Funnymen Sorabh Pant and Vir Das discuss comedy, censorship over lunch
Stand-up artiste Sorabh Pant and actor-comedian Vir Das talk shop about the changing face of India's comedy landscape, censorship and pleasing a global audience
Actor comedian Vir Das and stand-up artiste Sorabh Pant at O Pedro. Pics/Pradeep Dhivar
Vir Das and Sorabh Pant have known each other for a decade; Pant having started his stand-up career opening a show for Das and being a co-writer for the show News on the Loose, which featured the duo. The camaraderie shows till the end of the interview, when they spend a good 20 minutes on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, catching up. But prior, they settle down at a sun-lit table in a BKC eatery, and discuss the Indian stand-up scene over warm poee and sangria.
Dhara: How did working on a news show help your career?
Vir: Neither of us knew sh*t. Not that we know much now. But we taught each other to write. We were doing comedy at an age when artistes had less freedom, unlike the young guys today. We had to be polished because maybe Chidambaram or Mukesh Ambani was watching the show. We reined in and controlled what we said, so when we were finally able to say what we wanted, it helped.
Sorabh: It taught me how to work a teleprompter [laughs]. I was happy to work with Vir as it was a news show, and we could get away with naming people. I was working for general entertainment channels, and I was once told to drop a joke on Dino Morea. We had to use names such as Kashwarya Gai and Panmohan Singh.
Actor comedian Vir Das
Dhara: How much has the scene changed since then?
Vir: When I started out, few were doing stand-up - Bharat Dabholkar, Cyrus Broacha, Boman Irani, Ash Chandler. But there weren't so many consuming the content. The audience is larger now.
Sorabh: It depends on the platform. For a live show, you can say what you want. But you can't put the same content online. Back then, I had a set on the Kama Sutra, the most clichéd set anyone could do, and the audience was horrified. If I do it now, people will say it belongs to 2010. The Internet has changed the game and made stand-up artistes popular faces too. Three of my many Uber drivers recognised me. I was even called for a ribbon-cutting event - I felt like the Mallika Sherawat of stand-up comedy.
Dhara: So how do you write for such a diverse audience?
Vir: For the first few years, you write what you think your audience will like. Then you start writing what you like. Next, you strike a balance, where the perfect show meanders between the things you want to say and what the audience wants to hear. I did a show for 2,000 Brits in London. And I had one bit on 'Andheriya mode ki chudail in Delhi'. Now, that's not a sequence that one would do for that demographic. But with a little bit of help with graphics, I explained the legacy of a chudail in India and did the bit. Today, everybody wants genuine stories from around the world and not their version of India.
Sorabh: I love that, as you get to test yourself. It's all about the intimacy of a tight comedy venue. If your joke is bad, it's bad everywhere.
Green chickpea salad with housemade buffalo cheese for Vir and poee basket with bal-chow butter, cheesey-black pepper butter, whipped pork rosemary and choriz butter for Sorabh arrives.
Sorabh: I am going through a delusion of not having carbs. But this poee is amazing. So is the sangria, you usually get the same kind everywhere.
Vir: What do you have to have in your house to have homemade buffalo cheese? It seems like a lot of work, a huge commitment to cuisine and buffaloes.
Sorabh: I have been watching this show called Chef's Table and feel that their job is so similar to mine. It's a high-stress job where you have to please people, and you are working when everyone is having fun.
Vir: Except our jokes will give you more indigestion [both laugh]. You never know who might not take your joke well.
Dhara: So, do you have censorship on your mind?
Vir: I have a moral compass; my writing will be dictated by it. Censorship is not part of my primary mental paradigm.
Sorabh: I hope I get so famous that people notice what I am saying. In India, it's about censure not censor. You make an example of someone who is saying something and not someone who is doing harm. None of these trolls and instigators have had FIRs filed against them, but we have people coming after us.
Vir: The wizard is behind the curtain. Politicians are magicians, and news channels are their sexy assistants. Whenever a cinema hall is being vandalised or an actor is targeted, there's a policy not passed or petroleum prices going up, which gets hidden behind other news.
Most sporting city:
Vir: It's all about the room, it has to have that energy to it. One of the filthiest shows I do is for this club of grandparents, all 65 years and above.
Sorabh: Bengaluru. I have had great shows in small towns such as Kanpur and Nashik. Mumbai is always the love of my life.
Who inspired you to be a stand-up artiste?
Sorabh: Vir! Everyone at East India Comedy had my back for a really long time later. My dad is very funny too. Also Jaspal Bhatti
Vir: I saw Johnny Lever do a show in Lucknow. My father's one of the funniest men I have ever met, he holds the room.
Who needs a laughter therapy in India:
Vir: Anybody on social media, they are angrier than the politicians and religions they talk about.
Sorabh: People who say they don't like stand-up need to see it the most.