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.

While JFL is over, Vir Das is sure to be back. Until he is, you can check out his Netflix specials

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!

Tickets are available at hahaha.com

Her name was Jyoti Singh Pandey.

The attack reads like a cross between a depraved nightmare and a bathsalts bad trip: Jyoti, a 23 year old physiotherapy student and her male companion  are trapped on a moving bus, repeatedly and violently violated, beaten and discarded, naked and bleeding. Then the assailants try to run Jyoti over with the bus.

Emerging details suggest premeditation and the specifics are inhumanely gruesome, my chest caving in as I read them, so I leave it to you, Dear Reader, to decide if you want to know, but I warn that they are jarring, heartbreaking and cannot be unknown.

She died in a Singapore hospital 13 days later, while the world was still catching its breath and the country was still reeling.

An Indian media ban on the publication of her name was upheld despite her family’s pleas. They want her to be remembered as a whole person and we are under no such ban.

She was real; she was concsious and fighting while she endured what is, when we are honest with ourselves, everyone’s worst nightmare. I can’t correlate that despite the touch screen trappings of our purported civility, we are still brutalizing women. In a world where feminism is considered so last century, maybe the repeated and appalling tragedies on women these past few months will bring about the show of force that collective ovaries and healthy thinking men need to bring.

Because this isn’t just about Jyoti.

not asking for itPerhaps the long list of bad news as of late has us only half listening. Jyoti’s attack came as Malala, the 15 year old girl shot by the Taliban at point blank range for advocating girls’ rights, was released from hospital in London.

Meanwhile in Ohio, an unconscious 16 year old girl was carried around to a series of parties, raped multiple times while people watched and snapped pictures. High school football players are accused, and as the conversation grew, a video went viral, landing on CNN, of teen boys discussing it, one saying that if it was his daughter, he would just let her die.

Now the Sheriff in that case is receiving emails threatening the rape and murder of his daughters. Because people there like football more than women? I don’t know what their fuckin’ excuse is. It’s beyond rationale.

Then a 19 year old in Montreal was sexually assaulted by a man who had just been released from similar charges with police being on record as saying he was likely to reoffend and then he’d be in real trouble.

But wait, as I was putting this together, a seven year old girl was raped and murdered in India. Then I woke up Sunday morning to another gang rape in India, again on a bus, again over hours, of a 29 year old woman, who thankfully survived.

I swear to all the gods and goddesses I can name that my soul is breaking. My womb is screaming. I want to know where all the brothers I’ve always believed in are. I want to know how humanity became so inherently broken that we’ve arrived here, because it catches in my throat, it blinds me with rage, I am about to drown in a sea of my own tears and I know there are more of us that feel this way than there are sick fuck perpetrators.

Despite discussion of India’s pervasive rape culture and how we’re better of here, even here we have built and continue to consent to a society which teaches rape prevention to the potential victims like telling people to avoid being the victim of a hit and run. All too many believe feminism is either a stance that rendered itself obsolete sometime after we breached the glass ceiling but decided we still liked the men folk picking up the cheque, or an extremist view opted into by angry ugly chicks, but we never embrace feminism as a humanitarian issue. We preach feminism to women and think somehow it has nothing to do with men.

Admittedly, men and boys are victims of sexual assault too, but I don’t know how many men look over their shoulders at night for fear of rape. Gender equality goes far beyond pay parity: no one tells dudes with baggy pants to pull them up because it looks like they’re asking for it and that illustrates a dangerous imbalance.

Dear Men,

10-top-tips-to-end-rapeReject the dogma that you are nothing more than instinctive beasts unable to control your urges; it demeans us both. Openly argue the implication that rape is about sex and discuss it openly as the vile, brutal assault that it is. Be the voice of civilized reason who will never hear someone say that a woman is “asking for it” without speaking up that unless you heard her specifically ask for something, she hasn’t.

Look at your tribe. They are giving you a bad name. We need hoards of brave, unapologetic women crowding the streets and the media working to bring issues to the surface to protect themselves, their daughters, your daughters, but we need the men, the right thinking, sound minded, civilized men who know rape is sick and unacceptable to stand up, embrace feminism, shout loud and proud that you will never stand idly by, because in a city as crowded as New Dehli, not one person stopped to help Jyoti.

There’s an oft cited stat about the number of college aged men who admitted that they would rape someone if they were certain that there would be no ramifications. If you are one of the men who wouldn’t, disassociate yourself from the cretins of your brthren. Be the voice for the women who have been silenced by fear, by death, by humiliation. Because the freedom to not be raped is the most basic civil right and as MLK said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

So I am lighting candles, figurative and literal, for Jyoti Singh Pandey, for the murdered child, for the Ohio girl, for the Montreal girl, for the Indian woman and praying hard that finally, collectively, we will ignite a blaze of change.