Varun Grover’s friends urge him to apply for a green card and move to the U.S., and he’s not entirely against the idea – he’s even ready to buy a bulletproof jacket to protect against all the gun violence. “The only thing stopping me from applying for a green card is the ice-cold water that you drink here,” he said to me at the South Asian Literature and Arts Festival in Atherton. “I don’t think I can live with that.”
Two days later, Grover brought up this observation about Americans’ preference for water with ice during his stand-up comedy set at a show organized by the Masala Comedy Club in Campbell. The context? A hypothetical American passenger aboard an Air India flight licks the ice forming along the edge of the cabin door that was still open, even when the aircraft was at cruising altitude.
Comedy using headlines
The intrinsic absurdity of this scenario and other bizarre news headlines formed the crux of his set titled Fairy Tales, because “much of what is happening feels like a fairy tale in which the demons are winning.”
Back in India, Grover wears many hats: actor, lyricist, writer, and through his incisive brand of political comedy and poetry, an activist. When asked if his comedy will resonate just as strongly with diaspora audiences, he is confident that the sheer absurdity of the incidents in his set will appeal to Indian-American audiences too.
Sure enough, the capacity crowd was in splits from the moment he took the stage after entertaining opening acts by Masala Comedy Club regulars Neha Goyal and Ashok Vijay.
Grover derives much of the comedy from the news headlines themselves: pigeons suspected of being Pakistani spies, donkeys arrested for using marijuana, the widespread use of cow dung to fight COVID-19, and a scorpion found onboard an Air India flight.
But he also relies on his knack for connecting the quirks of life in the United States and in India, a winning tactic before a mostly first-generation immigrant audience who still have fresh memories of life in India. Listening to Grover talk about the culture shocks he was experiencing in the U.S. was a bittersweet reminder of my initial days in the country. I doubt I was alone.
Thoughts on the diaspora
While these points of connection are a reliable gambit for a seasoned comedian like Grover, he also noted a disconnect between India and the Indian diaspora in the U.S.
“I think they are all versions of Amrish Puri from Dilwaale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge,” he said of the Indian American demographic. Grover feels that many Indian-Americans – particularly the older generation – are like the patriotic patriarch from the hit Bollywood film are still in a bygone era, holding on to conservative and regressive values of Indianness. For Grover, this problematic disconnect manifests in support for right-wing politicians like Donald Trump and Vivek Ramaswamy, and overwhelming opposition to the caste bill. “I hope at some point, the law is passed,” he said.
Grover is clearly vocal about his political beliefs, and frequently takes aim at the political establishment in India through relatable, everyday situations. His bit about the Kafkaesque experience of trying to book a ticket on the Indian Railways’ website was the highlight of the set for me.
However, Grover also tempers his set with more personal material. One anecdote posits the hypothesis that Punjabi parents like his, often conflate expressions of anger and love, and end up inflicting generational trauma onto their offspring. He tells the story through the eyes of his 8-year-old self, painting a tender and nuanced portrait of family life in India that many in the audience could relate to.
South Asian stories in the spotlight
Grover’s set is a fine example of using stand-up comedy to paint a vivid picture of what life looks like in India, and the joys, frustrations, and absurdities that one must navigate to survive and thrive. His upcoming debut feature film All India Rank is a similar semi-autobiographical story about a 17-year-old boy who finds himself in the all-too-familiar IIT rat race. The film featured at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles 2023 (IFFLA) and will release in theaters early next year.
Grover believes that South Asians are in a unique position to educate the world about our cultures because South Asian narratives are enjoying a moment in the American zeitgeist right now. RRR’s Oscar nod, Joyland’s critical acclaim, Marvel’s first South Asian superhero, and TV hits like Never Have I Ever are milestones that have given other South Asian creatives access to a global platform.
“There have been a lot of Indian stories that have become global stories, but they are told by white people, from Gandhi to Slumdog Millionaire,” he said. “But we have to grab this opportunity this time and put our best stories forward. And I’m hopeful it will happen!”