Omi Vaidya. An overnight star in India. Known for his work in Hollywood on several prominent sitcoms, it was his award winning performance as Chatur that made everyone in India sit up and take note of his name. Before the premiere of Rajkumar Hirani’s record breaking blockbuster 3 Idiots, he was an unknown, but the moment that first show was over, he was the name on everyone’s lips and the voice ringing in everyone’s ears. His performance as Chatur was given rave reviews by critics, by the film fraternity and by fans. What was so impressive was the he completely disappeared into the character and was Chatur. Equally impressive was that he not only held his own with three of the best actors in cinema – Sharman Joshi, Madhavan and Aamir Khan, he even managed to steal some scenes. The extremely talented actor and very nice guy chatted to us recently about the journey that was 3 Idiots!
Tell us a bit about your work before 3 Idiots.
After graduation from New York University of Film and Television, I started to act in TV shows in America. I have been on TV shows like The Office, Arrested Development, Bones, Kath and Kim, Life, Better Off Ted. All very small, little roles, nothing major or anything. I did a lot of comedy and fun characters. After film school I also worked as an editor in a feature film and have directed a bit.
So how did you land the role in 3 Idiots?
The producer (Vidhu Vinod Chopra) and Raju often come to Michigan to have a big writing session with a group of writers. My friend Supriya Kelkar writes with Abhijat Joshi, one of the screenplay writers. They were auditioning for the film in LA. She knew that this audition was going on and said that there might be a role for me. I said, I don’t really think so, but I went in and auditioned. I got to meet the director and it was great, but they heard my Hindi and were like ‘thanks, thanks very much’. I wasn’t keen on Bollywood films anyway, because I don’t speak the language. I speak Marathi. The sensibilities were all very foreign to me. It was a different world, but it was good to experience that audition. I was just about to leave for LA and I got a second call from them for an NRI role. At first, they were auditioning me just generally; Chatur’s role hadn’t been written yet. I did a small speech from Lage Raho Munna Bhai, just to give them a taste of what I could do. They said to not worry about the Hindi and just give us what Omi can give. I did it all very, very carefree and like I was really confident, even though I did not know half the things I was saying. We also did a lot of improv, which they enjoyed. I myself come from an improv background. So after the second audition, I didn’t hear from them till a month later when I got called for a third audition. I had to go to New Mexico actually, because his associates are there. I did the speech scene for them, the scene where I’m drunk on top of the water tower, to show them I could do range and play both sides of the character. That is how it all happened.
How did you react to the news that you got the role?
I was very excited. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I didn’t really know who was in the film as much. All my agents and managers here were like, I can’t believe you are going there for six months – that’s crazy. Here everything is done with paperwork, but there it is: okay you are coming this month sometime, you know, don’t worry about anything, we will take care of you. I was bewildered and kind of wondering what was going to happen because I hadn’t worked in the industry, but I was really excited to be given such a decent sized role, which is very rare in America for a South Asian.
How was the experience of shooting the film?
The experience was great. Here, everything is cut and dry: contracts and hours and trailers, etc., which is nice and convenient, but there is a lack of a personal touch. There, it is sort of chaotic and you don’t know what will happen. You may shoot more than eight hours, it doesn’t really matter and breaks and lunches might be whenever they are. You’re not sitting in your vanity van (trailer), you are on sets, you are chatting with people, you are getting to know people, everything is much more casual and relaxed. It’s a better ground for an actor: to be friendly with people in the scene and have connections with characters. I was able to live the role of a student and I lived in the student dorms. It was very, very good and everyone treated me well. There were big stars on the sets, but I was given that sort of treatment of like, whatever you want – just don’t worry. I wasn’t like the second class sort of talent. They treated me just as well and it was really nice.
Speaking of the stars, how was it working with Aamir, Madhavan, and Sharman?
