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His poem polarized India. Now comedian Vir Das is telling his side

Vir Das attends the International Emmy Awards in 2021 in New York City.
Arturo Holmes
/
Getty Images
Vir Das attends the International Emmy Awards in 2021 in New York City.

Comedian Vir Das was called a terrorist. Seven charges were filed against him in India. He was even accused of defaming his home country on foreign soil.

His crime?

In November 2021, he was wrapping up a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., when he decided to go back onstage and recite a poem he had written that morning. Titled "I Come from Two Indias," it describes the contradictions in his home country.

"I come from an India where we worship women during the day and gang-rape them at night," he said.

The video of the poem went viral. And Das faced police complaints from several politicians, including members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party. Aditya Jha, a state spokesperson 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 told Morning Edition's A Martínez that this isn't his first time being labeled an outsider.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Interview highlights

This is not the first time you have been called an outsider. You said you have been carrying that label since you were a young boy growing up in Nigeria.

Just when I'm nearing happiness in any country in the world, my parents can smell it and send me to another country. So just as I was nearing happiness in India, a public school in Lagos, where I got my a** beaten every day because I was the guy from India. And just as soon 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 came in to try and work in Bollywood, where I was the guy from drama school. And now I work in America, where I'm the guy from Bollywood.

Did the "Two Indias" backlash feel almost like people in India ghosted you, like a whole country ghosted a comedian?

No. I think that assigns blame to people, which I would never do. It felt like I let down my country and I'll only ever assign blame to myself. In that moment, you're not angry — you're ridden with guilt. And whether that's deserved or undeserved guilt, only retrospect will tell. But at that moment, you just like, man, I feel sad. I think I let people down. I was always taught to take my feedback, you know, mouth shut, head down. And I respect artists who do. So, you know, what I always tell people is any feedback that you have or any opinion that you have about that or any piece of evidence is a valid opinion. But in that moment, I just was very hard on myself.

Do you think those in power saw you as a threat?

I don't think so. I think that's lionizing yourself, which I wouldn't do. I think I touched a chord with people, and I don't think artists get to decide when you stumble into a conversation or when you create a conversation. But I do not think comedians are a threat to anybody or anything. I don't think laughter is a threat. I think it's a beautiful thing. Nobody's ever mad at laughter. What you're mad at is the agreement.

How did that experience change you?

I think I had to just kind of go within myself for a while and make sure that it was at least two months or three months before I wrote my first joke. The tough thing is to never paint 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've seen the special, you know that I never reference the content or the beginning 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 at every level through dealing with it and here's what's funny about that. And hopefully you resonate with stumbling and this 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 like I have a responsibility to access my conscience a little bit more honestly. You know, perhaps with age, you don't get funnier or better, but who you are comes out onto the page a lot quicker. And to me, the goal of doing anything 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 I feel ultimately very driven that whoever watches me should know who I am. They should know my identity. They should know my country. They should know what I represent. So just being really honest is the goal.

Reena Advani edited the audio version of this interview. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.