In an India Currents exclusive, Vivek Oberoi, the critically acclaimed heartthrob reveals his spiritual side, perfectionism, and the humility that goes into making him a phenomenon.
For Oberoi, creative immortality seems guaranteed. It’s not just that he is stunningly talented—as has been evident from his chameleon-like metamorphosis from Company’s Chandu to Saathiya’s Aaditya—but also because having encountered his modesty and the palpable passion he takes to his craft, it is impossible not to root for him.
In an industry dominated by “heroes” and “stars” with moussed hair, tight-fitting metallic shirts, and a penchant for repeating formulaic roles, Oberoi belongs to the elite group that has broken the mold and resisted being typecast. He counts Taxi Driver, The Godfather, and Devdas (2002) as his favorite films and has always been drawn to darker, more complex characters. While not averse to playing the typical hero roles, Oberoi believes that flamboyance can be like a crutch, a mask to hide behind that only covers up sincerity.
“You might be doing nothing in front of the camera and you can still be interesting,” he says. “There is always a demarcation between being and actor and being a star. I don’t believe in stardom. I believe it’s a fallacy, a myth. Every Friday there is a new release and stars rise and fall but it’s substance that has longevity. That’s art, that’s what good cinema is about.”
He is undoubtedly influenced by his father, veteran character actor Suresh Oberoi, who encouraged little Vivek and offered pearls of wisdom derived from his own experience. “I was about 4 when I went on stage for the very first time and the lights just did it for me. It was like an addiction and I wanted to do it again and again. By the time I was 10, I had a mano-a-mano conversation with my dad and told him I wanted acting to be my career. He told me ‘It’s very good to desire. To desire is to dream and unless you dream there is nothing to look forward to. But the most important thing in life is never to desire without deserving.’ So I always wanted to deserve before I asked for anything.”
Vivek Oberoi doesn’t just pay lip-service to this motto. He signed up for a correspondence course with Trinity College of London and attended speech and drama classes in Mumbai. Instead of launching his acting career through a mega-production orchestrated by his family, as has been the case with the Roshans and Deols, Vivek worked for six years as a professional dubbing artist and further honed his craft by earning a post-graduate degree in acting at NYU. A source close to the actor remembers, “Vivek could have chosen some commercial masala film as his first film, but he chose the harder way. Even at school, he was always drawn to the edgier parts.”
His painstaking efforts to bag the much talked-about debut role in Ram Gopal Varma’s Company, for instance, has become Bollywood legend and made him the groundbreaking director’s protégé. Oberoi encountered Varma’s work in New York when he was dubbing Satya for the international market and knew instantly he wanted to work for him. But when he approached Varma for a role in Jungle, and was offered the second lead, the yet undiscovered actor did the unthinkable. He turned it down. Vivek Oberoi didn’t think the role was “meaty enough” for him. “Everyone told me I had committed career suicide,” he says. “But I told them, I had no doubt that within a year, I would have my chance to work with Ramuji again.” He then approached Varma for the role of the lead gangster in Company.
“But Ramuji found my face too soft for a gangster,” he recalls. “He said he needed a gritty and hard character and I looked too conventional. He didn’t think I could do it so I had to convince him and asked for some time to prepare.” Vivek took it upon himself to prove that he could erase the slickness and become the tough gangster. Within 10 days, he transformed himself into an ill-dressed, unkempt bhai from the chawls, so much so that Varma didn’t recognize him when he dropped into the director’s office for the part.
“I wrote a 300-word biographical sketch for my character Chandu. I tried to figure out the way he would talk, the kind of clothes he would wear, how he would interact with people around him. It just helped me understand the character better. On the 11th day, I marched into his office dressed up as Chandu and smoking a bidi. I remember kicking his door open, pulling up a chair and putting my feet up on his desk like I owned the place. I looked him straight in the eye and said, ‘Kya? Kya bolta hai?’ He was completely stunned. It was destiny,” Vivek explains, “because at that very moment, my conventional looking photographs were lying on his desk and his editor and he had just made a decision that I wasn’t right for the role. I was asked to wait outside and my heart was thumping away in frenzy. When Ramuji came out and told me ‘that was brilliant,’ then I started to breathe again.”