It was great! You know, in a way it was good that I wasn’t so knowledgeable about their credits. I of course know Aamir. It was good that I had been in the States and away from their crazy media frenzy and the public glorification of actors in India. So being away from that, I was like, they are just regular people and we’re doing our job, so I am not really going to be nervous or anything. I am just going to focus on my work. That really helped. It also opened them up to me because they were like, oh, this guy is just treating us normal, which is kind of rare for them.
How was it working with Rajkumar Hirani? Was it different to your other directors?
Most of my background is TV and commercial, and those things are just hectic. You don’t even know who the director is until you come on set for your shot. This was a completely different experience. It was very, very in depth. You got to know him, his personality. He didn’t really direct me as much as I was expecting, he just let me go free and told everyone to not correct my Hindi. He would just give me little pushes here and there. He’s a great director in that way, because he really assesses each actor and their needs. For me, I do the one take and then I can give you variety and I just throw out a bunch of different stuff. Other actors they need a lot of confidence building or input like, oh, was that good? Was that not? They need to see the monitor to see their take. I just go in there, I do my thing, I think of the character and I don’t look at the monitor to analyze what I did. I do it off the cuff, you know? He liked that and played a lot with it. For example, I would make a lot of mistakes in Hindi and he’d say ‘oh, that’s a good one, someone write that down!’ He left a lot of room for what we call happy accidents. He trusted the actors and the crew to do their job, but at the same time he knew exactly what he was doing.
You have gotten a huge response and raves for your performance. Did you expect that?
No, I did not. I was just hoping someone would recognize me as a good addition to a film with all these huge actors, but I totally wasn’t expecting this. When I went to the premiere I was like, okay, I know what I am going to say to the reporters on the red carpet, but I did not have any interaction with anybody. I just walked by like I was a guest because no one knew me, but when the screening actually finished it took me an hour and half to just get out of the theatre! People kept coming up to me saying ‘who are you’ or ‘what a great job you did’. It was phenomenal. It is some sort of different flavor that no one has seen in India, that sort of mixture of character is something no one has done before and hard to replicate for born and raised actors in India. So, I guess that’s why they really enjoyed it. It was all rather crazy. I won some Screen awards! It’s out of this world! It couldn’t have been better as a career thing!
I kind of feel like Chatur the character, and also my rise is because of the way that not only Bollywood but Indian citizens have become global, so characters like Chatur are becoming more relatable. Indians who don’t speak Hindi as well still relate to this culture that is becoming more common. In general, Bollywood movies are having a broader message outside of India. I think that is all really exciting and I am really excited to be were I am right now.
It seems like Bollywood is really reaching even further into the world and maybe a couple of years ago your role and even the movie would not have been as well accepted.
Yes, it wouldn’t have been accepted. It is just a matter of time before it really blows up. I am pretty sure there is going to be some sort of Indian project in Hollywood that it just going to blow up very soon.
What was the best compliment that you received?
I think the best compliment wasn’t one that I actually received. My mother was at the premiere sitting behind Shabana Azmi and someone said, ‘That’s Chatur’s mom!’. At the end of the movie she walked up to my mom and said, ‘Yes, your son there, he was the best’ and then walked away. I was like whoa, that’s pretty great! The best compliment from the audience is just the excitement they get from seeing the character. They don’t see Omi, they just see Chatur, and that means that I have really gotten into that character and that is all they can see now.
We hear you’re coming back to India. Any other projects lined up?
Yes, I am supposed to be doing commercials as well as hosting a smaller awards show. I am taking meetings as to what that first film is going to be. I have to make that decision correctly because everyone has seen what a good job I have done, so now I have to create something a little longer and better. At the same time I am getting a lot of auditions here in the States; it is pilot season here. So, you never know what is going to happen. I might land a job here and then work there, too. I don’t think it’ll hurt to do that and I feel it’ll all come together, so it is good.
It certainly will be hard to live up to the standard Omi has set for himself with his performance of Chatur in his very first Bollywood film. We hope to see the talented actor return to Bollywood and give us more and more memorable performances. We will be there to applaud him, and wish him the best of luck!