Vihaan Samat Interview
Unlike what his first role tends to make you believe, Vihaan Samat, who played an Indian-origin American in Mismatched, is a quintessentially Mumbai boy. "Every time I meet someone I speak in Hindi a little bit, just to show them that I have no accent. So now I try to steer clear of characters who are American," he says. His latest project in Mumbai, a theatre piece called THIS IS U.S. is perhaps closer to reality. It is a collection of three acts that talk about the ties between Indians and Americans, in which Samat performs a monologue about his time as a college student in New York. He has co-written THIS IS U.S. with Akarsh Khurana, who runs AKVarious Productions.

 By Neha Shende

"I was coming back from Himachal, from a boys' trip. And he (Akarsh) messaged me at the airport saying, 'Hey, I need something funny, something about the U.S., about 10-12 minutes.' And I sent him a bunch of monologues that I had taken from different books, XYZ. He said, 'Yeah, I don't know if this will work. You want to write something?' I said, 'Sure why not?!' And I just tried writing a bunch of stuff that I'd thought about earlier and actually I'd done stand-up 3-4 times in the U.S. So I had a couple of bits that I knew worked with audiences. So I put those together, added more stuff in. Tried to make it more about India and the U.S. as opposed to being just about the U.S. And then we came up with that stand-up kind of piece in THIS IS U.S."

Akarsh guided him along the way, says Samat. "he added punch lines in certain places where there was too much explanation and insight and there wasn't enough time for a release...Obviously, all the experiences are mine, but Akarsh has a way of making them sound very eccentric."
He didn't want to do a skit like the other two pieces in the collection. After doing stand-up in New York, he knew some of the parts had worked with live audiences along with interactions and felt it would be easier to just talk to them directly in the form of a monologue. "Also, there are about 6-7 experiences in there. It'll be too hard to stage, there'll be too many actors, too much stuff going on. It'll be like two minutes, then I move on to a different setting, then another. Now there's a way to do it. There's this Canadian performance artiste Robert Lepage. In his play 887, He takes the audience through the way he grew up and he makes a small-sized model of his apartment, and he goes through here and there are lights and magic and there's a way to do it, but Prithvi House doesn't have that kind of structure," Samat explains.

"Now we weren't making some crazy, futuristic, immersive theatre piece, right? I have to just get in there, get a few laughs, explain to them what's going on and talk about my life. And at the end of the day, this is about me going through things and stuff happens to me, so it just felt better to do as a stand-up comedy piece. Also, crowd work is fun. After a while, it gets really fun. Each performance becomes fresh and it doesn't feel like you're watching something, it feels like you are a part of something."

Samat is also part of another AKVarious play with a significant amount of crowd work and audience interaction -- THERE'S SOMETHING IN THE WATER, adapted from Henrik Ibsen's AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE. In one part of the play, a stand-up comic speaks the truth to the government. The portion transforms for a while into a real stand-up piece where the character begins to interact with the theatre audience. "Chaitanya (Sharma, one of the two actors who portrays the comic) is a beautiful performer. The ease with which he carries himself on stage is incredible, especially, in front of 150 people doing a stand-up routine of that magnitude and really gripping them. I think I learnt a lot from him in terms of how to experiment and how to stick with what works, when to do what," Samat says.

He says he also learnt from Adhaar Khurana, along with whom he portrayed the role of Armaan -- a PR executive who works for the government -- in the play. Due to scheduling issues, several of the characters in THERE'S SOMETHING IN THE WATER were done by two actors who would switch depending on the date of the performance. "The skeleton has to be the same of course. The attitude, the characterisation, have to be the same. But sometimes the jokes vary. I mean something that lands for me will be different from what lands for him. Sometimes Adhaar will speak more in Hindi, I would just continue in English. I would sometimes take jokes that landed for him and put them in mine and he did the same. So we kept growing, it's actually quite fun. And it's nice to be able to sit in the audience and see the reaction to the whole play.”

What people find funny changes from one country to another and Samat says that's why he changed some of the jokes while performing the monologue in Mumbai. "There's this Air India bit that I do, right? And I say, 'So the guy says, "if you'd like any further clarification, you can email us on our website (points to his right)"' In the U.S. I did that, they chuckled. I went on to say, 'Like the website was that way?!' Another chuckle. 'Take a left, take a right, there's a door. You just say Jai Ho and it'll open,' and that killed the audience. Because white audiences, you say Jai Ho and they're immediately like 'Oh my God, India! What a smart comic.' You say it here, it doesn't work. Because Jai Ho is like, okay I mean move on, you know? What works here is, 'Everyone is either Indian -- or South Indian.' That really works. If I did that in the U.S., no one would understand what the hell I'm talking about. So you have to try and experiment and see what works for different audiences. It took me actually the first 3-4 shows, I was still trying to figure out which jokes were landing."

In the stand-up space, Samat is a Bill Burr fan. "I feel like he has a certain way of -- see stand-up comedy at the end is holding attention, holding power and convincing people in a way. Because when you laugh, you subconsciously agree with something. And I think he has a strange way of being incredibly abrasive but also managing to get by, by saying the craziest sh*t. Like I was seeing a stand-up bit of his where he found a blind guy in the audience and just went at him for five minutes. But everyone was laughing, including the blind guy himself. And that's just a masterpiece because, at the end of the day, it's all laughter, it's all jokes, it's all about happiness, you know? It's not about putting someone down. I think that's what he really does well." Samat goes on to mention Biswa Kalyan Rath, Tanmay Bhat and Azeem Banatwalla among more of his favourites.

When it comes to writing, Samat holds some playwrights in high regard. "I really like Arthur Miller. I really like David Mamet a lot. I like how Mamet takes into consideration how humans speak language. What often happens is, play language seems a bit too constructed. And Mamet says, 'F**k all that.' He says that people speak in different ways and we gotta put that in."

Will Samat write more? He says he enjoys writing because it's a blueprint of what's to come, but for now, he's more eager to act. "I have realised, I wake up every day saying, I really want to act, be on set, read a script and f**king do it. I don't necessarily wake up every day saying, oh I can't wait to write a new page. Maybe one day that will change, you never know."
He is not the type of actor who will read his lines closer to D-Day in an attempt to keep things fresh. That can be learnt in training, he says, "how to make it pop". Samat tells me about what Al Pacino once said during a talk he attended while in acting school and slips into an Italian American accent: "He said: 'In my 50 years I have learnt that if you learn the lines and you know them, they really set you free.' And everyone in the audience was nodding. When you learn the lines, you don't have to think about it. can focus your attention on other things like the emotion, what you're getting from your partner, what other things are happening around you. But, to each their own."

*Neha Shende is an avid theatre-goer and enjoys watching old Bollywood movies in her free time.

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