When I spoke with Indian comedian Vir Das about his Just for Laughs solo show, part of his Wanted World Tour, he assured me that it would have a story and he certainly delivered when he performed at the Olympia.
To a packed theatre with an audience so ethnically diverse it would have given Quebec Premier Francois Legault a stroke, Das put on a show that was as fearless as it was entertaining. As I waited for him to start, part of me worried that he would stick to safe subjects like family and relationship stuff peppered with comparisons of his own ethnic background to that of white, English-speaking Westerners, but that wasn’t what audiences got. It’s a tactic common among many so-called ethnic comedians, and thankfully Vir Das’ comedy is not like that at all.
If there’s one thing you get from Vir Das’, it’s that he’s absolutely fearless. Though he only spoke for an hour, he managed to cover everything from cannabis, to sex, to dogs, to freedom of speech, giving us – the audience, an education, while still keeping it funny.
No one, from Christians, to the British, to babies, to vegans, to his fellow brown people was safe from his mirth. One of his best jokes was about his anger at experiencing physical abuse by his school teachers, adding:
“I would never slap a teacher, their salaries do that,” a remark that resonates with educators in North America who continue to fight for fair wages and safe working conditions.
Das told me that he is first and foremost a comedian and throughout the show it showed. He was comfortable and friendly on stage, making me and so many others laugh and think while providing insights into his life story.
In many ways it didn’t feel like a standup show so much as a storytelling session with someone you know and love, and despite a few disrespectful types who tried to film the performance, the audience welcomed his approach. If I have one criticism of his performance, it’s that he would switch to speaking Hindi once in a while and didn’t always provide an English translation, something that was fine with the many East Asian audience members, but won’t work for English speakers. In the future he needs to translate all of it for English audiences or provide subtitles above or below the stage.
Vir Das wears a lot of hats: he’s a Hollywood actor, a Bollywood actor, and a TV show host, but first and foremost, he’s a comic. When I met him via Zoom, he was in Goa, India, his only hat on being one of gunmetal gray perched high on the head of a friendly, down to Earth fellow seemingly unaffected by the extent of his notoriety.
Though known internationally for his comedy, the temporary ceasing of stand-up due to public health measures forced Das to spend the worst of the pandemic acting. As a comic, he sees all his other roles as fodder for his comedy, considering humour to be a way of keeping himself grounded.
Das sheepishly admits that he cannot shoot movies year ‘round because there’s only so much he can stand hanging out with other actors discussing stuff like protein shakes and intermittent fasting. At the same time, he admits that touring is exhausting and his ideal would be a balance between all the roles he plays in the entertainment industry.
He laughs occasionally as he speaks, realizing the humour of his remarks, the sign of a man for whom comedy is as natural as breathing. He says that as you age, the acting roles on offer become smaller and more nuanced, whereas as a comedian, the work gets bigger and better.
As an Asian Canadian working in the arts, I have had my share of experiences dealing with the disapproving reactions to my profession. I wondered if Das had a similar experience with his family.
Das admitted that he waited two years before telling his family that he studied theatre, adding that his parents’ attitude has always been that if he can pay the rent, whatever he did was fine with them. He says it’s been a long time since he’s worried about making an income, adding that the cultural attitude toward working in the arts is changing.
“I think the whole ‘My Strict Indian Parents’ stereotype and joke, and sitcom, and movie, and series, and documentary is losing steam and validity as we speak,” he says with a smile.
Das is one of the few artists to work in both Bollywood and Hollywood. Though Bollywood is the bigger industry of the two, it seems mostly unknown to white English speaking audiences.
When I think of Bollywood, I think of beautiful costumes, elaborate makeup and jewelry and dance routines that put old Hollywood musicals to shame. I wondered what the differences were to someone like Das, who has an insider’s view of both industries.
Das said there isn’t much a difference, and that everyone involved is trying to tell authentic stories, though he admits that Bollywood sets seem to work a bit faster, something borne of experience more than anything else. When I asked him about his dancing, he said it was good.
“Give me the right choreographer and enough rehearsal time and I can dance,” he says, adding that he finds it ironic how audiences appreciate the escapism of Bollywood and yet the only movies that succeed in America are Avenger movies and Marvel movies. He points out that in the latter everyone is wearing ridiculous costumes in a fantastical world, suggesting that perhaps superhero movies are America’s Bollywood.
Das is often presented as a man bringing an authentic Indian perspective to audiences worldwide. He agrees that it’s a fair assessment, given that most perceptions of Indians come from British, American, and Canadian versions of India, which are more “palatable versions”. He says that such views miss out on the voices of 1.3 billion people who have things to say.
He speaks fondly of other East Asian comedians such as Russell Peters and Lily Singh, the former showing a young Vir Das that Indians can do standup. He has immense respect for Lily Singh as a community builder who created one devoid of gatekeepers. In terms of celebrities who opened the doors for more East Asian actors in Hollywood, Das credits Priyanka Chopra.
When playing to white, English-speaking audiences Vir Das’ primary goal is to make them laugh and get to know him. His comedy influences include Richard Pryor for his vulnerability, Eddie Izzard for history and making his shows seem unscripted, and George Carlin for punching up and being anti-establishment.
