Vir Das, Two Indias, and the Real Issue

Vir Das, stand-up comic, has provoked a controversy over the video of his recent monologue, titled Two Indias, at the John F. Kennedy Centre for Performing Arts in Washington DC (if you have not seen the video, do watch it here). He has been accused of insulting India, of washing dirty linen in public (an accusation he predicts in his monologue), and of damaging the country’s reputation by belittling it in a foreign country. A couple of police cases have even been filed against him.

The reaction to Das’s video reminds me of the reaction to Phantom India, a seven-part documentary series on India, made for television in the late 1960’s by the French filmmaker Louis Malle. That series too, which was shown on BBC, showed two Indias. It highlighted the rich and diverse culture of the country, but it was also unsparing in its depiction of the undesirable side: poverty, malnutrition, dirty cities, elite apathy, and more. Eventually, the Indian government banned the screening of the series in India.

In a scene in one of the episodes, Malle holds the camera steady, for several minutes, on a crippled beggar on the streets of Mumbai. Passers-by, seeing this camera operated by a couple of white foreigners, are troubled by its focus on the beggar, and begin to deliberately obstruct the scene, walking or standing between the camera and the beggar. Malle, who is also the narrator in the docuseries, does not move the camera, records this obstruction, and observes that these people, who belong to the top ten percent in terms of wealth, were not really bothered by the fact that the beggar exists. They could lead the lives they lived because they had constructed a comfort zone within which they chose not to see the beggar and were distressed because the camera disturbed this comfort zone by rendering the beggar as indisputably visible.

This is the cause of the discomfort in those who attack Vir Das. They ignore the fact that he is speaking about two Indias, explicitly declaring he is proud of one of them. They offer no evidence to counter the problems he identifies — crimes against women, pollution, suppression of free speech, the sorry state of journalism, outdated politics, fundamentalism, inequality, unjustified violence against protesting farmers, the high price of petrol, and more. They mount a personal attack against Das because he dares to mention these things on a public stage that is difficult to ignore, thereby rendering them explicitly visible. That is his crime: he has made visible what they need to be invisible to sustain the illusions by which they live.

What is most significant is the way Vir Das ends his monologue. He turns the camera on his audience, in which young Indian diaspora constitute a major segment, and he asks them to make a noise for the India that they would like to see. He receives an extended standing ovation in response. That ovation makes the real issue visible: we must see all aspects of India, both those of which we are proud as well as those of which we are ashamed, and we must publicly express our voice on the India we wish to see in our future. We will lose the India of which we are proud if we seek to make the uncomfortable invisible solely for the sake of our self-absorbed comfort.

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