“If I try to do all the ultra-filmi stuff, it’ll be like a golden retriever trying to be a cocker spaniel and there are enough cocker spaniels,” Vir Das tells Pratishtha Malhotra.
When I meet Vir Das, he is donning the full bearded look for his upcoming thriller with Soha Ali Khan set against the Sikh riots of 1984. Directed by National Award winner, Shivaji Patil, Vir has been working tremendously hard in terms of preparation for his next. From films with an ensemble cast, he has hopped on to a solo space with REVOLVER RANI, sharing screen space with Kangana Ranaut. Stand-up comedy remains his passion, though right now he turns on the charm as we start to speak…
You have been a part of films that have basically had an ensemble cast like DELHI BELLY, SHAADI KE SIDE EFFECTS and GO GOA GONE. When you attempted a solo lead with REVOLVER RANI, did the pressure build?
I wasn’t feeling any pressure. I have had a very interesting kind of a career graph where it has not been instant and it has not been expected either. I started out with doing one scene in a film, then eventually did three scenes in a film, then did some good ensemble multi-starrers and now I am here and have five releases all in the leading space. It has taken this long - three years and five films - for me to reach to this point. I am quite happy it has and I have learned to act in the meanwhile because I think I didn’t know how to act in my first film (Laughs). So I have gone to school in the meanwhile. I feel the pressure in terms of the fact that now I am at a point where I am a reasonably exposed artiste. Usually an actor does two films a year, three ads and two fashion shows - that’s your life. That is when the audience sees you but for me there are two shows every week for about 6000 people. There is a band, there are videos, then ads and now film also. So the audience is consuming my face and my content much more than the average artiste’s. It becomes very important to show variety otherwise they will get bored. It’s not like they see me twice a year in films. That is why this conscious effort to mix it up and to give them different things.
Your first solo film, SOOPER SE OOPER was not received well at the box office. When you got into the leading space again, after seeing the result of the previous film, did you go all out and do something different?
With SOOPER SE OOPER, I don’t think it was a good thermometer because the film was not really released, if that makes sense. We started promotions seven days before the film released and there were studio-director issues with the film. We released on some 42 screens, which wasn’t really calling it a promoted film or a released film. I still feel that had it been given a release, they would have seen a different kind of reception from the audience. Most people didn’t know that SOOPER SE OOPER even came and went! So that’s what it was. REVOLVER RANI, for me, was completely out of my zone. You would never expect to see me in such a film. It is a Tigmanshu Dhulia school of cinema with a WASSEYPUR kind of feel. A lot of people even looked at the promo and said, ‘What is Vir doing in this film?’ This is not Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), you know someone who belongs to this cinema. You can see Kangana (Ranaut) and Piyush Mishra belonging to this cinema and I look like I am sticking out like one sore thumb in this space. I knew that this was not my zone and that I really had to observe and get it right.
You were introduced as a toy-boy, how corny did you have to get while playing it?
Yes and no, in terms of being cocky and corny. Rohan is very manipulative, selfish, sexual, confident; has used women all his life and has his way with them. He is seducing a very powerful woman to get something else out of her. So there is this certain arrogance and confidence in him. For me, the reference for such a character was somewhat like a ‘Roadies’ contestant (Laughs), that kind of unshaken confidence that ‘Main Roadies ban ke dikhaoonga!’ The film was reasonably explicit. I have done some intimate moments with Kangana which was not easy as I am horribly shy and awkward when it comes to the opposite sex in daily life. So there was a fair bit of acting required (Giggles). Basically Rohan is not a very nice person and that came across in the film.
What was working with Kangana like? Is she totally classic?
I have some mad respect for her. The thing that we have in common is that she has already achieved what I am still going through. Neither of us has a film background and we haven’t really got a launch. She started out from a supporting space, and entered into where she is right now. I respect her a lot. She has done 25 films and built herself every year in the industry and I am trying to do the same thing. The minute the director said ‘Action!’, Kangana, Piyush and I would start to do such horrible things to each other, and right after ‘Cut!’, we were so nice.
