What does hope look like during a pandemic?
Is it like a thing with feathers, as Emily Dickinson imagines it to be? Or is it moored to reality, more cautious in its reach? Maybe it’s overwhelmed now, even jaded.
If comedy is anything to go by, then hope is the sum of all this and more.
Vir Das’s recent crowdsourced special, Inside Out, gave us a glimpse of just that. Available on his website, the show is made up of footage from 30 virtual stand-up comedy shows the artist performed for charities during the lockdown. It is cobbled with with footage from crowd-work Zoom shows and Das’s personal reflections to the camera during the lockdown.
“Zoom shows – the future of stand-ups…or the prelude to its death,” he warns us right off the bat. The next 50 minutes are then a window into this strange world we find ourselves in.
Comedy, like other things, is paying a price of endurance to adapt itself. Punch lines have been lost to internet lags, pregnant pauses full of awkwardness and a thoroughly butchered ambience.
For his stand-up gigs, Das was streaming shows for an international audience at 7:30 am. At the other end of the screen were people on their couches or beds, some groggy with sleep or weary from work. The audience’s laughter, which Das endearingly terms the “soundtrack to his life”, was actualised by asking viewers to laugh closer to their mics.
As far as unprecedented goes, this was it. But could anything else be more befitting of our times?
I would be wary of calling it a performance, however. The spectre of showmanship was left for another day, for comedy clubs and hallowed halls astir with people. This time, comedy knocked on our doors, peeked into our rooms, and sat down for a chat. It asked a deceptively simple question: “What’s the first thing you will do when the world re-opens?”
With that, nudged forth a conversation about the absurdity – and hope.
People across countries – India, Russia, Dubai, Laos, Ireland, Canada, China – envisaged a familiar, yet distant world. Someone from Ahmedabad longed to meet their partner, another hoped to get ice cream delivery or go clubbing. A Spanish woman wished to hug her friends, another yearned to go back to being a Flamenco dancer. Even closer home, someone itched to get her eyebrows done.
I have to admit – I smiled more than I laughed. You didn’t have to know these faces to know their lives – their longing and desire were familiar and urgently felt. The conversations we’re all having – across time zones, countries, our social groups, even in our minds – were distilled through these small screens.
In that aspect, it bore resemblance to a documentary of life and living in lockdown. Parents peeping in, a rogue knock on the door, a cameo of a son helping his father turn on the camera. It all seemed to be scenes borrowed from the pandemic play that we now poetically, and begrudgingly, call life.
And not only ours, but that of the artist as well. The special was a glimpse into the journey of a joke and an artist. Das referenced the night his neighbour sneezed on him and the controversy that ensued – the anguish and exhaustion were visible. He dismisses it and does what every comic would: he turns it into a joke.
The show does go on; but for a hot second there, one could fathom the emotional toll it takes to keep making those metaphorical lemons. The authenticity and candour bounced right off the walls of his flat and jumped right through our screens.
Perhaps what struck most was Das’s vulnerability. “People come to see a Vir Das show to forget about their shit – they don’t come to see mine,” he says, in one of his pieces-to-camera before a crowd-work show.
Over the course of the special, he grew to be much more than Vir Das, the comic. He was Vir Das, the person – dismayed, weary and lost like many of us. In one of the crowd-work Zoom shows, actor and Das’s friend Kavi Shastri cameoed to celebrate Das’s 41st birthday. Das, quite literally, aged during the show.
This moment in our lives is tragic. Some have suffered more than others. A doctor from Mumbai attended the show while self-isolating after contracting the virus on duty. A few miles away, someone had been accepted into a university in the US and sat in anticipation for things to settle down. “I hope we kill this virus before the virus kills that feeling, because that feeling is important,” Das reflects afterwards in his video diary.
As far as tragicomedies go, Inside Out would make a good fit. The 50-minute-show scored moments of desperation and grief with organic, unscripted humour. Strewn across mid-credits and post-credits were glimpses of things people actually did once the world started opening up. Some got ice cream, some their hugs. It felt oddly conclusive, even cathartic, to watch their wishes materialise in the breadth of one show.
It was a reminder that hope becomes many things. “That’s the thing about the entire world going through the same thing at the same time,” Das says at the start. “I guess it’s special.”
Perhaps, this familiarity – the human connection binding it – is what breathes life into Inside Out. The conversation has since ended, but that moment in time lives.
Saumya Kalia is a recent journalism graduate from City, University of London. She swears by coffee and good literature; lives mostly in NCR, occasionally Mumbai.