Das admits that his comedy is likely to change over the years, pointing out that Carlin only found his stride twenty years into his career when Das himself has only been doing comedy for fifteen. At present his comedy hinges more on being an outsider rather than a specific cultural identity. He prefers to begin a show with something the audience knows nothing about and then systematically proving the similarities between his world and theirs.
His upcoming Just for Laughs show, Vir Das’ Wanted World Tour is based on the premise that home is anywhere, adding that it will have a story. Das is also appearing in the Patton Oswalt Gala, though he grins and says he’s looking forward to his own show more, adding that in the latter he only has eight minutes for audiences to get to know him, something that he does happily, though he prefers the kind of “friend sits you down for a talk” format better.
In terms of his future work, Das says his Wanted World Tour is going to thirty-eight countries, followed by a Hollywood rom-com, and a Bollywood action movie
If Vir Das’ Netflix special, Losing It, is any indication, his Just for Laughs shows are bound to be fun!
Host Jason C. McLean is joined by Stephanie Laughlin and Jerry Gabriel of the Professors of Pop Podcast to talk about this year’s Academy Awards: predictions for the major categories, what the event might be like and controversies or lack thereof.
The internet has been all aflutter recently with the release of the first images of the upcoming live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell. The response to the images has not been one of excitement. It’s been one of outrage.
The original Ghost in the Shell is a Japanese animated film that came out in 1995. The plot revolves around Major Motoko Kusanagi, a highly intelligent law enforcement officer whose ghost has been transferred into a full body prosthesis or shell.
Though the heroine is technically a cyborg, fans of Ghost in the Shell had widely accepted that should the film be adapted into live action the role of Major Kusanagi should go to an Asian actress. So of course the role went to Scarlett Johansson, the third whitest woman in America (first and second being Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson, respectively).
It Happens Quite a Bit
The casting of white actors in roles that should go to people of colour is called Whitewashing and it is endemic in Hollywood. Though it’s an era of supposed political correctness white people are still being cast in roles that they don’t belong in.
Take the 2015 film Aloha which featured Emma Stone as Captain Allison Ng. The real life Allison Ng is of Chinese, Hawaiian and Swedish descent.
By all accounts, the real life Allison Ng doesn’t look Asian or Hawaiian, she’s even a natural redhead. Nevertheless, anyone who knows someone half Asian knows that even those who don’t look Asian don’t look quite as Caucasian as a very blonde Emma Stone. The outrage over the film eventually resulted in director Cameron Crowe apologizing for the casting choice.
Then there’s this year’s Gods of Egypt. Though the statues and images of Egyptian deities leave lots of room for diversity in casting, most of the Egyptian gods are played by whites.
The movie Pan, an adaptation of Peter Pan released in 2015, cast the lily white Rooney Mara in the role of Tiger Lily, a Native American princess.
Though white actors are no longer being dressed and made up to look like caricatures of minorities, a la Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, that doesn’t make whitewashing OK.
Money and Scarcity
Despite the outrage of all these poor casting choices, movie studios and execs always hide behind the same arguments: money and scarcity. They either claim that films featuring people of colour don’t make enough money OR they argue that there aren’t enough ethnic actors to fill the roles. Let’s tackle these arguments one by one.
Don’t think movies with people of colour make money? Tell that to the people behind the X-Men franchise.
The X men comics feature a lot of people of colour including Storm, a black woman able to control the weather, and Jubilee, an Asian girl who can generate pyrotechnic energy plasmoids from her hands. In every film adaptation of the franchise, the casting choices have been fairly close to the characters’ ethnicity and in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, those films made money. X men grossed 296.3 million USD at the box office, X-2 grossed 407.7 million, and X men The Last Stand grossed 459.4 million USD.
Then there’s The Hunger Games. Racist trolls went bananas on the net when a black actress was cast as Rue in the 2012 film even though the book never actually alludes to the character’s ethnicity. Despite a few obnoxious noisemakers, the film grossed 653.4 million USD at the box office.
Life of Pi, which cast an Indian actor as an Indian character grossed 609 million USD.
The Jungle Book, released on April 15, 2016, cast a boy of Indian American descent as Mowgli, an Indian boy living in the jungle. It’s already grossed $377.4 million and is still going strong.
When you compare that to the pitiful $26.3 million grossed by Aloha or $128.4 million grossed by Pan, the argument about people of colour being a poor investment doesn’t add up.
If execs are really concerned about money, there’s one more argument to consider. Many people of colour don’t visibly age at the same rate as white people. That means they can pass for younger for a lot longer, an argument worth considering when casting for franchise films. Hugh Jackman, our beloved Wolverine is looking his 48 years, whereas Jet Li does not look 51 nor does Don Cheadle look 52.
