On Friday afternoon, a number of websites published stories about a new deodorant commercial starring actor-comedian Vir Das. I spotted one by BuzzFeed India with the headline ‘Vir Das Just Called Out Every Sexist Commercial You’ve Ever Seen’.
The ad itself (watch it above) cleverly pokes fun at the sexist stereotypes perpetuated by many commercials, wherein sexy, usually-scantily-clad women are used to advertise products by simply appearing in the advert. It shows Das at an ad shoot that is clearly a take-off on Slice’s infamous ‘aam sutra’ campaign, reacting to the director telling him he needs act sexier. When he calls the entire situation ‘odd’, other imaginary versions of himself, from similar ads for bikes, soaps, and ice-cream, point out that what they’re doing is ‘odd’ too. “You think that’s odd? What do you call this?” asks one of them, clad in leather, and hovering over the seat of a sports bike with his derriere extended outward.
“Enough is enough,” proclaims our feminist hero Das. “We don’t need to objectify women to sell a product.”
As a film critic who suffered the imbecilic excesses of Milap Zaveri’s grotesquely misogynistic Mastizaade, starring Das as a sex addict besotted by one of two characters portrayed by Sunny Leone, less than four months ago, I couldn’t help but share that story with a sarcastic comment.
So, there was this movie called MASTIZAADE... https://t.co/bFfgKh7U66— Suprateek Chatterjee (@SupraMario) May 13, 2016
He responded to me in a manner that I interpreted as sheepish, yet somewhat smug.
@SupraMario Aww. Fair. But this will raise some money...do some good. You should get over the film...god knows the audience did :-) cheers.— Vir Das (@thevirdas) May 13, 2016
We exchanged a couple more tweets, and my initial takeaway from that conversation was that Das had, perhaps, realised that acting in a film like Mastizaade, which was also a colossal failure at the box-office, had been a disastrous career move. After all, as a comedian, Das has usually been on the right side of the fence when it comes to feminist issues. He has tackled tough topics in his stand-up shows and his news comedy web-series, called Potcast. Here, too, the message being given through his ad was, overall, quite positive. Perhaps, I thought, it’s time to cut him some slack.
Then, I saw this tweet.
Just did an ad for He Deo. Maybe this should clear up what I have to say about it. Cheerio. pic.twitter.com/oJhR05Rjtn— Vir Das (@thevirdas) May 13, 2016
Again, with a measurable amount of smugness, Das pointed out that he did the deodorant commercial because it was funny and contributing to women’s charities. Note how he doesn’t specifically say anything about its progressive outlook, because that would mean admitting that Mastizaade was the opposite.
Das, who helped foster the English language stand-up comedy scene in the country (the members of All India Bakchod, before it existed, collaborated quite frequently with him), is not an unintelligent man. There is, to my mind, not a doubt he isn’t aware (or hasn’t been made aware) that Mastizaade was a vile, offensive ‘comedy’ that rode on objectification in order to appeal to the so-called masses. In all likelihood, he probably wanted to be part of a Rs 100 crore film (Zaveri’s previous, equally tasteless outing, Grand Masti, had broken that barrier in 2013), so as to give his floundering Bollywood career a shot in the arm. After all, barring 2011’s Delhi Belly, all he has had on that front is a string of box-office failures and not very flattering reviews for his work (from credible critics, at any rate).
Hey, nothing wrong with that. Selling out ain’t illegal. He may be, arguably, India’s most popular stand-up comedian at this point (he'd better, because the other, horrifying alternative for this title would be the unbearably hacky Papa CJ), but if he has some sort of desire to be a Bollywood actor and make more money and be more famous than he already is, he has that right. But it’s the choices we make that truly give weight to our beliefs. You can’t claim, for instance, to be concerned about the environment and support, say, a government policy that facilitates deforestation. That’s classic hypocrisy and, in the age of social media, you will be called out on it, whether you’re famous or not.
But, honestly, in this case, it appears that Das isn’t really apologetic about his choice. His refusal to call a spade a spade — that acting in Mastizaade wasn't just a bad career choice; it was an irresponsible choice — makes one wonder if he’s simply trying to have his cake and eat it too.
The online media that turned this into a story deserves some of the rap for this. Some posts, such as those on BuzzFeed India, ScoopWhoop, Miss Malini, Brand Equity, and India Today couldn’t resist providing context by adding a jibe about Mastizaade in their posts about the advert; on the other hand, many other reports on reputed websites such as The Indian Express, The Quint, and Mashable refrained from adding such commentary. When you look at some of these headlines — ‘Comedian rips apart the objectification of women in Indian advertising’ and the like — in succession, it almost looks like a deliberate image makeover.
At the same time, it’s also fair that celebrities not be held to their past doings for all eternity, especially if they’re attempting to atone for sins previously committed. The entertainment business is ridiculously competitive, and sometimes actors who don’t command box-office clout have to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do. Nearly every great artiste, be it an actor, a musician, or a comedian, has a ‘hall of shame’ comprising work that would embarrass them if brought up in conversation.
But, honestly, in this case, it appears that Das isn’t really apologetic about his choice. His refusal to call a spade a spade — that acting in Mastizaade wasn't just a bad career choice; it was an irresponsible choice — makes one wonder if he’s simply trying to have his cake and eat it too. Will Das publicly denounce the film, the same way Saif Ali Khan admitted in 2014 that acting in Sajid Khan’s Humshakals — a vile piece of cinema that made puerile jokes on women, the disabled, and many others in the name of entertainment — was one? Will he risk ruffling some feathers and testing some of his newly formed friendships with certain people in the Hindi film industry for the sake of his own principles?
That’s when I’ll ‘get over it’.