Vir Das thinks he’s too much of a comedian for Bollywood and too Bollywood for comedy. He’s stated that he’s an outsider in the industry so many times that Sorabh Pant even called him the “Priyanka Chopra of comedy”. That’s the first question I ask him — why does he consider himself to be an outsider in the industry? And when does one stop being an outsider? After all, when Das started out, he may have been an outsider but more than 10 years later, how can that still be the case? “To really be considered an insider, you have to really spend enough time within that industry. And that should form a large part of your year. Fortunately, I think, I’ve always been kind of transient. Before you can get lost in shooting one thing after another and spending too much time in vanity vans with entourages, I end up going on tour. And then I’m not on tour for 52 weeks in a year either,” he explains.

Das is starring in a Netflix show about a comedian who needs to commit murder right before he goes on stage. Hasmukh has an interesting premise — a comedian who is also a serial killer. Das’ character in the show cannot get it up, metaphorically speaking, until he commits murder. The minute he feels the life escaping from his victim’s body, his deep-seated fears are silenced and he can go on stage in front of a brutal crowd of hardy Uttar Pradesh folk and crack jokes that have them rolling on the floor. “Even Sachin wears his left pad first before he hits a century. Shah Rukh Khan needs to smoke 50 cigarettes before he turns on his magic. Newton ate an apple before he discovered gravity. Even Tansen would lie down on ice before performing and your Guru, Gulati, would eat pakodas before the show to get the feel, right?” Hasmukh’s mentor Jimmy (played by Ranvir Shorey) tells him in a bid to convince him to commit murder.

“Har kalakaar ka koi na koi Viagra hota hai,” he says. So, what is Das’ Viagra? What is it that gets Vir Das going? Imagine this. It’s T-minus 30 minutes before Das has to go on stage in front of a live audience for his upcoming Netflix special. The audience primarily comprises of NRI folk whose idea of India consists of Bole Chudiyan, PM Narendra Modi and Sanghis, and relatable desi diaspora experiences like having had bushy eyebrows before Cara Delevigne made them uber famous. Backstage, in his green room, Das is all alone. His hair and make-up crew have done their bit and left. He gets up from the couch and starts doing a set of exercise routines. He does a few jumping jacks, push-ups and maybe even a few burpees. These get his heart racing and the adrenaline pumping — something he needs before going on stage.

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He looks into the mirror and probably thinks that he looks damn good for a 40-year-old. Maybe, for the hundredth time, he asks himself why he chose to act in Mastizaade. He picks up his phone and goes to his pre-set playlist which, comprises mainly of classical music and jazz. His heart is racing and the jazz just helps him up his game. The classical music is comforting because it reminds him of his father. Finally, there’s a knock on the door. A crew member tells him that they’re ready for him and Das nods and smiles. Before stepping out of the room, he goes towards the closet and picks out a leather belt. He’s worn this belt ever since he was 21 years old. He refuses to go on stage without wearing it. It has been with him for 19 years and has seen him through over 4,000 shows.

Leather belt in place and with his heart pumping due to the workout, Das steps on to the stage in front of the audience. “The first three minutes are crucial,” he tells me. “If you can get them in the first three minutes, you’ll have them for the next 65.” This pre-set routine was the inspiration behind Hasmukh. Three years ago, he thought to himself: “What if there was a guy who just had to commit murder before he went on stage?” He sat down and wrote a 35-page pilot and took it to Nikhil Advani. Advani loved it and today, the show is garnering rave reviews. The jokes could have been stronger, I feel, but then again, what appeals to me will definitely not appeal to the crowd that Hasmukh is trying to impress in the show.

And what does Das think of the reviews? “I try and do different things for different audiences. I think with anything I do, there’s a specific audience for it and another segment that doesn’t resonate with it. So, I’ve always had to exact some mix of good and bad. Hasmukh is a show that is dark, kitschy and unapologetically outrageous. Judging by the response, there’s an audience for that too. It’s a little younger and edgier,” he says. And what does Das think of the reviews? “I try and do different things for different audiences. I think with anything I do, there’s a specific audience for it and another segment that doesn’t resonate with it. So, I’ve always had to exact some mix of good and bad. Hasmukh is a show that is dark, kitschy and unapologetically outrageous. Judging by the response, there’s an audience for that too. It’s a little younger and edgier,” he says.

