Ever so often we come across posts lamenting how talented actors playing side characters in movies get overlooked because commercially bigger names make sure the spot light stays on them throughout the run time. But man, this write-up is as away from that concept as it can possibly get! I mean, how often do you watch a movie in which, despite the presence of big ticket names, it is the side character that stays etched in your memory even nearly a decade after its release? The answer is – not so often. Pretty obvious then why “Chatur” from 3 Idiots is still one of the major reasons to rewatch the Rajkumar Hirani film.
Omi Vaidya is also one of the biggest reasons for you to finally create a Netflix account, and stop mourning his long absence from screen. He is back with Brown Nation (an eccentric Indian sitcom which released on November 15, 2016 in 190 countries and has an IMDb rating of 8.2), and you can also catch his overnight journey to Bollywood stardom in Big in Bollywood (IMDb rating 8.4)
Is it weird that I expected him to speak in that unmistakable Ugandan accent on the other side of the line? Anyway, at the end of a forty minute conversation with Omi, there were two things I realised – one, I have immense self-restraint (you’ve got no idea how difficult it was to keep myself from requesting him to perform that ridiculously funny speech from 3 Idiots!); two, behind the funny-man persona we are so accustomed to, Omi is one intelligent actor/editor with a very deep understanding of the responsibility of entertainment media toward society.
You are a big name in Bollywood! How different is working on the small screen from working on the big screen?
“Working in movies is a luxurious experience – you get to travel to exotic places and hang out with famous actors. You get a lot of retakes. But television is more exciting and gives that immediate gratification – one doesn’t have to wait for its release for months or even years as is the case with movies. Also, we do not get that much time to practice; the script is given to us a couple of days before the shoot and the process is swifter.
Working in the U.S. is much different than working in India in the sense that I don’t come with any baggage here; no one recognises me from my 3 Idiots fame. That way people don’t expect just a certain kind of performance from me, I fight it out like any other person here.”
In a time when most Indian actors working in a foreign industry are trying to break stereotypes, why did you choose to play roles that perpetuate this concept of the goofy Indian?
“There is a time and place to break stereotype, and sometimes venturing into full blown comedy requires playing into the stereotype. There is so much confusion and contention between different races in this country right now; things are specially difficult for immigrants. A well considered representation within the realms of comedy of certain traits characteristic to foreigners makes them more relatable. To a certain extent, it alleviates the misconceptions surrounding them which otherwise make their neighbours restive in their presence.”
Brown Nation was speculated to be released by Star Plus, but they back-peddled. Why do you think that happened?
“Shows like Brown Nation are considered too American in India, and too Indian in America – therefore neither the Indian channels nor the American channels were open to buying it. But when it was released via Netflix in 190 different countries the reviews revealed the great appetite the global audience had for such content. A lot of people from Japan, Russia, etc., never visited India, but are curious about its culture, and they get a piece of that from these unconventional shows that are so widely different from the saas-bahu dramas that you get to see on Indian television, something even the Indian audience is tired of.”
Having worked in the film industry of both India and USA, what is one major difference you have observed in the way movies are made in the two countries?
“There is far more variety here than in India. There are black movies, gay movies – theatres that screen only a specific genre, and the audience size for these is very significant. The trend commonly seen in Bollywood is that if a movie has a star actor, or is a multi-starrer, it tends to do well in the box office over a movie which might have a better script but lesser known faces. Often the public really misses out on quality films that are made but never released – a lot of documentaries, art films.”
When do you think that will change?
“Change begins internally. Only when the audience decides to buy tickets to low budget quality films as well will the producers start investing in them. A shift in the entire climate of film making will be even more evident if people choose to forego the mainstream masala movies altogether. I believe media has a responsibility toward what it puts out to the society – 3 Idiots did that and became a super hit, as did some of the movies I grew up watching like Pather Panchali by Satyajit Ray, and Dev Anand’s Guide. So many good movies were made in that era, possibly because movies thrived on the word of mouth. People went to the theatre when they were convinced a movie was worth watching, and not just to kill time.”
“I believe media has a responsibility toward what it puts out to the society. So many good movies were made in that era (of Satyajit Ray and Dev Anand)… People went to the theatre when they were convinced a movie was worth watching, and not just to kill time.”
What’s keeping you busy now?
“I’m working on several projects actually – acting, editing, making independent movies. Metropark (a sitcom series) will release early this year. It has a really interesting plot about two Indian couples settled in the U.S., one of whom has not adopted the Indian culture, and the other deeply entrenched in it. The cast is amazing and has names like Ranvir Shorey and Purbi Joshi, and is mainly shot in New Jersey which can be called the Indian capital in the United States. Some Indians staying here, even after 10-15 years, don’t know any English, and Diwali is more popular in Christmas in this part of the country!
That apart, there is an independent movie I have written about the first Indian American who was voted into the American congress way before the Civil Rights Movement; I’ve taken up several projects as an editor as well.”
When will you be back to Bollywood?
“Pretty soon, actually. The movie is going to be a thriller, something I haven’t done yet.”