Growing up as the only Bollywood obsessed one in my friend group was something I didn’t quite mind, as hard as it got to not speak of Shahrukh Khan’s man bun and chiseled abs every three minutes. The ultimate surprise though, was when not too long ago, my Caucasian friends approached me to inquire about Rajkumar Hirani’s “3 Idiots,” a film with more than 36 awards and much acclaim that continues to light India and beyond on fire since its release in 2009.
This week’s episode of “American Desis” featured the spirit of the film, Omi Vaidya, who starred as Chatur Ramalingum, a.k.a. “The Silencer.” In this episode, Vaidya covers a variety of topics that range from his identity crisis as an Indian-American to the time he was served tea by Aishwarya Rai.
To everyone’s surprise, Vaidya grew up in Yaca Valley, Calif., in a region known as Joshua Tree—where there were no Indians. He arrived there due to his radiologist father’s search for a steady job, but was, unfortunately, met with much racism due to ignorance. In fact, Vaidya recalls many racist remarks toward his father at the supermarket, who was often asked if he owned a 7/11 gas station. Although he lived a sheltered life in a private school with a decent amount of desis, he made the decision to leave shortly after his realization that he was simply living in a bubble.
After consulting his parents, he decided to test out of the eighth grade and entered a new world—high school. There, he recounts being called crude (yet nonsensical) nicknames such as “beef jerky boy” and “cherry squishy.” His methods of coping with the constant bullying he endured during his adolescence entailed joining theater to become “that Indian guy.”
He later went on to pursue improv and stand up, where he challenged typical Indian stereotypes with lines such as, “I had an arranged marriage—it was arranged by my wife.”
When questioned on his relation to India, he thinks for a bit then muttered, “I did go to India, but I didn’t want to go to India.”
As a child, he remembered much of the slow paced family life that dominated India before ‘93 and looking back, he attributes his impressive performance in “3 Idiots” to these dreaded visits.
When Vaidya looked back to his college years, he remembered his deviation and disdain of the Indian culture.
“I didn’t want to be Indian at the time…only after ‘3 Idiots’ did things like that become a value,” he said.
He avoided Indian students, events, and culture—and to this day, explained his preference for American food.
“I even went to a college further away from my parents to distance myself [from Indian culture]” he admitted. “I would always run away because I didn’t appreciate anything that was Indian.”
Once Vaidya graduated, he did minor roles in American hit shows such as “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation,” but then focused his attention on pitching film ideas in India. He was in Bombay when he got a phone call from a friend in L.A. requesting he audition for “3 Idiots.”
Because he was sure he would not get the job, Vaidya decided to go for the experience. There, he spent four hours rehearsing his lines and even went for lunch with the team—it was then that they learned he had never even seen Bollywood films and didn’t know much Hindi. This made it even odder for him to get a callback, where he was asked to reiterate a speech excerpt from director Hirani’s prior film, “Lagey Raho Munna Bhai.”
Although the crew and cast loved him and offered him a contract for one year and a half, Vaidya and his agent agreed to decline the role as the pay was low and to Vaidya, Bollywood wasn’t much of an industry. After much convincing, Vaidya agreed to the film and became very dedicated to enhancing his performance.
“I changed the way I look: gained weight, lost weight. I had no idea it was going to spiral into all of that,” he said.
When asked to compare working in Bollywood versus Hollywood, Vaidya thought for a moment then confessed,“Bollywood shoots are supposed to be horrendous.” He attributes this to the fact that there is much waiting around and last minute alteration, but it is all later worth it as the crew and cast quickly bonded by playing cards, drinking a bit and even clubbing. Thus, a family environment was created and their vision for the film was strengthened.
Even though he completed three to four other Bollywood films, Vaidya explained how success after a film as big as “3 Idiots” was challenging, as expectations were soaring.
The last point he explained before signing out was about his identity as an Indian-American, which accounts for his interesting accent. He also mentions that he purposefully uses an Indian accent in Indian interviews to better bond with his audience, which is something I particularly found interesting.
Vaidya’s tale is different than that of every other Indian actor, and the cause of this separation can be attributed to many things, from his identity crisis to Marathi background. In all, he teaches us the importance of accepting all actors, man buns and chiseled abs or not.