You are very successful at stand-up comedy, do you think being on the stage in front of a live audience somewhere helps in shedding all inhibitions, which is much needed in a profession like acting?
It’s different sides of your brain, yaar. I mean with stand-up, I have 5000 people in the audience, there is applause and there is energy which you can feel inside your body. Films are about you and one more person really making it intimate and personal. Stand-up is saying hazaar things in one hour and in films, you are saying the same thing in 10 hours. In stand-up I get instant feedback from the audience, but in films I need to wait for 8 months to get to know if I have screwed up or not (Laughs). The one place where stand-up does help is that it makes you really brave, so I am not scared of doing anything in films! You can hold a mike and have nothing else in your hand with a thousand people in front of you - there is nothing scarier than that.
When you compare the two, what according to you is difficult in stand-up and easy while making films?
The first two minutes while doing stand-up are very tough. I call it really tough foreplay… which leads to really good sex! If you get them in the first two minutes, then you can do anything you want. In films, you are pampered - whatever you yell for, comes. You yell ‘Sandwich’ it comes, you yell ‘Mercedes’, it will come (Chuckles). You’re much better taken care of in a film and you can rely on so many different people - your make-up artist, the director, the DoP, the light person…. Everybody is there to help you. With stand-up, it is like you are going to war with the audience. It is a battle and is much tougher.
Have you ever been bothered by the pressure of performance?
Not at all. The only thing I have been good at from the age of 5 has been performance. I have been an artist, so whether it was debating, dramatics, whatever... that is what I do.
Your political satire went viral recently. You are well informed about most things and you are not afraid to voice your opinion even on Twitter. How do you keep a balance?
I mean, this is such an unfair accusation, that you are over intelligent (Chuckles)! At least with the letter, the turnout was monstrous, I didn’t expect it. I have some people on Facebook and I wrote it for them and then it has gone to some 20 million people. It’s crazy. The Times Of India printed it on its back page. I was just writing from a space where this is the election and as a voter, I felt confused. I didn’t have a clear candidate in my head and I desperately wanted to vote but I didn’t think anybody deserved it yet. Maybe I am not the only one who feels this way and I think the fact that it went viral was not because it was a very good letter or I wrote anything exceptional. It is because so many people felt the same way - that is the only reason it went viral. We all just felt the same way. I got into a lot of trouble because of it, got a lot of calls asking things like, ‘Are you joining politics?’, ‘Are you siding with the Aam Aadmi Party or Narendra Modi?’ Etc, etc ….I was like, no. I am just a citizen, it is my right to express these things and we shouldn’t be afraid. The fact that I am writing an open letter to three men, who want to be my Prime Minister, is something that should be normal. In America and London it would be normal, why is it not normal here? Why do we have to be scared? That was my point.
You have a thriving career in stand-up comedy, but somewhere the whole idea of buying a ticket and going for a comedy show is so rare in a country like ours where comedy is what we see in films. What do you think can be done to make this art form a lot more successful?
It’s anywhere in the world, yaar. Stand-up comedy is a niche art form. Even in Hollywood, in the US, when stand-up comedians reach a certain level of success, they start doing television and films. Talk about Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin; it is a natural progression of your career because it is a niche art form. It is a smaller art form and it always will be. It’s tough in India because we have only seen very good English stand-up comedy. We have seen Russell Peters, Jerry Seinfeld… we have not seen bad English stand-up comedy. If I tell you right now that my front row is 5,000 bucks that is some 10 film tickets. So if I tell you not to go see a Hollywood film but to come spend the money you would pay for 10 Hollywood films, then you had better be f***ing good. The person who is watching my show has seen Russell Peters, Jerry Seinfeld, so that’s the pressure that is there.
Since you’re very popular in that space, do you think you can do something to make this art form a little more prominent?
I am doing as much as I can. I produce a comedy festival, I have a company that hires 40 comedians. I don’t know how much more I can do without going bankrupt (Smiles). So all the money I am making in films is going to build up stand-up comedy only. I’ll keep doing it. In the next year I have a world tour. My aim is also to have a good international stand-up comedy career as well.
This article first appeared in June 2014 issue of Cine Blitz magazine