Sunday, January 8, 2012

Omi Vaidya: Outsider in Bollywood (The Silencer Special)

For previous entries in this series, please check the index.

No matter how many times I hear Omi Vaidya’s story, it never gets old. An American guy, in Mumbai for a visit, decides almost on a whim to try out for a Bollywood film. The director loves him and signs him on for a large role despite the fact that the guy speaks no Hindi and his biggest acting roles to date have been on American television. That movie turned out to be one of the biggest blockbusters of all time - 3 Idiots - and the role of Chatur Ramalingam (aka The Silencer) turned out to be life changing for Omi Vaidya.

Omi very kindly took the time during his visit home to California to speak with me about his past films, upcoming films, and, well, just films in general.

Raised in a very white, very rural part of California, Omi grew up loving film but knowing nothing about Bollywood. He dove right into the world of acting as a teenager, attending a special high school for the arts, but discovered acting isn’t exactly a meritocracy. “I was always the side character or the comedy guy.” Omi pauses. “Kind of like I am now – which is fine and everything – but when you’re like a serious actor who’s been heavily trained, you get really kind of tired of being put in that hole.”

Omi’s path out of that hole was directing. “There were fewer limitations [behind the camera] and it didn’t matter what you looked like, whether you were short or tall or brown or living in America – those things matter as an actor,” explains Omi. So, he enrolled at the University of California in Santa Cruz for filmmaking and began exploring all different types of cinema. “I watched so many movies – Japanese New Wave, European New Wave...” Unsurprisingly to Filmi Girl, Omi’s film school studies included very little Indian film outside of some Satyajit Ray and the occasional clip from a Raj Kapoor film.

From Santa Cruz, Omi ended up at New York University where his (award-winning, he points out) student film opened a few doors in Hollywood. After graduation he began working as a film editor but, as Omi found out, for every film-editing job in Los Angeles are people with more money and better connections (and maybe more talent) to take it. “I went back to acting because that was my easy money, actually, and then 3 Idiots happened but I never wanted to give up on directing.”

But 3 Idiots did happen and Omi’s life took a turn he never would have expected - from aspiring director to playing the side character and comedy guy. In Hindi. Luckily for us, he had some filmmaker friends there with him to document the transition. The result was Big in Bollywood. (You can watch the trailer here.)

“I had these friends from Santa Cruz who are documentary filmmakers and they had a friend in Nepal. When they happened to mention, ‘Our friend is in India shooting a film with Aamir Khan’ the friend in Nepal was like, ‘WHAT?! THIS IS CRAZY!’” Omi does the voice in the equivalent of all caps. “So they knew this was something special."

“They were like, ‘We’re going to come with you during 3 Idiots. You’re going to be famous.’"

"I was like, ‘You’re out of your mind.’"

"‘No, we’re going to tape you before you’re famous and then after you’re famous.’"

"And I was like, ‘Okay… you don’t really have a story here – whatever.’"

"But their prediction came true and they got that moment when someone becomes famous. They got it and they got everything after it.”

Omi’s disbelief that this story actually happened to him is still palpable. “They also got the fandamonium, which I don’t think most non-Indians... they can’t understand, they haven’t really seen it. I went on tour with Aamir Khan and all the ‘Idiots’ for like six cities and we’d get like 30-40,000 people there. They’re running after the bus and they’re almost breaking the bus. It’s something to see. They got all that footage and put it together and made a documentary.”

And here is the thing to keep in mind about Omi: while others in his position might get caught up in the stardom and paid appearances and television spots and people chasing after their buses, he is using his new visibility in the industry to try and get his directorial debut funded because he never did give up on directing. “I’ve basically taken my thesis film from NYU, which is sort of a ghost story with a weird twist ending, and I’ve elongated it and put in Bollywood themes like a love triangle and two little songs and I’m pitching it to producers.” Filmi Girl loves how he casually drops the words ‘ghost story with a weird twist ending’ but doesn’t want to potentially spoil herself for his as-yet unmade film.

Omi might be thinking of films he has seen from the ground level as he continues. “I really feel like a lot of Bollywood films tend to focus on the actors and the music and put the story on the end because people just want to be entertained. But you can entertain people and give them something to think about and give them some really good films. Original content… original scripts are very important. I feel like story is even more important than star actors but producers are like investors, they want the lowest risk possible. They can’t really judge scripts but they can judge actors and say, ‘This actor has gotten us this much so the risk is less.’ That’s how they do things in India but they do it [in Hollywood], too. That’s why there are so many sequels.”

And as for Omi’s film? “It’s got to be done right and correctly, with the right marketing. So, it will take a little time but I’m really excited about that because then it doesn’t really matter what I look like or what my accent is – it just matters about whether the audience likes it or not. I still believe that if you do something good, something great, you can really capture an audience and word of mouth will travel.”

“I’m going to start small and if it works, keep going.” The passion in his voice is unmistakable. “It’s going to be a lot harder than I thought but it’s going to be good. Anything good is usually hard.”

