As Vir Das recapped his supposedly tumultuous first kiss—complete with an India-Pakistan border war analogy and a lament about being unable to Google make-out instructions in the mid-90s—from a New York City stage last month, he paused to peer at his 400-person audience.
“True or false?” the 36-year-old comedian asked, urging the crowd to chime in with their deliberations.
“The minute you get out of a club and start performing for a reasonably large audience, you’ve got to roll with the larger responsibility that comes along with that."
Das debuted his 90-minute one-man show, “Unbelievablish,” a string of hilarious, autobiographical tall tales, at Carolines in Midtown Manhattan in November, making him the first Indian comedian to headline the famous venue that previously hosted industry icons like Tracy Morgan, Janeane Garofalo, and Dave Chappelle.
But Das himself is not new to the entertainment industry. His decade-long career includes over 10 Bollywood films, two television shows in his native India, a band, hundreds of comedy tours, and his own production company.
“I was kind of hoping to fly under the radar,” Das admitted, telling NBC News he was surprised by the succession of sold-out shows in New York City last week. “But there’s a really groovy vacancy on the world circuit for an authentic Indian voice, where the Indian accent isn’t the punch line, but the perspective."
He added, “And I don’t mean an Indian-American voice. American audiences haven’t seen a guy with an Indian accent not do a Kwik-E-Mart bit or a ‘my stingy dad’ bit."
On stage last month, Das offered his take on a broad range of subjects, including an R-rated reference to a pair of India’s wealthiest business magnates, India’s answer to the dating app Tinder (“Our parents!” he quipped) and the shortcomings of "Obamacare."
"...there’s a really groovy vacancy on the world circuit for an authentic Indian voice, where the Indian accent isn’t the punch line, but the perspective."
The appeal of Das's stand-up can be described as international. Das studied theatre at Knox College, a small liberal arts school in Illinois, and was accepted into Harvard's Stanislavsky program, which brought him to the stage with the Moscow Arts Theatre. “I was in this Stanislavskian, sit-in-a-circle-and-cry kind of acting program,” Das said. “And I was fried because in four years, I’d done 20 plays — Shakespeare, Chekhov, Miller. So I wrote my thesis, [a show called] ‘Brown Men Can’t Hump,’ as a rebellion.”
Today, Das represents a crop of urban Indian voices shaping a fledgling, but formidable, comedy scene — Mumbai’s first comedy club opened just six years ago — testing the limits of satire in the "world’s largest democracy." Earlier this year, when police threatened to shut down Das's show in New Delhi after responding to an anonymous complaint about a joke that lampooned former Indian president, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Das drafted an impassioned open letter on his Facebook page: “The fact that you can use influence to intimidate any artist or art form that you may not personally agree with is scary. But the fact that the police will back you up without any consequences is a slippery slope and a tool that’s prime for misuse,” he wrote, hinting at his growing uneasiness with the political and religious conservatism that he observed in India.
Das says he is acutely aware of his ability to steer public opinion. In addition to stand-up, Das's digital footprint has not gone unnoticed. In May, he released “On Your Marks,” a video aimed at Indian high-school students that addressed the pressures of exam season in a country where the youth suicide rate is one of the highest in the world.
“That’s when I realized I couldn’t go back to doing d— jokes; I had 4 million kids following my Facebook page,” Das said. “The minute you get out of a club and start performing for a reasonably large audience, you’ve got to roll with the larger responsibility that comes along with that. I’m not saying exercise censorship, but always exercise intelligence.”
Recently, Das launched a series of 10-minute YouTube videos that feature his sardonic spin on current events. “They’re called ‘Potcasts’ and it’s the edgiest form of comedy I’ve ever done,” Das said. “It’s basically me, pants down, reading the newspaper. It allows comedic liberty because I’m literally making an ass of myself in a bathroom.”
With five upcoming Bollywood releases, two music albums in the making, and a stand-up world tour on the horizon—Das recently signed with the renowned Creative Artists Agency in Hollywood as the only Indian comedian on their prolific roster— the multi-hyphenate is gearing up for a packed 2016.
“India’s got two types of artists: the kind that are calling a spade a spade, saying what needs to be said, and those who are just playing the game,” Das said. “And I do a little bit of both.”