big shows—making ‘Vir Das’ a name—it was all performance-oriented,” she says. “It’s a ‘show’. But with age and experience, and exposure to global audiences too— you are playing dive bars in little American towns at 3am—that forces you to pay attention to your craft.”

This is what Das did, basically. Despite the recognition and brand value he had built in India, he pretty much set everything on fire and began from scratch in the US, learning about the culture there, building up a new following instead of choosing to coast. Kamra adds: “I look at his journey and the hustle he has done, investing time and money for opportunities. He’s very ambitious. Getting on Conan, getting work in Hollywood, having no ego, going to comedy clubs in New York or Los Angeles doing 5- to 10-minute spots to showcase his skill and talents to the West, which knows very little about the comedy scene in India.”

His earlier work was far more frantic. He was packing in as many jokes as he could. He himself calls it more performative and talks about how his sets are getting more minimal, while his material tackles the idea of vulnerability and a kind of universal experience far more today. It could be argued that his earlier work was far more self-conscious. He was projecting an image; the craft was never in question, but, to me, it felt like he wasn’t engaging with the substance as much as his ability, and position, allowed him to.

In a review for DeadAnt of a special he did, Vir Das: For India, I had suggested, in 2020, that he was maybe trying too hard to keep everyone happy, sacrificing edge for comfort. To my eyes, everything felt just a touch too polished, too measured. Das explains that he’s more confident now. “People in India were like, ‘why isn’t he doing this, why isn’t he doing that, blah-blah-blah? But I also knew how little I knew. Now, I feel like my craft is sorted. Let’s take the car out for a drive. I feel confident in the engine for the first time.”

It’s evident in his work, which has become far more thought-provoking, stripped of some of its previous affectations. Rawal feels he’s getting more observational. “Because he’s reflecting on it for himself, I think it becomes very important for him to bond people with that, along with the laughter. He’s not pandering. He laughs about how a lot of his audience is so young.” Mittal, too, has sensed that growth. “Every comedian will have to go through their Delhi-Mumbai, maine porn dekha (I saw porn) someone caught me, ladki nahi milti yaar (I can’t find a girl) phase. At some point, as you grow, spend more time on stage, have the luxury of people showing up to listen to you, you start to zoom in on the human experience, on your experience,” she says.


On 15 November 2021, Vir Das uploaded a video on his YouTube page: I COME FROM TWO INDIAS. He was performing at the prestigious John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. The afternoon of the show, he jotted down a little poem. It was a tribute to India in a way—a sketch of both its flaws and its infinite beauty. It’s written using a device that Das, by his own admission, doesn’t claim as original. He points out one great thing about his version of India, and then a flaw. He performed it that evening. He hired a wedding photographer on Yelp for $300 (around 25,000 now) to shoot it. “For the first two-three days, it’s going pretty well,” says Das. He bursts into an awkward laugh. “It’s one of many videos on my YouTube channel. And then somebody took clips of it, and whatever happened, happened. I honestly didn’t see it coming.”

Alien Chutney, Das' band
Alien Chutney, Das' band

The something that happened was that it became an intensely contentious subject on social media and on some Indian TV news channels. Das was accused of sullying India’s name on foreign soil. Police complaints were filed across multiple cities. He was the subject of heated debates on “the idea of India” and his own motivations behind it. Das, to his credit, has always maintained that his work is only his own perspective, and that he’s willing to understand, acknowledge and learn from contrasting points of view. “My India is different from a hajjaar people’s India. It’s a very privileged version of India. I don’t think anybody is ever going to get that right.”

He toured the world for 13 months after, with little access to social media. “I did, I think, 180 shows before I filmed Landing (2022). I was out in the cold a little bit.” Das has, perhaps since the pandemic, begun to look more keenly at broader societal concerns behind current movements or news events: One of his videos online is about religion and comedy and the tightrope comedians have to walk. However, he’s clear that he’s not a political comedian. “I think there’s little novelty in talking about politics.” There’s little fun to be found in specifics, he feels, citing the “hacky” Donald Trump jokes made by American comics.