Sure, he wakes up and writes down his thoughts. But then, he runs it by dozens of people to see what they think of it. He takes it to dozen or more clubs and acts out the routine. Maybe nine minutes of it is shit but there’s a golden one minute there somewhere. He takes that one minute home, and works on it till it becomes one hour of a solid comedy routine that can go up on Netflix. It’s bloody hard work. Towards the end of the interview, when he is more comfortable, he tells me that there is this false perception that comedians just go and “spew shit they wrote 30 seconds ago”

Das also speaks about his experiences, like any other comedian. In fact, perhaps in a bid to avoid generalisation, he even went visited places in India in Amazon Prime Video’s Jestination Unknown. The first episode has him heading to Punjab where he realises that the state is more than Santa-Banta jokes. He is introduced to the Punjabi tradition of a pund. A pund is a comedic routine that is created and enacted, usually by two Punjabis who go ahead of a wedding procession and offer the company some much-needed laughs. It’s physical humour and involves some playful slapping and beating.

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But ask Das how he differentiates between generalisation and relatability and he says: “I don’t, you do”. Moving on. Does Vir Das believe that there’s something called offensive humour? “No,” he says, “not at all. There’s no such thing as offensive humour. There’s humour and there’s offense. Offense is something that’s taken, its never given. Nobody writes a joke to offend people. The intent of a joke is to make people laugh. Now, you take offense from a particular joke — that is your relationship with that joke. If I’m at a restaurant and I ordered bhindi and I didn’t like the bhindi, its unfair of me to expect the entire restaurant to stop eating bhindi. The chef didn’t go and make bhindi to piss me and the people in the restaurant off. If you don’t like it, order something else.”

It might sound arbitrary, but I’ve always wanted to ask Das about his thoughts on moral absolutism. While Das may not consider himself to be anything but a comedian whose only job it is to write jokes, he has been given a platform that people expect him to take seriously. They expect him to talk about political and socio-cultural issues plaguing the country, like the recent CAA-NRC debate that raged throughout India. Many netizens were highly disappointed when Das didn’t do justice to it in his routine. “Dear Government: If you’re looking for non-violent discourse and debate…quit shutting down the Internet. Last I checked, it was more thinking and talking…less bleeding. Young people can’t set the Internet on fire and you can’t lathi charge the Internet. What say?” Das had tweeted. Many of the neo-liberal Twitterati expected him to do more but just because he’s not as active about a certain issue, does that make him a failure?

“Should there be moral absolutism when it comes to parenting, sure. Should there be moral absolutism when it comes to the law, yes. Nobody’s perfect and everybody’s got their good points and bad points. I’m more worried about finding what’s funny about it rather than what’s right or wrong. The one fortunate thing we have about being comedians is that we tend to be by ourselves a lot and we tend to observe society more than judge it. If Donald Trump does something truly terrible, I’m not going on Twitter saying that Donald Trump is a terrible person. I’m trying to make a joke about it where I can disarm both the people who think he’s terrible and people who don’t think he’s terrible. That’s my job,” he says. He also doesn’t think he faces the pressure to be a more perfect figure because of the platform that has been given to him. “This is not coming from a place of arrogance but coming from a place of self-preservation of sanity. I can’t worry about what people think because that will just swallow you whole,” he says.

But, at the end of the day (and the interview), I ask him my final question — is there anything he’ll not joke about? “No, I don’t think so. I don’t do a lot of jokes about people who can’t fight back. You won’t see me doing jokes about sick people a lot. You have to operate from your own moral compass. I’ve been scared of the consequences of my comedic routines every day. I have no false bravado. I’m always worried about what could happen to me or my family. But what I fear more than that is the joke not being funny. That’s the one thing I am most afraid of.”