Writer-comedian-actor Vir Das speaks about his latest Netflix web-series Hasmukh, working through the lockdown, and his desire to be a better and healthier person.
Your need to laugh is a daily need: Vir Das on comedy during and after the lockdown
Mumbai - 29 Apr 2020 8:30 IST
"I have to say I don't murder people," Vir Das laughs while trying to describe the similarities between himself and Hasmukh Sudiya, the character he plays in his latest Netflix sojourn. The actor-comedian's web-series, Hasmukh, features Das as a wannabe stand-up comedian from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh who discovers that the trigger to his comic creativity lies in murder.
"There is nothing flamboyant about Hasmukh. He is very much suffering for what he is doing," Das explained in an interview with Cinestaan.com. The web-series, which was released on the OTT platform on 17 April, has been co-written by Nikkhil Advani, Nikhil Gonsalves, Suparn S Verma and Amogh Ranadive.
Speaking of references for the show, Das said he turned to the reality television show The Great Indian Laughter Challenge and old Johnny Lever stand-up recordings for inspiration. "He [Hasmukh] is a small-town comedian," he explained. "I wanted him to come from the same place a lot of Laughter Challenge comedians come from. The show is set in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. I watched a lot of comedians on Laughter Challenge. I went back to watch Johnny Lever, and Hindi and regional comics. It helped me understand their takiyakalams [signatures], their style."
Quite the busybody, Das has been working through the countrywide lockdown to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. While performing shows online to raise money for those affected by the lockdown, he is also working on two upcoming shows.
"It is important to keep reminding yourself that it is strange for you, but it is far worse and tough for other people," he said of the current situation. "That means you have to get through it and help other people. And I say this for daily-wagers, migrant workers and even the people working in your office for you. I have 25 employees in my production house, and not all of their lives are easy as mine. You hear about that on meetings and phone calls. I think it gives you all the more impetus to work hard and secure their futures as well."
About the future of comedy shows after the lockdown ends, Das was optimistic and pointed out that people always have a need to laugh. "Luckily, comedians are in a profession that has unlimited demand," he said. "So, at some point, people will return to us." Excerpts:
How is the lockdown treating you?
It's okay. I am just trying to stay focused and write some jokes.
The lockdown has certainly thrown things off for most of us. How is it going for you? Are you still on the same schedule as before?
No, [but] it is a chance to try some new things. I was supposed to be shooting a movie right now and then touring the world. Neither of those look like they are going to happen for the foreseeable future.
I do an online show every night to raise money for the COVID-affected. It is an online show on Zoom, and I sell tickets to it. So, it is like a regular stand-up show. I have a production house that is working on two shows, so a writer's room is still functioning everyday. I am creative producer on both shows.
The pandemic has changed things drastically though. In terms of working patterns, methods...
Yes, but it is important to keep reminding yourself that it is strange for you, but it is far worse and tough for other people. That means you have to get through it and help other people. And I say this for daily-wagers, migrant workers, and even the people working in your office for you. I have 25 employees in my production house, and not all of their lives are easy as mine. You hear about that on meetings and phone calls. I think it gives you all the more impetus to work hard and secure their futures as well.
In such dark times, Hasmukh is a radical move. It would have also felt familiar as a character, a stand-up comedian wanting to make it big...
Yes, but I don't murder people on the side (laughs), just want to put that out there. You are finding Hasmukh at the beginning of his journey. And he is a terrible stand-up comedian. I can definitely relate to being a terrible comedian until recently. Some might stay I still am! But he is somebody who hasn't figured out the comedy. He is a writer. He knows how to write a joke. He doesn't know how to tell a joke.
Comedy is 99% delivery of a joke and 1% writing. In order to be who he can be on stage, he can murder someone. I can relate to that. There are certain things which I still keep doing before going on stage.
I have a leather belt which I have worn for every show that I have done since I was 20 years old. I will not do a show before putting on that belt.
So I gave a leather belt to Hasmukh, except that he murders people with his belt. I work out and tell certain things in my head before getting on stage. So I can relate to that.
Also, Hasmukh is based on... when I first came to Mumbai, I used to write for a lot of GEC [general entertainment channel] shows and comedy shows, and I used to write for all the award shows as well. So, as a lowly writer in the corner, I got to see some really competitive people in a very hard-core loud universe. It is based on that universe and, in that sense, it is quite close to home.
How did Nikkhil Advani team up on the writing board?
I wrote a pilot and spoke to him about it. Then, I took the pilot to him, and he said, "It is very funny, but we need to make it darker." He said, "If Hasmukh is going to murder people, then we need to lean into the gravity of what it means to be a first-time murderer." That was really interesting, because he brought in structure, narrative and drama.
Was there a worry of going too dark and thereby losing the humour? Or an imbalance between the two?
I think you really needed to see the character suffer enough because he was murdering. He is not a cool murderer or serial killer. The first time a man commits murder, it changes him completely. I think you will see Hasmukh change, and the tone he takes with the choice that he has made. In that sense, there is nothing flamboyant about Hasmukh. He is very much suffering for what he is doing.
In addition, there was the task of writing material for Hasmukh's stand-up comedy. How did you work through the different style, language?
He is a small-town comedian. I wanted him to come from the same place a lot of [The Great Indian] Laughter Challenge comedians come from. The show is set in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh. I watched a lot of comedians on Laughter Challenge. I went back to watch Johnny Lever and Hindi and regional comics. It helped me understand their takiyakalams [signatures], their style.
Did it feel self-referential, writing and performing this?
The acting was very very hard because it is a complete overhaul of who I am. I am very urban; the accent had to change, my walk and talk had to change. I had never written Hindi comedy before, and also I am the least experienced actor on the show. We somehow pulled off a great cast. Manoj Pahwa, Ranvir Shorey, Inaamulhaq, Ravi Kishan, very experienced and seasoned actors. You have to work really hard to match up to them.
They also share a knack for comic timing.
Also, you know, they are all in a zone they have been in many times before. Pretty much everyone in the cast has played someone from a small town in UP, except for me. So, you know, you have to work hard.
Besides Hasmukh, you have Bright Side. How is that progressing?
It was to be a two-weekly show, every two weeks we will put one out. It was going to be launched before the lockdown anyway. We had written four episodes. With COVID-19 happening, we did our first episode about that. But we had episodes about the MeToo movement, about Nazis, Russian spies, climate change. I did not expect it to get such good response. It is going quite well. It is my passion project.
Even after the lockdown ends, there is going to be a hesitancy among audiences to return. Several industries are going to struggle to retain their markets, experts say. How do you see the comedy circuit moving?
You are fighting a psychology change. Whenever there is a vaccine, there is a vaccine. If there is a cure, there will be a cure. What you are really asking is when will people be comfortable sitting in a room together and laughing.
The only upside I see is that your urge to watch a movie varies, your urge to listen to music varies, but your need to laugh is a daily need. You are always going to want to laugh every single day. Luckily, comedians are in a profession that has unlimited demand. So, at some point, people will return to us.
Till then, how do you keep going?
I am working out like a beast (laughs). Trying to keep my endorphins up. I have been spending an hour and a half working out at home every day. I am kind of determined to come out of this lockdown a better person and a healthier person. Otherwise, what was it all for?