If there are two themes that you hear from Omi, it’s this dedication to the art of filmmaking and the constant awareness of his position as an outsider – no matter where he goes. Bollywood is notoriously clannish, with family connections and friendships running deep through the industry. The children of yesteryear’s stars who are now in the industry aren’t just connected by fame but many have known each other since they were very young. Entering that world from the outside must be like trying to fit in at somebody else’s high school reunion.

When I ask about working with all the star children on his most recent film, the official remake of The Italian Job titled Players - star children being one of Filmi Girl’s many areas of intense curiosity – Omi just laughs. “Star children. Nice.” He takes a few seconds to figure out how to answer and decides to begin at the beginning. “When [directors] Abbas-Mustan first offered me the role [in Players] I had just seen Race. I was expecting worse but I was quite impressed with how easily the film moved and with the action. And they were able to make some of those star children really act well, so I was quite happy but I had these thoughts, ‘Oh… Abhishek Bachchan, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Sonam Kapoor these guys are going to be sort of spoiled brats’ or something like that but, when I met them, they were totally cool and totally with it and joking around! We had a lot of fun!”

“We shot like 80 days in New Zealand and Russia, so we were around each other a lot and it was kind of nice being around those people when they’re not in their world - which is their starry world. Like – in New Zealand, Russia, their blackberries don’t work! We didn’t even have Internet! So immediately they aren’t stars anymore, they’re just regular people and you can just bond with them about regular stuff. We played cards and just had a lot of fun. We were always in each other’s trailers having a lot of fun.”

So, Omi didn’t feel the burden of being the outsider? “No… and it was actually kind of good being the outsider because Abhishek would be like, ‘Oh, I just lost 3 kgs’ and I would be like, ‘Oh, Abhishek, it’s just from your ego.’ And everybody would laugh and he would laugh but if someone from the inside club did that, it would be offensive. But someone who doesn’t know anything about him, who’s just fooling around… hold on, I’ve got to take a photo.”

Omi is giving this interview from the mall while his wife is shopping and has just been stopped for a photograph. I tell him I’m going to keep this part in – being asked for a photo while he was talking about how he’s not filmi.

“No problem!” Omi laughs. “Yeah, it happens. 3 Idiots, specifically 3 Idiots is still in the psyche of people and will continue to be. It’s really great - regardless of whether I continue to do Bollywood movies or not that experience and the appreciation is really nice.”

Now where were we… the filmi world of star children. “So, yes, it was totally fun hanging out with them.”

And how it’s not all that bad to be the outsider sometimes. “I felt a little special,” Omi says, honestly, “because here was a bunch of stars’ kids that they’re doing well now but the opportunity they got was definitely because they were somebody’s kids and then here was me and Bipasha Basu, the only two that had worked their way up or gotten lucky or whatever. I felt a little lucky and a little special.”

Omi wants to make one thing clear, though, and it’s something that it’s easy to forget when reading through gossip magazines. “They were really all very nice - whatever we hear, whatever we think of their acting is a different ball game but for people of that sort of stature, they could have been a lot more nasty and they weren’t. They were totally cool. Maybe it was because I didn’t care; I didn’t give them any of that special treatment and they appreciated that.”

In other words, Omi treated them like normal people, not stars. “YEAH! So, I made fun of them like I make fun of everyone else. And I think they liked that; that this guy’s not star struck.”

At this point Filmi Girl decides to bring up the interview where Neil Nitin Mukesh called Omi ‘naughty.’ “I am,” he says. “I’m very naughty. We’re on set and it can be very, very boring at times.” He digs for an example. “Like Bipasha has a bikini scene coming up so she’s trying to lose weight and she’s very tensed up and – I don’t have a bikini shot – I will bring all of the food that I love and I will sit right next to her and start eating all of it and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to eat this garlic toast’ and I’ll put it on her plate.”

“But I do it equally. Anyone that can take a joke I try to give it back, because that’s how I show my friendship. I love playing with people and teasing them. If I find out that they can take a joke and they’re not too serious, then we start having a lot of fun.”

“That’s how you’ve got to live life. You can’t take this stuff too seriously. It’s literally a fluke that I got into this stuff and sometimes I think it’s a farce that people come up to me and think the world of me but I’m doing my job as much as I can, like any bank manager or anybody else and I don’t feel like I need to be honored to another level just because of that. I’m having a great time and I will continue doing that regardless. This is my life – it’s much more important than the ups and downs of career.”

Filmi Girl wonders if Omi has a cautionary tale in mind as he continues. “People get so worried about things they have no control over and it becomes their demise. Even if they’re still working, it’s never good enough for them anymore. It’s never good enough. And even if they do succeed, they’ll want something more. It’s constant. I’m just happy to be able to do what I’m doing and I’ll continue to strive to do really good work.”

