Before Vir Das played lead roles in bad movies and supporting roles in good movies, he was busy promoting stand-up comedy culture in India – and by promoting, I mean pioneering. It’s difficult to disassociate the growth of the art form from one of its earliest faces, and whether it be open-mic nights, one man shows or even English comedy on Indian TV, Das was doing it all, and generating laughs before the AIB boys were out of college.
To see him returning to the big stage (and Netflix is a pretty big stage) for me is like watching Glenn McGrath or Brian Lara walk onto a cricket pitch, but is nostalgia enough to hold the attention of a millennial for an hour? The answer is a little more complicated than a simple yes or no.
Abroad Understanding is a 65 minute special on Netflix that uses clever editing to show Das performing at two venues simultaneously – a stadium in New Delhi and a quaint comedy club in New York. The format is quick to draw your attention to the fact that Das is a global name in comedy, and even though the New York comedy club seems suspiciously full of Indians, the contrast is fascinating.
While the format is refreshing if you’ve become used to watching Indian stand-up comedy videos with no real theme, it’s also the beginning of a big problem for me. This is a Netflix show, and has to be ranked against other Netflix shows. There are other comedy specials on Netflix that have done a good job in experimenting with formats (‘Neal Brennan: 3 Mics’ comes to mind), and here’s where Abroad Understanding falls short. While the format works early on, especially when Das launches into a hilarious comparison of Donald Trump with Indian arranged marriages, it becomes irrelevant about halfway through the show. If you’re not watching with rapt attention (which is sort of the point of stand-up comedy), you may even forget which segments are from the show in New York.
Das’s covers a variety of topics, and while that sounds like a good thing, it brings us back to that problem I was talking about – how does it measure up against other Netflix comedians? He takes on Trump in arguably the strongest parts of the show, he does a perfectly passable Asian and Middle-Eastern accents in bits that are perfectly passable themselves, and even pulls off the lecherous flirt act.
But this is a Netflix special, and Das isn’t up against All India Bakchod or East India Comedy or Kanan Gill, he’s going toe to toe with Stephen Colbert and Russell Peters and Jim Jefferies, and while he doesn’t do too badly, you might wish in parts that he had just stuck to things that seem more natural to his style.
When he does pull out the long-format storytelling (his explanation of an incident that made him realise he’s ready for fatherhood is particularly endearing) or the uncomfortably uninhibited over-the-top act (you might never say the word ‘potato’ again without picturing him doing grotesque things to himself), however, he makes for some very watchable material.
Delivery is where Das has really outdone himself – the subtle volume, perfectly timed pauses and clear enunciation showcase well-honed technique behind them, and make sure that punchlines that deserve laughter get every last drop. Being one of India’s most experienced comics is an advantage that Das uses that well, and when he’s in his flow, it’s clear that class is permanent and no amount of terrible sex comedies can undo that (Thank God).
It ticked me off that almost every joke is punctuated with Das saying ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’, but that’s nit-picking and might not even be something you’ll actively notice (do let us know in the comments if you picked up on it too, though).
All in all, Abroad Understanding makes for entertaining viewing. It has its fair share of laughable moments, but it’s held back by a format which becomes irrelevant midway, topics which seem like they were forcibly added to appeal to a foreign audience (and don’t seem to) and the weight of its own ambition. It has to be said here that it is absolutely amazing that Das is the first Indian comic with his own Netflix special. But while it’s charming, witty and funny, it most certainly isn’t brilliant.