The rest is history. Unlike any other debutant, Oberoi created a sensation and was touted as the hot newcomer and heartthrob even before the release of the film! What was more astounding was that this happened without a masala film and a leading hero role. His potent look, a paradoxical combination of innocence and irresistible danger—the stubble, straight boyish hair falling casually over the penetrating eyes that can emit warmth one moment and condemn you another—made him a household name before the celluloid even touched light.
Oberoi followed this spectacular debut with the semi-successful Road and at his mentor’s request, opted out of the role he had really wanted: of Babu, the psychopath, a more substantial role played by Manoj Bajpai. “When I first heard the story, I wanted to do Babu, as it was author-backed. But Ramuji didn’t want me to play a villain at that point. So I played Arvind. In fact I thanked Ramuji for not giving me Babu’s role as I wouldn’t have been able to hold a candle to Manoj’s performance.” Still, one wonders what made him agree to this blink-and-you-miss-him role. “It wasn’t supposed to be a Vivek Oberoi film,” he says. “But then I don’t look at any film as that.”
Through his films Oberoi continues to mesmerize us with his versatility and even a lukewarm film is enriched with his performance. He is famous not just for the talent and passion he takes to his work, but also his indefatigability. For his childhood friend, Shaad Ali’s Saathiya, there were times when they shot 18 hours at a stretch and Vivek admits that he would have gone longer if it had been necessary. The results were well worth it. “Shaad Ali felt that I brought more color to the film and Mani Ratnam sir said that I surprised him in certain places,” he enthuses. “It was the ultimate compliment.”
The mass hysteria, which has only mounted in the wake of succeeding films like Saathiya and Dum, in which Oberoi once again defies expectations and morphs from a thug to a sensitive, romantic lead and then into a bulked-up action figure, leaves him refreshingly overwhelmed instead of vainglorious; grateful instead of self-important. Vivek Oberoi, who is graceful about the gushing that his appearance elicits, would rather be appreciated for his work. When asked about how he would like to be seen by his fans, he says, “Adulation is nice but it doesn’t come necessarily out of appreciation for your work but because you come in a certain package. I prefer respect for my art because that has more longevity. When someone comes up to me and tells me how my work has moved them, then I feel like I connected. I touched.”
He takes a keen interest in how the audiences greet his performance and is known to sneak into cinemas, sometimes in disguise. At a recent screening of Dum, the audience discovered of presence and this created a sensation. He had to surrender to a spontaneous Q&A; session and what he found most memorable about that incident was the amount of goodwill that was expressed by his fans, irrespective of cast or creed. “Art transcends all boundaries,” he says. “I think what has helped me the most is people’s duas.”
At the rate he is going, Vivek Oberoi can continue to impress his audiences in the future. Dum with former Miss Asia Pacific Diya Mirza, jolts us again from pinning him to a type. He is careful to point out that there is more to this film than just brawn and that the substance that draws him to a film in not sacrificed for pure commercialism. “Dum is not about the power of the bicep but about the power of the spirit. It’s about a man who says it’s convenient to have principles but tough to live by them.”
His upcoming projects include Samir Karnik’s comedy Kyon? Ho Gaya Na with Aishwarya Rai and Sachin Bajaj’s Baraat with Kareena. There is also a Zoya Akhtar (Dil Chahta Hai) project in the pipeline. As he moves full speed ahead, Vivek is careful to remain admirably scrupulous about his lifestyle and avoid the manipulations that the industry engages. An Ayyappa devotee, Oberoi has observed the 40-day rigorous ritual of abstinence from non-vegetarian food and alcohol, being celibate and walking bare foot in anticipation of the pilgrimage to Sabarimala in Kerala.
“I have zero addictions in my life—I don’t drink, smoke, have tea or coffee,” he reveals, “but I need to watch one film everyday. That’s my absolute upper. No matter what I may be going through, if I watch good cinema, I’m back right up.”
Cinema is the air Vivek Oberoi breathes. When asked what else he could have been if not an actor, he is charmingly uncompromising. “The funny thing is that I’ve always felt that if I wasn’t an actor, I wouldn’t really be me. If you remove the actor out of me, I don’t think there’s much left. People work for a living and I live to work. Acting is not just my profession, it’s my passion.”
Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla is the author of Ode to Lata.