Then there’s the notion that there aren’t enough ethnic actors to fill roles and the ones out there aren’t well known. That’s bullshit, and here’s a list of capable, well-known actors of colour to prove it:
Sandrine Holt – Of Asian and French origin, featured in Terminator Genisys
Jet Li – Chinese
Keanu Reeves – ¼ Hawaiian, ¼ Chinese – while not everyone agrees he can act, he still counts
Kristin Kreuk – Of Chinese and Dutch descent, known for Smallville
The Rock – ½ Samoan
Rosario Dawson – Puerto Rican, Afro-Cuban and Irish
Salma Hayek – Mexican with Lebanese Roots
Kal Penn – American of Indian origin, known for the Harold and Kumar movies
Gabourey Sidibe – African American, played the leading role in Precious and was Oscar nominated for it
Jackie Chan – Chinese
Chiwetel Eljiofor – of 12 Years a Slave
Priyanka Chopra – Indian
Oded Fehr – Israeli
Lupita Nyong’o – Mexican with Kenyan parents
Adam Beach – First Nations
Sandra Oh – Canadian of Korean Ancestry
This list is just the tip of the iceberg. There are tons more visible minority actors who are more than capable of drawing crowds and bringing in revenue and are ready and willing to do it. Audiences worldwide now want to see themselves in the movies they watch and that means casting choices that reflect the world’s diversity.
The only excuse studios and executives have left is their own racism. And in 2016, that’s not good enough.
TIME magazine recently included “feminism” in their “Which word should be banned in 2015?” poll. The suggestion was supposed to be meant as joke, but looking back at some of the major news stories from 2014 shows that there’s no joke about it. Feminism is a movement that has not been fully realized and is very much still necessary.
Every day porn actors give willing consent for the world to ogle their naked bodies, and the internet literally gives one millions of options to choose from. The hundreds of mostly female celebrities whose nude photos were leaked in August meanwhile did not give their consent.
Despite this disturbing attack on privacy, after the photo leak celebrities like Jennifer Lawrence were slut-shamed. As Lawrence described in her October 2014 Vanity Fair article, the photos were meant as a private gift for her long distance boyfriend, NOT for the world to dissect on 4chan. One of the drawbacks of being a modern day celebrity is that the public wants to know the most intimate details of your private life. Now that demand for knowledge seems to extend to their most intimate body parts as well.
Another important online story this year was GamerGate. The events surrounding GamerGate may have begun as a protest against corrupt journalism, but it eventually devolved when women who spoke up about issues in the gamer community where harassed and threatened.
Gamer and “Feminist Frequency” author Anita Sarkeesian was one such woman. Sarkeesian had to cancel a speaking appearance in Utah after she was sent an email which threatened a “Montreal Massacre like attack” if she spoke. Thankfully Sarkeesian escaped without incident, unlike the six victims of Elliot Rodger. Rodger’s California shooting spree this past May was allegedly about seeking retribution against women who sexually rejected him.
Not all feminist hate came from men this year. Women Against Feminism got a lot of press in 2014 with their stated mission being “women’s voices against modern feminism and it’s toxic culture.” Besides the few inane WAF posters who insist they enjoy living in a patriarchal society, most declare they want equal rights for the sexes. Many also correctly point out there’s unfair standards out there for both men and women. So why then do they prefer to be labelled as egalitarian as opposed to feminist?
Perhaps because even in the third wave of the movement, feminism for many still equals angry, man-hating lesbian. “The more I spoke about feminism, the more I realized that fighting for women’s rights has too often become synonymous with man-hating…For the record feminism by definition is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities,” Emma Watson (recently appointed feminist of the year) said during her eloquent speech at the UN in September.
Some believe that celebrities like Watson standing up for feminism in fact negatively impacts the movement. In her articleEmma Watson? Jennifer Lawrence? These aren’t the feminists you’re looking for, feminist writer Roxane Gay worries celebrity culture has muffled the meaning of the feminist movement. She also argues that there’s no need to make feminism more accessible to men.
Gay’s arguments are worth analyzing. Are celebrities who tweet selfies of themselves with signs saying #HeforShe or #BringBackOurGirls making a big difference? Probably not. But it’s impossible to deny that famous face gives global attention to causes that need it.
And if feminism ever hopes to truly achieve its goals, it does needs to work side by side with men to make it happen. How incredible would it be if male and female feminists could inspire men to be less like pick-up artist Julien Blanc and more like Pakistani diplomat Ziauddin Yousafzai?
Yousafzai is the father of this year’s Nobel peace prize winner Malala Yousafzai. In March Yousafzai gave a TED talk (see video below) about misogyny and the patriarchy in developing and tribal societies. By not “clipping his daughter’s wings” and by teaching her as a girl she too had the right to go to school, Malala has inspired a generation of women to stand up for their rights.
Brave families like the Yousafzai’s are the most important reason why feminism still matters. Long after Hollywood has moved on to its next cause du jour, charities like The Malala Fund will still need support. Twitter may have died down with its #BringBackOurGirls intensity, but it’s important to remember most of those girls are still missing. Women in Saudi Arabia are receiving prison sentences for driving cars. Gang rapes and lack of police interest in the crimes continue to plague India.
So the haters can spout all the nonsense they want about how feminism hurts women. But the rest of us are going to remember that feminism isn’t just a word that Beyoncé calls herself. It’s an important movement that affects all women on the planet, and still has a lot of work ahead.