What got you into the creative world?
I have to give credit to my mother. She wanted to become an actress, but there were a lot of politics and her father would not let her do that. They were pretty conservative, so she channeled that into me, encouraged me to take part in plays, in the Palm Springs area, near Los Angeles, where we lived. I worked out of the Marathi Mandal, so we did a lot of Marathi plays. This led to entertaining friends and family when I was young. At age 14 I followed my brother to the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and there I learnt the craft. However, the parts that I was getting were kind of frustrating as an actor, so I got into film making and really enjoyed that process. I went to NYU for film making and then decided to come back to L.A. and pursue acting. This led to getting onto shows like The Office, Arrested Development, etc.
How did 3 Idiots happen?
While I became reasonably well known in Hollywood, the roles I would get were very stereotypical—the guy with the accent, the third or fourth lead etc.—and you can only do that so many different ways. I was vacationing in India looking at other people’s projects when one of my friends, Supriya Kelkar, (she’s a screenwriter and works with Abhijat Joshi), said that they were auditioning for people in L.A. Since I was in India, I decided to show up at their Santa Cruz office. Raju (Hirani) looked at my referrals and said I might be good as one of the three idiots. So they gave me the lines and gave me an hour to learn them. I responded right away that it would be very hard for me to memorize the lines and speak them in Hindi. But he said to give it a try, so I went to the casting director, who heard me speak a line or two in Hindi and let me go. I left thinking it was a good experience and I also got to meet Raju. They called me the next day and said they had this NRI role that they hadn’t yet written it all out, but why didn’t I take these Munnabhai lines and practice them anyway. I was told not to worry about the diction, just go in there and do it the way NRI Omi would. And I figured Omi wouldn’t know Hindi very well, but would be very confident about what he’d say. I think they really liked that audition and they also saw that I was very good at improvisation, something that is quite common in the United States. They actually started to develop the character based on what I was doing. That is why it fit me so well.
And from there?
I really worked hard on the character and did a second audition in New Mexico, since Vinod (Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the producer) was there for his next film. After the second audition I was told to stop learning Hindi, stop watching Hindi movies, because they liked my natural style and did not want me to be influenced by Bollywood. Also I was given instructions not to exercise since the first (shooting) schedule featured the older Silencer. I ended up putting on 10-12 kilos. Unfortunately the climactic scene in Ladakh got snowed in, so I had to adjust my weight downwards in a month—which was quite a challenge—for the Bangalore scenes. Then I had to gain the weight again to do the old man scene in Ladakh, with my head shaved. This was a month and a half before my wedding, so my wife wasn’t very happy. But I really gave myself to the role, since I like challenges.
I just got the news that I’ve been nominated for a couple of screen awards. Not in my wildest dreams did I think that it would be this sort of recognition.
Where do you see yourself in the future, splitting time between L.A. and Mumbai?
I’m going to take it as it comes. I know everybody wants to see more of my work on screen, but my wife is getting her Ph.D. from UCLA right now, so I will be back there soon since she needs my support.
I don’t want to be stereotyped as the NRI bad guy. The thing about my role in 3 Idiots was that it was not one dimensional. In that scene where I am drunk and crying at those guys people reacted with “Oh I understand why he feels the way he does.”
Tell us about your experience with The Office.
A lot of people auditioned for that role, bigger Indian American actors, but I had watched the British show and knew about it. I knew the style of the show, the camera angles, and at the time of the audition I decided to play that role to the hilt. I took a scarf, created a turban out of it and walked to the audition room with it on I guess they decided that was what was needed for the character and the show. It was probably one of the best productions in the United States that I have been a part of.
So have we lost you as a filmmaker for now?
An actor’s career is not based upon his/her doing, but more a reflection of the audience’s preferences. Filmmaking has been a passion and will always be so, and I do aspire to make a feature film. As an actor, you come to the set 2-3 hours after everyone else and get treated like royalty. Sure, you have to do a good job, but it’s not as hard a life as everyone else (involved with the movie). No matter how good a job you do, it’s being directed by somebody else and somebody else wrote it and you come in at the end and get all the glamor. The real credit should go to the writer and the director. I really wish that I can be as good a director as Raju and a writer like Abhijat. For now I will concentrate on acting, on becoming a better and more dynamic actor.
Finally, what was it like being this NRI among all the resident Bollywood actors on the set?
It was interesting because I’m an unknown in India. But the whole thing of being in their midst wasn’t such a big deal for me. This helped me to be on par with them, counter them. If they made a joke on set, I was able to joke back and they really enjoyed that because I think they are so used to being treated with the royal touch, they really appreciated having someone treat them as regular folks. I would like to add that Indians, in general, are becoming truly global citizens and Bollywood films will continue to showcase that, since that is the society we live in today. $2 million on the first weekend came from the United States and that’s 10% of what they made last weekend, a significant number. So Bollywood really has to appeal to the Indians abroad because their experiences are different and these will have to be captured accurately on the Bollywood screen. When those roles come up, I will be there, and if one day my Hindi becomes very good, then I will aspire to play a regular Indian character in Bollywood films.
Reprinted with permission from Indianentertainment.info, a webzine co-founded by Vivek Kumar and actress and alternative healing specialist Barkha Madan.