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Interview: Omi Vaidya (Chatur of "3 Idiots")

 While vacationing in India and simultaneously pitching a script, NRI actor, director, editor Omi Vaidya happened to audition for "3 Idiots."

 Soon enough, he bagged the role of Chatur "Silencer" Ramlingam, as well as two prestigious Screen Awards for his performance. Quite a "chamatkaar," no? Below follows NRI Today correspondent Amanda Sodhi's interview with Omi Vaidya. Here he discusses his experience working in "3 Idiots," how it is being one of the few South Asian actors in the U.S. and much more. Read away!

You've acted in various television shows including "Arrested Development," "CSI" and "The Office." Being Indian, how hard is it to get acting offers in the United States?
Extremely hard! The competition is fierce and being South Asian, there is a limited amount of work you can go out for. I usually see the same 10-15 guys. And, trust me, they're all good.

Working in a Bollywood film must have been a huge change. Any initial shocks regarding how things function in Bollywood?
Any general observations about the differences in the way both industries operate? It's a very different industry. On-set, I rarely stayed in my vanity/trailer. I was either acting or prepping for a shot, or chatting with the cast and crew. Work gets done but at a different pace and step. It's not on the clock and lunch arrives when it does. Offset, I'm constantly taking meetings and developing relationships with future producers, directors and actors and meeting face to face with most journalists for print articles. Everything here is personal.

You've also directed two short films and have worked as an editor on various projects. Tell us a bit about that…
I graduated with Honors from NYU Tisch School of the Arts in Film and TV production in 2003, and my award winning thesis short film "Out of Time" went on to screen at 25 film festivals worldwide. My second short film "The Desert Rose" has also won audience awards. My directing also helped me get editing work. To date I have edited four feature films and numerous other projects. It's funny because my grandfather's brother was an editor of classic Indian films like "Ganga Jamuna" and "Guddi." I guess the bug still runs in the family.

How was it like working with Aamir, Sharman, Madhavan, Boman and Kareena?
I didn't know it at the time because of my involvement in my work but working with these fine actors was a dream. Each and every one of them was very grounded, down to earth and was extremely dedicated to the movie and the work.

Any funny incidents that happened on the sets that you'd like to share?
Here's one. Just before shooting the ragging/ hazing scene where I'm wearing the American flag underwear, I was doing an interview with the behind-the-scenes videographer when the costume designer came in and told me that there was a change in wardrobe. She said that Raj Kumar Hirani, the director, had decided not to go with American flag underwear. She gave me the new costume. It was a black thong with a shiny golden crotch pouch. My stomach turned inside out and I quietly asked to see Raju before the scene. When I saw him I got the courage enough to tell him I wasn't comfortable wearing it but he started laughing and told me it was a joke. Clearly the joke was on me. The Documentary Crew caught the whole moment and I suppose it'll show up on the DVD.

So did you keep up with Hindi films while in LA? Any favorite Bollywood flicks?
I've watched many Hindi and regional films but I don't keep up with it. Actually, before the shoot, Raj Kumar Hirani told me specifically to not watch Hindi movies. I guess I have to do some catching up now. The Indian films that come to mind are "Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam," "Padosan," "Mughal-E-Azam," and "Roja."

Did you watch Hirani's previous films before signing "3 Idiots?"
I had watched a little of Raju Hirani's first film, "Munna Bhai MBBS" but I was told not to watch any Hindi films so I took it quite seriously.

So how the heck did you land up in a Bollywood film anyway?
I was vacationing and pitching some of my script to Indian producers. My friend Supriya Kelkar, who works for VVC, told me about the audition.

Describe what happened at the audition?
My first audition lasted 30 seconds. They heard my Hindi, stopped me politely and showed me the door. They called me in again for a second audition, specifically for Chatur's role, but since there was no script, I performed a short speech from "Lage Raho Munna Bhai." They liked my accent, Hindi khichdi, and my ability to improvise. The third audition was in America. I did the chamatkaar speech and the drunk tank scene that follows.

Did you feel comfortable playing the role of a geek in the film?
I didn't judge Chatur as a geek or anything really. I just kept thinking of his desires and intentions and played him with those thoughts in mind. For me it was quite a serious character study, even though the outcome was comedic at times.

You've even won two Screen awards. Must feel awesome…
That's pretty unreal. I can't believe I am in such a big film let alone winning not one but two awards.

Did you feel upset at all that you had to put on so much weight around the time of your wedding?
I wasn't as upset as my wife. The weight was easily lost but the hairline and bald look were more of an issue before the wedding. But my wife, Minal, is very understanding woman—she'll probably read this, no but seriously— she knows that work is a blessing, especially in such a volatile business.

Tell us about Hirani's approach to direction?
Hirani trusts his team. This makes him very calm and relaxed on set. 

How did you prepare for your role?
Raju Hirani, Aamir Khan, Sharman Joshi, Madhavan, and I had script readings together where we fleshed out the story, relationships, and characters. I started to develop a vocal pitch, and walk, and objectives. Then I broke down my scenes into beats and inner monologues. Then I would memorize my dialogue 2-3 days before the scene and then just before we shot the scene, I would let go of all this work and just enjoy the scene/experience and be very open to any suggestions or “happy accidents” that appeared.

What were the most difficult scenes for you?
The most difficult scene for me was the drunk scene after the speech on top of the water tower. It was my most serious and angry scene and the scene is critical to the story and it serves as the bases for the second half of the story ten years later. I literally had to remove myself from the production 3 days before the shoot and start psychologically building my anger and resent toward the idiots. In real life, Aamir, Sharman and Madhavan had been so welcoming and friendly to me so I just had to leave and start resenting them. During that time, I would hear that they would go out for dinner and tell myself “why didn’t they invite me” and such things. After 3 days of this kind of prep, on the day of shoot I was in a terrible mood and clearly everyone could see I was not to be dealt with. Ironically, it was my birthday but it was only after the scene was over that everyone wished my happy birthday. It took me at least 2-3 days to get out of that depression after the shoot day. It wasn’t easy but I think the scene has some power in it because of the work I did.

Have you gotten any more Bollywood film offers yet?
I have been bombarded with offers from Bollywood but I’ve always been selective with my work. I don’t and probably can’t do every sort of role out there. And, most of the offers have been similar to Chatur in “3 Idiots” or something that isn’t very interesting to me. I am looking for good script where interesting things happen. And, challenging dynamic characters. I don’t mind independent films but they have to really make you sit up in your chair and say, now this is interesting!

Given your film school education, do you plan on directing or editing any films in India?
Yes, one day I definitely do plan on directing. But the acting career has taken off and for now I have to focus my attention there. I’m sure it will all come together in the future though.

Anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
I’d like to talk about being an Indian American. I grew up myself being one of the only Indians in an almost white community. In public I was trying to be like everyone else who was American, while in private I had a very colorful and rich Indian family and culture. Therefore, I myself, like many people who belong to more than one culture went through an identity crisis as a teenager. It wasn’t easy and at times was confusing. But because I went through the struggle of not belonging to neither one nor another, I finally came to understand that I didn’t have to be just one thing and therefore I embraced both of my cultures: my American sensibilities and my Indian upbringing. Now I feel that my identity is an interesting and special thing. I’d say it’s a chamatkaar, no?

All the best with your career. Film industry mei chamatkaar karte raho!

- [ BY AMANDA SODHI ]

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