When Vidur Kapur emerges from behind the curtain at Museum Theatre in his silver-studded Louboutin sneakers, the audience’s unruffled response seems to unnerve him. He attempts a second entrance, and this one goes a little better – still, the New York-based, Delhi-raised openly gay comedian doesn’t disguise his apprehension. He tests the waters with a couple of tepidly polite Tambrahm jokes, and gingerly eases his way into an oeuvre of material revolving mostly around his sexuality, family and ethnicity… and warms up when he realises that contrary to what he had been led to expect, in Chennai, the audience was already on his side.
In conversation the day after the show, he admits that Chennai surprised him: “I was actually quite impressed with the openness here because everybody was like ‘Chennai’s so conservative, Chennai’s so conservative’. I realized the moment I got on stage that this audience was cold, I wouldn’t hit the ground running with them. They were reserved – ‘let’s see how you’re going to win us over’. But even the really edgy jokes got an enormous response. They were willing to go with it if it was funny.” Furthermore – in the audience were numerous members of the LGBT community, and the evening concluded with a special fashion show by transgendered models. This was also the only Indian city (Kapur has toured Delhi, Hyderabad and Kolkata in the past few weeks as part of The Park’s New Festival) in which members of the audience responded in the affirmative when he asked if anyone gay was present.
His amazement is understandable, given his difficult history with this country. Kapur’s honours now include a nomination for a “NewNowNext” award from MTV networks, being named one of India Tribune’s “Top 31 Personalities of Indian Americans”, and appearances in a variety of major American TV networks, including NBC, FOX, MTV and VH1. But when he first left India to pursue tertiary studies, he did so having been deeply traumatised by his experience of being a gay teenager in India. “When I began to comprehend my sexuality, it had a horribly depressing effect on me. I communicated it to my parents and they were very disapproving. I was extremely flamboyant in school and it created a lot of hostility and hatred toward me. So when I got a scholarship to go to Wales, I left very battered, and at that young age, I made the decision to never never return to India.”
He survived at least two suicide attempts during this time.
Still, moving to the West did not solve all his problems. “Because of my experience in India, I decided to go back into the closet, and buried myself in academia so as to get all the approval that I had been denied while growing up,” he continues. He went to LSE and the University of Chicago, then threw himself into the corporate world for many years, again suffering a series of emotional breakdowns. “You have people who are closeted artists and photographers and so on,” he says. For this reason, he sees “coming-out” not as a one-time thing, but as a process by which one emerges as an individual, regardless of sexual orientation. In his case, this meant acceptance of himself first as a gay man, and then as a performer.
The turning point came for Kapur when he saw famed comedian Margaret Cho’s show, I’m The One That I Want. Cho, like him, struggled with various issues, including her sexuality, body dysmorphia and being from a racial minority in America. “It was really about her owning who she is and reclaiming herself as a person,” says Kapur of his inspiration. “It moved me. It was what made me want to do stand-up comedy. It was funny but it was also more.”
Almost in pattern with the pain out of which his individuality emerged, his career also began on a double-edged note. The first comedy class he took was on the day before 9/11 – “and there was this strange experience of New York being in shambles and nobody being able to laugh the next day”.
But this surreal scenario dovetails quite perfectly into Kapur’s life story, for this a comedian who isn’t afraid to be very serious in person, who doesn’t mind letting an audience see his trepidation, and whose own path has been marked with severe depression, about which he is unblinkingly open. Regardless of how one takes his comedy routine – which has its highs and lows, and a fluctuating energy – it’s difficult not to admire his courage.
Kapur’s experiences of alienation, struggle and eventual success seemed tailor-made for sex columnist Dan Savage’s new “It Gets Better” campaign, which endeavours to reach despairing gay teens lacking support within their own communities via the wonders of Youtube. Young people are also one of his primary audience demographics – he is one of the most popular comedians on the American college circuit, and has performed at over 150 campuses around the USA. Asked what he would say if he was a contributor to Savage’s campaign, he acknowledged, “It definitely is true that it gets better. As you get older, you realize that nothing is permanent. Rejection from family and from friends is not permanent. You can get past it. You have the power to create your own life.”
“I was born in India as one of the ‘haves’,” admits Kapur. “So I had the luxury to go abroad. Those who don’t have the wherewithal to do that will have a much harder struggle. But if you hang in there and have hope and faith you can get through it. Pain and joy are a part of life. But there is also joy, and great things to be attained.”
Now happily settled in New York City with his longtime partner, fully ensconced in an entertainment career that takes him all over the world, Vidur Kapur is not just one face of a changing diaspora – a diaspora that has permeated the American media in such a way as to also give us the likes of Russell Peters, Mindy Kaling, Vijai Nathan and Kal Penn – but also a reflection of a changing India. The teenaged Kapur might never have been able to imagine the laughs and warm reception that his performance in Chennai received last week, but the fact that it did is both evidence of our increasingly more open hearts and minds, and a portent of hope for all the closeted people out there – gay or otherwise.
An edited version appeared in today’s Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express.