Talking truth to power should be applauded, not vilified
I come from an India where Vir Das’s now notorious video from the Kennedy Center in Washington DC was sent to my phone dozens of times, starting almost instantaneously after the comedian put it on Instagram earlier this week.
At the time of writing -- just over two days later -- it has nearly seven million views, but the numbers on WhatsApp must be at least 10 times that.
No one can predict what hits so hard for so many people. For example, Das’s previous video from the New York Comedy Festival has under 12,000 views, and no one has forwarded it to me.
But this one is different.
Part of the reason is undoubtedly the gorgeous framing of Das standing alone in front of an adoring audience, in one of the most hallowed performance halls in the world.
The night before, the 42-year-old was already seized with the occasion. He wrote to his followers:
“We’re full. It’s a historic stage. It’s where I saw Chapelle, Eddie and Pryor get the Mark Twain Prize on TV. I’m just a random dude from India, not a mainstream American celebrity.”
The next day, after an obviously successful performance, Das tried something different by reading out an emotional prose poem written for the purpose that very morning.
“The temptation in this moment is to make a video about myself,” he began, “but I don’t want to do that because I am reminded that I come from India.”
Then he asked, “I come from which India?” And answered himself: “I come from two Indias. Those are the Indias that I bring on stage with me right now.”
Das launched into an emotionally resonant recital of dualities:
“I come from an India where children in masks hold hands with each other, and yet I come from an India where leaders hug each other without masks. I come from an India where the AQI is 9,000 but we still sleep up on the roof and look at the stars.”
Part of the power in this taut six minutes fifty three seconds of pure theatre is that no one laughs for well over a minute. The audience -- evidently almost entirely young Indians and Indian Americans -- is becoming rapt, drawn into the hypnotic cadence of Das’s voice and the sincerity radiating from his persona.
The unpredictable wonder is that the same effect works on video as well, especially its stirring denouement that is both raw and moving:
“I leave you tonight and I go back to that India. Which India do I go back to? Both of them. Which India am I proud of? One of them. Which India is proud of me? None of them.”
Das tells the crowd he wanted to do this experiment because the Kennedy Center stands for greatness, “but as I stand here before you, I am reminded that I represent a great people who built a great thing that is turning into a nightmare. And I know you believe in that India because I believe in that India. And I see it in your eyes and you are in this room tonight.”
The audience proceeds to go wild, raising the rafters for what was reportedly a full five minutes standing ovation.
And now something like that is continuing to happen in the virtual world as well. Das’s video is trending unstoppably in India and across the diaspora, with an inevitable backlash following close behind. Thus, while the comedian is not yet back from his US tour, it might be prudent for him to tarry longer than planned. There are already police complaints filed against him in Mumbai and New Delhi, with more certainly to follow.
One of those incipient cases is from a BJP spokesman, but the “two Indias” contention by Vir Das is better illustrated by two tweets by two Congress leaders
Abhishek Manu Singhvi complained:
“Generalising the evils of a few individuals and vilifying the nation as a whole in front of the world is just not done. The people who painted India in front of the west as a nation of saperas and luteras during the colonial rule have not ceased to exist.”
But his colleague Kapil Sibal said, “None can doubt that there are two Indias. Just that we don’t want an Indian to tell the world about it. We are intolerant and hypocritical.”
It is certainly true that the main points against Das are easily dismissed, starting with the antiquated charge of “vilifying the nation on foreign soil.”
Besides the fact everything is everywhere in our digital world, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself told an audience in Seoul in 2015 about “a time when people used to [ask themselves] what sin they committed in their past life which resulted in taking birth in India -- is this what you call a country and a government, is this how the people are, let’s leave it and go somewhere else.”
In addition, the idea of two Indias is a cherished right-wing trope, as in the RSS supremo Mohan Bhagwat’s contention that “rapes happen in India, not Bharat.”
Why the extreme response to the Kennedy Centre video?
It’s because of the mass of young desis united in laughter. As the great Hannah Arendt put it wonderfully pithily in her classic essay On Violence, “To remain in authority requires respect for the person or the office. The greatest enemy of authority, therefore, is contempt, and the surest way to undermine it is laughter.”
This is why authoritarians fear comedians. And it is also why comedians always wind up with the last word.
After two days of chaotic high-profile hullabaloo over his video, Vir Das posted an official statement on Twitter:
“People cheer for India with hope, not hate. People clap for India with respect, not malice. You cannot sell tickets, earn applause, or represent a great people with negativity, only with pride. I ask of you, the same thing I asked of that audience…to focus on the light, remember our greatness, and spread the love.”
Vivek Menezes is a writer based in Goa, India.