Fringe Interview: comic Vir Das on the event he launched in Mumbai

Vir Das: 'Edinburgh audiences demand more story'     (Picture: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Vir Das: 'Edinburgh audiences demand more story' (Picture: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)
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Promoted by the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. In a regular series of interviews to mark World Fringe Day, acts performing at this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe share their experiences of other fringes around the world. This week: comic Vir Das gives the skinny on the event he launched in Mumbai.

One of Variety’s 10 Comics To Watch and about to appear at Montreal’s Just For Laughs Festival as he develops a US television career, Indian comedy star Vir Das acknowledges that he owes much of his success to the Edinburgh Fringe.

The Scottish capital remains “visually prettier than anywhere else you can perform,” he adds. And “there’s a lot more drinking”. But crucially, the discipline of performing for so many consecutive nights “pushes you to write on the go, to rewrite more than any other festival”.

What’s more, “you’re required to have so much more narrative, to be more thematic than anywhere else. I just did Melbourne and Sydney and they’re used to purer stand-up. But Edinburgh demands more story, that’s the big difference.”

Performing abroad, Das is accustomed to predominantly second generation and expat Indian crowds. Yet since his special’s release in April, he found in Melbourne and Sydney for the first time an equal split between Indians and Australians. He’d wanted Abroad Understanding to “set the context for who I am a little bit, in what I hope was an honest and humble manner. I have a fan base in India but I’m only just starting out on the international circuit.

“In India, there will be 7,000 people. In Edinburgh, 65 maybe. But a gig’s a gig. And the material’s the material. Certain things might require more explanation or set-up in Edinburgh because the crowd might not know the pop culture references. But apart from that, it’s pretty much the same.”

A star of “zombie and stoner comedy” films, Das also fronts the comedy rock group Alien Chutney, joining him in Edinburgh for the first time. With a solo European tour after the Fringe, his busy gigging schedule had led him to “just want to rock out for an hour and have some fun. Alien Chutney is immature, vulgar, stupid music. So this is like a 
mini-vacation”.

That said, “if there’s one place you can do a comedy rock set, it’s Edinburgh. I remember seeing Axis of Awesome and it was amazing, a mini-concert every night. There aren’t many acts like them at the Fringe. And certainly not from India. So the aim is to bring something unique.”

As the driving force behind the Weirdass Comedy collective, Das also produces his own fringe in Mumbai, the Weirdass Pyjama Festival. Currently, the emphasis is on commercial survival. But it’s a showcase for innovation already.

“We had 4,000 people in year one, 9,000 in year two and 32,000 last year,” he explains. “So when I approach that festival, it’s just to avoid bankruptcy. It’s less about context and more about: ‘Jesus Christ, we’re losing so much money!’ But you know, there’s definitely experimental shows in that festival. And I can debut a new set there.”

He’s gleaned plenty from performing in Scotland. “But I that feel as your festival gets larger and larger, your ability to go out on a limb for an artist reduces. My festival is so niche and tiny by comparison, we’re really going out of our way for artists and to find great ones, in a phase where we’re going after them rather than them coming to us.

“There’s an enthusiasm I hope we won’t lose when we become so large the artist is coming to us anyway.”

Regardless, he says, the Edinburgh Fringe remains “a festival from top to bottom.

“From the drink in your hand, to the décor, to the trees, to the venues, to everything in the venue, every T-shirt, every chair, you really get a sense of a festival. And I believe that goes a long way, beyond just the festival’s content.”

*Vir Das: The Boarding Das World Tour (stand-up), Gilded Balloon Teviot, 13 August only; Vir Das’s Alien Chutney – India’s Comedy Rock Invasion, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 14-27 August, www.edfringe.com

*The Edinburgh Festival Fringe was the world’s first fringe back in 1947. There are now more than 200 fringes worldwide. World Fringe Day, on 11 July, marks 70 years since the birth of the fringe concept, www.worldfringeday.com