Also read: What we made of Shashi Tharoor’s attempt at standup comedy

He tells me he didn’t do any interviews for a year after. There was no emotional outburst during a manufactured candid conversation or something. The most throwaway jokes from a special will grab audiences in unexpected ways, he says, and he didn’t anticipate the response to this: “The ‘I come from two Indias’ line, I have seen it on the news, I have seen it in memes, I have seen it everywhere since then. And I am also not the first person to thematically talk that way. It’s a tool, a creative device. You can find every different interpretation of it. I just needed to write a joke about it, you know?” he says. And he did. In Landing, perhaps his finest hour as a comedic voice.


Landing concludes with a visibly shaken Vir Das on his knees, clutching a fistful of sand as it trickles away. This is sand from Juhu Beach, Mumbai; he has carried it with him in a suitcase on a flight all the way to New York. What we are witnessing is the apex of a breathtaking sequence of dramatic joke-telling in which Das bares his soul to the audience.

There’s a Spanish term football writers and philosophers use often: pausa. Some players have this innate gift of being able to freeze time as they take a little breath; they look up and analyse, and they slow the game down. Das has cultivated that in his work. “I wouldn’t say I have ‘found’ my voice,” he says, “but I would say I feel the most like myself now when I am on a stage. There’s a lot more work to do to find that voice but I will give myself that much.”

There’s this bit in Landing where Das, trying to explain to the crowd the weight that silence carries in front of a live audience, just shuts up and starts counting with his fingers. Twenty seconds. Each finger going up leads to more discomfiting laughter. You would expect him to do it for three seconds maybe, or five. Even 10. But 20? Except that that’s what he does, stretching out the silence to last a lifetime. It’s hilarious, and also a display of his growing virtuosity. At another point, he trails off mid-sentence; he’s about to “accidentally” say “I come from two Indias”. The audience doesn’t clock it at first—and Das doesn’t guide them to the unsaid punchline, he lets them get there on their own.

Vir Das found ways to work on his craft during lockdown
Vir Das found ways to work on his craft during lockdown

Landing is Das just putting his soul on display. A big chunk of it is him just addressing all the stuff he went through after Two Indias. The suicidal thoughts that crept through his mind, narrated in the form—of course—of an elaborate dick joke. The resentment he felt at the time at the silence from others and how he made peace with it all: “Hate is yelled but love is felt,” he declares. The pain he felt at being labelled a terrorist, practically disowned, by the country he clearly and visibly loves and cares for so deeply.

It’s a very moving set, and, at the same time, one that exhibits his growing ability as a comedy technician. In fact, as he grapples with all these emotions, a couple of recurring themes in Das’ work through the years shine through. One is the unique relationship he has with India and how he makes sense of it. “You have to understand, I have been raised everywhere. So I don’t get to claim to be the voice of one place. When I am abroad, I will take you back to India as I see it, you know? If you are homesick, it will be a nice retreat. If you are American or European, I am not pandering to your local version of what you think India is. I am talking to you about the Andheria Mod ki chudail.” A lot of what he does becomes, at its core, a love letter to the India he knows.

The other thing is humility and hope. Das, throughout his career, has preached the value of humility. While Das’ currency may be words, language, speech—and he’s effortlessly articulate when we speak—the one time he stumbles is when he talks about past struggles. “I think the humility part,” he says, searching for the right words, “I am trying to say this in a way that doesn’t sound like somebody trying to build up struggle. I am very sensitive to that, when privileged people are like, ‘Oh meri tanhai.’ I am like, f**k off. But if you have ever lost everything, which in my family we have, twice… you operate three degrees of separation away from a poverty you have imagined at all times. So you have that in your head, that just around the corner I could be poor; I couldn’t afford rent.” I ask if he would like to share more but he politely declines. “I don’t want to get into that too much. It’s more important that it’s in my head.”

His is not the comedy of bitterness, or snark. It’s not bleak; he’s no miserabilist with a cold, cynical heart. While he can mix it up with the expletives and nastiness with the best of them, there’s still a ray of optimism underpinning it. “Akhil, please understand how lucky I have been. It’s very tactless for me to be bitter at this point, you know? ‘Aww, you got trolled a bit? Really?’ I have seen the world three times. I get to star in things, to create things; I am 5ft, 9 inches and from Noida! Everything is hard, no? It’s hard to process it; you discover what it is to be a goddamn comic and write a joke about it, man.”

Akhil Sood is a Delhi-based writer.

Next Story