Comedian Vir Das shares his side of his ‘Two Indias’ poem controversy : NPR
Arturo Holmes/Getty Images
Comedian Vir Das was called a terrorist. Seven charges have been brought against him in India. He was even accused of defaming his country in a foreign land.
In November 2021, he was finishing a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, when he decided to go back on stage and recite a poem he had written that morning. With the title “I Come from Two Indias,” he describes the contradictions in his country.
“I come from India where we worship women during the day and rape them at night,” he said.
The video of the poem went viral. And Das faced police complaints by several politicians, including members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Aditya Jha, state spokesman for the Hindu nationalist party, called for his arrest and filed a police complaint against Das for “insulting the country.”
In his new Netflix special, landing, Das shares how the controversy has impacted his life. He said Morning EditionIt is A Martínez that this is not the first time that he is labeled as a foreigner.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This is not the first time I have been called a stranger. You said that you have carried that label since you were a little boy growing up in Nigeria.
Just when I’m on the verge of happiness in any country in the world, my parents can smell it and send me to another country. So as I was approaching happiness in India, a public school in Lagos, where I got la** beaten every day because I was the guy from India. And as I made friends in Lagos after private school in India, I was the kid from Africa. I went to drama school in Galesburg, Illinois, which is the mecca of civilization. As we all know. It’s just cornfield, college, cornfield. So, I was the kid from India then. And then I went in to try to work in Bollywood, where I was the guy from drama school. And now I work in America, where I am the guy from Bollywood.
The reaction to “Two Indias” felt almost like people in India turned you off, like a whole country took a comedian?
No. I think he assigns blame to people, which I never do. I felt like I left my country and I only ever have myself to blame. In that moment, you’re not angry – you’re wracked with guilt. And if that is a deserved or undeserved guilt, only in retrospect will you say. But in that moment, you’re like, man, I feel sad. I think I leave it to people. I was always taught to take my feedback, you know, with my mouth shut, head down. And I respect the artists who do. So, you know, what I always tell people is any feedback you have or any opinion you have about that or any piece of evidence is a valid opinion. But at that moment, I was very hard on myself.
Do you think those in power saw you as a threat?
I don’t think so. I think you are lionizing yourself, which I do not do. I think I’ve struck a chord with people, and I don’t think artists get to decide when to disrupt a conversation or when to create a conversation. But I don’t think comedians are a threat to anyone or anything. I don’t think laughter is a threat. I think it’s a beautiful thing. No one ever went mad with laughter. What you are crazy about is the deal.
How did that experience change you?
I think I had to go into myself for a while and make sure that at least two or three months passed before I wrote my first joke. The hard part is to never portray yourself as a victim or a hero. Sometimes comedians can get stuck in a feedback loop, where they’re reacting to their last special in this special, etc. So I set a rule when I was doing the special, which is your content may have become controversy, but controversy will never become your content. So if you watched the special, you know that I never refer to the content or the start of the controversy or the reason for the controversy or defend my content. I just kind of say a video went up, here’s what happened immediately after, and here’s why I was a moron on every level by dealing with it and here’s what’s funny about it. And hopefully it resonates with disruption and it makes you feel better about who you are.
Do you feel a greater sense of responsibility to be a voice for the people in your country?
I feel I have a responsibility to access my conscience a little more honestly. You know, maybe with age, you don’t enjoy it or rather, but who you are comes out on the page much faster. And for me, the purpose of doing something is, whether you’re watching a musician or a dancer or an artist, do I know them? Yes, they made me laugh. Yes, they made me dance. Yes, they made me cry. But do I know who this person is? And in the end I feel very driven that whoever sees it should know who I am. They must know my identity. They must know my country. They should know what I stand for. So the goal is to be really honest.
Reena Advani edited the audio version of this interview.