Stream It Or Skip It: ‘Vir Das: Landing’ On Netflix, An Indian Comedian Who Feels Like A Foreigner Both In India And Abroad

For his fifth Netflix comedy special, Vir Das employs a MacGuffin of sorts, as we already can see that his “landing” in India did not trigger the threats to his civil liberties that he feared, and which propel the narrative arc of this hour. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of food for thought served up by Das for both current citizens of India, Indian-American children of immigrants, and even those of us with no ties to India.

The Gist: Arguably the biggest Bollywood star to break through with American audiences as a stand-up comedian, Vir Das has enjoyed at least a couple of opportunities to star in his own sitcom in the States. In 2020, Das co-starred in an episode of Fresh Off The Boat (“The Magic Motor Inn”) that would’ve could’ve served as a backdoor pilot for his own series. He already had a recurring role in another ABC series, the short-lived action caper, Whiskey Cavalier. And this past year, he’s been developing a single-cam for FOX (Country Eastern) with the production company established by The Lonely Island trio.

But Das found himself in hot water back in his native India last November after he delivered this monologue at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and posted his “Two Indias” clip to YouTube.

Mentioning this clip earned him an extended applause break at this Netflix taping, but Das said it generated multiple criminal complaints against him in India, including allegations of sedition. So he worried that he might go straight to prison when he landed back in Mumbai, and joked about how he prepped beforehand: “I’ve stopped shaving, begun doing push-ups.” In retrospect, the experience also afforded Das the opportunity to explore how “free speech” and “cancel culture” have much deeper meanings once you get outside of the United States.

What Comedy Specials Will It Remind You Of?: There aren’t too many comedians who really have worried about getting arrested for their jokes (although Kathy Griffin comes to mind) and also speak to Americans and immigrants alike about trying to comparing their experiences to one another (perhaps Ronny Chieng comes closest in stature and material).

Memorable Jokes: Das opens with a lyrical flourish, with phrases such as “trading your data for dopamine” and “some billionaire CEO with like baller money and virgin energy” to get the crowd involved and paying attention right away. He also throws a zinger at his peers about the true state of comedy, saying: “I’m doing stand-up comedy in 2022. Anything could happen tonight. I could be arrested, assaulted, stabbed, slapped; even worse, discussed on Reddit.”

In a bit geared toward Gen Z, Das implores them to have more empathy toward their elders, who may not understand gender fluidity, but they did have experience breaking traditions and customs; grandparents who were first to get divorced; parents, breaking racial constructs. “I hope you enjoy this fluidity as much as your parents enjoyed their infidelity,” he jokes, before pivoting to reveal his own youthful experimentation. The kicker? “Mom, I’m not gay. I’m just a loser.”

There’s a set piece in which Das lowers the microphone down by his waist to talk about the importance of the mic as both invention and innovation.

He eventually returns to his idea of “Two Indias,” this time talking to the Indians who have grown up in America as the children of immigrants, insisting to them that the India they grew up learning up about — “your parents version of India doesn’t exist” — landing on a different proposition. It’s one thing and proper for Das to criticize India. But if you’re Indian and not living in or spending significant time in India, then don’t dare tell his countrymen what’s what. Das infuses this bit with physicality and language, punctuating it with various accents and scenarios, culminating in a classic stand-up technique where he admits to not knowing how to end the bit. Which naturally prompts more laughs. You might not be able to quote him on that, but he not only knows you’ll pass off his bit comparing patriots to nationalists as your own, but also playfully suggests how you do so.

He also finds time to make himself the butt of the joke, remembering two embarrassing incidents where he wound up on the losing end at awards ceremonies, and imagining what might’ve happened if he’d overreacted.

Our Take: Das wasn’t completely wrong to worry about his safety returning to his homeland. Earlier in 2021, another Indian comic was arrested, charged and threatened with prison for allegedly making insulting jokes toward Hinduism.

Of course Das can joke about his experience in retrospect, as he himself never wound up in jail or in court over his own YouTube video, although he could joke about how it provoked interesting conversations with his mother: “Remember how you said you didn’t know how to describe what I do for a living?” He notes wryly that his name translates into English as “Brave Slave,” which is ironic or fitting, perhaps both. Even more ironic and fitting? Das admits feeling too Indian to fit into Western culture, and too Western to keep fitting in in India.

And perhaps that allows him to have a refreshingly different take on our current obsession with “punching up” and “cancel culture.” On the former, he dismisses it as Western b.s. Why? “Because in the West, your privilege is consistent. Indian privilege is very volatile.” He can mock American comedians and others who call out their own privilege proactively to avoid attacks while still enjoying their privilege in silent, or in pushing the envelope. In India, Das jokes, there’s no privilege to push, because he’s already looked inside the envelope to find only court cases.

That bit with the microphone reveals how Das and others like him were able to find their voice. Once beaten physically by his elders in his youth in India, Das found power and safety once he grabbed a microphone for the first time. It’s a power and safety that he continues to exercise today. Even if he must be a bit more judicious and clever in how he uses it.

So if you’re wondering what spices Das sprinkles on the floor and focuses on, oh, don’t you worry. All will be revealed. As he jokes in the end: “Don’t believe me? Watch my special again.”

Our Call: STREAM IT. There are indeed Two Indias, but also Two Virs. As a comedian who feels he neither fits in his native India or here in the United States, that feeling of being on the outside looking in actually makes Das a more memorable and valuable comedian for both worlds.

Sean L. McCarthy works the comedy beat for his own digital newspaper, The Comic’s Comic; before that, for actual newspapers. Based in NYC but will travel anywhere for the scoop: Ice cream or news. He also tweets @thecomicscomic and podcasts half-hour episodes with comedians revealing origin stories: The Comic’s Comic Presents Last Things First.