Moving back to the work in front of us. Players. And, most importantly, what was it like working with Johnny Lever? “It was great because it was like seeing the past 20 years of comedy right in front of me - a total different style. Maybe some of the people our age don’t get it as much but the light men and all of the secondary crew of the film… they just speak Hindi; they don’t like New Zealand food, they just eat Indian food; and anything that came out of [Johnny Lever’s] mouth was just gold. They loved it.”

And is Neil Nitin Mukesh really as super intense as he comes across in interviews? “Super intense?” Omi repeats the phrase. “He was definitely intense while he was shooting but… ah... He’s a easy guy to knock down but he’s a nice guy. And he tries hard. He was a little antisocial at times probably because he’s the bad guy in the film and I can respect that because when I was the bad guy in 3 Idiots I definitely tried to stay away from those guys because I didn’t want to be their friend.”

Because then he would have to turn around and be mean to them?

“Yeah, why fake-act when I could just hate them in real life until the film is over and then it’s so much easier.” Omi laughs. He’s being naughty.

Players released this weekend but we’ll be seeing Omi in a couple of films next year. First up is Jodi Breakers, the trailer of which just released and you can view here.

Players has been exciting for me but I’m already on to the next film which is Jodi Breakers with Madhavan and Bipasha, which is going really great. It’s just a small film we don’t have the studio involved so they can really do what they want. And it’s going to do well.”

This will be Omi’s second film with Bipasha. “I have a lot of respect for her because of where she’s come from. She’s much more driven than most of them. And, on top of that, I just torture the woman with jokes and everything and she takes it all in stride. She laughs and she lives life to the fullest and it’s great.”

There is also the remake of Satte Pe Satta which has been rumored for a quite a while. Is that still happening? “Yeah, that’s happening but it keeps getting pushed. It was supposed to start in January or February but now it’s been supposedly pushed to April. I have signed on, Sanjay Dutt with Soham Shah directing - those are at least the things I know for now.” And now we know, too! “It will be a little different for me – set in the middle of a village. I usually try to take things that will make me slightly uncomfortable because I don't want to do the same thing over again. When I know it’s going to be a little uncomfortable and it’s not what I’m used to, it should probably be something I should do.”

Omi wouldn’t be Omi if he didn’t leave us on a philosophical note. “You know, I might fail. I definitely might fail in one of these films and people might hate me but that doesn’t mean it was a bad experience and not worth trying. I learn a lot more from my failures than my successes.”

Success or failure, I wish Omi all the best in his Bollywood adventures – and I’ll be waiting for that ghost story with the ‘weird twist ending’ to come to my local multiplex.

You can catch Omi now in your local theater in Players - or if you’re in China, in 三個傻瓜 [3 Idiots] which is currently tearing up the box office. Jodi Breakers will release on the desi circuit later this year and, if we’re lucky, Big In Bollywood will be picked up for distribution in the West.


maxqnz said...

Great interview as always. He comes across as a really nice guy, except when he was talking pure bakvaas about NZ's lack of technology. "their Blackberries don't work, we didn't even have Internet!" That would be news to the thousands of Kiwi Blackberry users, and the millions who access the Internet daily. Players shot in NZ's capital (home of Weta Digital, who would be sunk without their FAT pipes) then in its largest city, both home to many Crackberries, and decent (if expensive) Internet access. That sort of "we were in the 3rd world" hyperbole is especially disappointing when it comes from someone who seems as grounded and real as he does.

Filmi Girl said...

@maxqnz I'm 99.999999% sure he didn't mean it like that. I assumed it had to do with shooting in rural areas and/or Indian SIM cards not working and/or just not having the same technologies while traveling that one does at home.

Bastard Keith said...

Superb interview. One of the most enjoyable pieces of yours outside the Box Office Poison series (which remains my sentimental favorite). He's a delightful, candid interviewee and you actually touch on a broader range of subjects than I'd anticipated. Bravo.

Filmi Girl said...

@bastardkeith Thanks so much!! :D

I love doing these pieces and am grateful for everybody that is willing to speak with me candidly.

It's a lot of work but I think it's worth it to reveal something about the people and projects that we wouldn't otherwise see... like the stuff about Johnny Lever cracking up the light guys or how Omi was conscious of who could joke with Abhishek and who couldn't.

Bastard Keith said...

Absolutely, on all counts. I find very little revealing about the usual star press rodeos (excepting the occasional batshit remark from SRK, or NNM's beautifully unselfconscious eruptions). This guy's a real character whose eyes, in many ways, are as fresh as any of ours.

Also, it's again made obvious why Abhi keeps working: everyone seems to LIKE him.

As cruel as it was, the Bipasha Basu anecdote cracked me up.

eliza bennet said...

It is such a pleasure to read that Abhishek seems to be similar to his entertainment persona. A real nice guy (which is something you'd think would be ordinary but in reality a bit hard to find).

Sal said...

I love this interview so, so much, I keep coming back and reading it. I've had a soft spot for Omi since his appearance on The Office, and he was HILARIOUS in 3 Idiots. I hope he gets to make his movie.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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