Vir Das is no stranger to Netflix, as the first Indian comic to have a stand-up special on the platform and the only one to have three Netflix comedy specials to his name. His latest adventure with the streaming giant is Hasmukh, a dark comedy series which he both stars in and created alongside filmmaker Nikkhil Advani.
The show follows the unlikely story of a small-town stand-up comedian who moonlights as a serial killer after he discovers that the adrenaline rush of murder helps his performance.
At a time when, like most industries, the stand-up comedy scene has come to a standstill, Das has been quick to adapt to the digital space. He has a new YouTube series Brightside which has him offering his take on a range of issues, an Instagram Vlog series titled CoronaVIRus as well as performing stand-up shows on Zoom for charity. "For me, right now fundraising is a major goal. I'm doing gigs on Zoom every night to raise money…I want to get out of this lockdown having raised a shit load of money for charity," he said over the phone.
Das spoke to me about the unlikely premise of Hasmukh, creating a fictional comic that couldn't be more different from him and adapting to a digital space during lockdown.
Hasmukh is such an interesting idea for a show. Where did it come from?
It came from two different places. I'm reasonably OCD about what I do before I get on stage. I have a leather belt that I've worn for every single show since I was 21 years old. I won't go on stage without it. It looks like shit and doesn't match with anything I own but I still wear it. I also listen to the same songs and tell myself the same stuff in my head before I walk on stage.
Also, I didn't really figure out how to be myself on stage until my first year of comedy because I was writing jokes and the worst thing you can do as a comic is write 'joke jokes'. You have to figure out a way to say it like yourself.
So it was a mix of those two things. Hasmukh is about this guy who's a terrible comedian but a decent writer, and he's got zero onstage comedy skills. He needs to murder someone just before he gets on stage so he can use that adrenaline to be himself. It's equal parts laughter, equal parts darkness but also an endearing story of an underdog loser in Bombay. I wrote the pilot three-and-half years ago and took it to Nikkhil Advani who liked it and said 'it's funny, let's create it together, but I want it to be more dark'. So we put our heads together and created the show.
You're a comic, a creator and an actor and here you've created a show where you play a stand-up comic. Does this feel like all parts of you coming together in some sense?
No, I mean I wish I could be that confident. To me, it feels like I'm in new waters. I'm the least experienced actor on this show. Somehow, we managed to pull off an insane cast with Ranvir Shorey, Manoj Pahwa, Amrita Bagchi and Ravi Kishan. They're all great actors. So, to be amongst them is definitely me being a fish out of water.
Was it fun developing Hasmukh's voice and comedic style and essentially inventing a new comic?
It was, but it was also fun to not know what his voice is. That's the exciting phase in this comedian's career. Hasmukh is not an experienced comic or murderer or performer. You're really witnessing the start of all of that. He doesn't fully know what his voice is, so it was interesting to find it, especially when you're playing somebody who's the diametric opposite of what you are. Hasmukh is a small-town guy who does stand-up in Hindi and neither one of those things is me. The best thing that can describe him is he's clueless and confused and that's always fun to write.
When you act in something you've developed, is it great because you already believe in the material, or does it make it more difficult because there's an added pressure to do justice to it?
I enjoyed the fact that I'm the lead in something I've created but I also really leaned on Nikkhil. For example, I was instrumental in creating the little nuances of Jimmy, Ranvir Shorey's character. He's my favourite character because Jimmy is where the laughs are at. Manoj Pahwa is one of the most evil characters I've ever had to write and it was delicious getting to create someone like that. For Hasmukh, it sounds weird but he's actually very innocent. For the 5 minutes that he's murdering he's a murderer, but outside of that he's very innocent. So, I kind of let Nikkhil create a lot of the nuances of who he was and I said 'let me create who Hasmukh is on stage and you create who he is offstage'.
The lockdown has been pretty terrible for the comedy scene like most industries, but you've been really quick to adapt to the digital space with your Vlog series, and your stand-up gigs on Zoom. How have you found that transition?
I mean I've just had time to focus on it to be very honest with you. The first piece of stand-up I ever put out online was on Netflix, so I wasn't really in the YouTube game at all and I've been neglecting it for a while. And what's weird is I have a reasonably large catalogue of comedy work that I just haven't posted online. Now that I'm posting it, it's getting a good response.
In terms of the gigging, that's entirely for charity. No comedian wants to risk putting their new material online and Zoom isn't the safest place to be doing a stand-up comedy show, especially when there's 200 people and there's a lag and all that stuff. But its for a good cause and every bit helps.