"How old the fella are you,” asked a reporter of thehollywoodtalk.com unable to hide the surprise, by an unexpected answer, in the middle of an interview in 2007. The place was Los Angeles and the ‘fella’ was Omi Vaidya, whose rip-roaring portrayal of a nerdy NRI with a funny accent, Chatur Ramalingam, in 3 Idiots, has everybody saying he should be tried for the gut-busting humour.
The answer that prompted the ‘how old’ question was this: “Many filmmakers look up to filmmakers, but I looked up to people who really changed things. Martin Luther King was a great influence… and Mahatma Gandhi…films are entertainment but my films are going to change the way people think.”
The answer the reporter got, however, was: “twenty-five”. “I started making films at 15, so I am equivalent to a 30-year-old.” He was being interviewed at the Palm Springs Festival of Short Films where his second film, The Desert Rose, was screened in it he had directed Terry Moore, an Oscar-nominated actress.
What brought him to Bollywood? What prompted him to become Chatur? It goes back to childhood. Not his, but his mother’s.
While growing up in Mumbai, his mother, Bharti Vaidya, always
wanted to become an actress like Meena Kumari. But her parents married her off to Abhay Vaidya, a doctor. And they relocated to the US. “I gave all the freedom to my children which I didn’t have. I encouraged and trained Omi when he wanted to act,” she says. She played the mother of Chatur in 3 Idiots.
There were other reasons that made him an actor. Like growing up in Joshua Tree, that’s two hours from Los Angeles. “It wasn’t the most educated area. Sometimes they could be ignorant and racist. Being the only Indian child in the area was hard.”
So how did he survive? “There were tough situations. You could either run or fight or make jokes. I made jokes.” He says he became better at understanding people through acting real time. He was often called Apu, the Indian character — manager of the local grocery store — with a funny accent from the popular American TV Show, The Simpsons. “I would say, ‘How may I serve you sir, do you want a cherry slushy’, and they wouldn’t know how to react.”
But acting in school plays was a different ball game. “I was typecast as the nerdy guy and I wasn’t able to get the roles I wanted.” That prompted him to take up direction, keeping aside his first passion, acting. “It was so much free. It didn’t matter which colour you are.” Apart from making two short films, he did the odd editing project. He has also appeared on TV series such as CSI, Life, Bones and The Office. Vaidya now has a steady career in Hollywood.
In between all this, he has always found time to visit his Indian relatives in Goa, a ritual since childhood. Last time he came with a script to Mumbai but auditioned for the role of Chatur. His ‘balatkaar speech’ where he uses balatkaar (rape) instead of chamatkaar (miracle) is a rage online. The Facebook page has more than two lakh fans. Fresh comments gave a new lease of life to all his old Youtube videos.
Though acting comes “naturally” to him, 3 Idiots wasn’t easy. The shooting schedule was “unforgiving”, as he had to lose and gain weight four times. In between was his wedding to Minal Patel, “a very sweet and studious” PhD student who was upset that he might look fat in his wedding pictures. “I was convinced people could relate to Chatur and it was all worth it.”
What if he cannot find roles that are challenging enough in India? “Then I will make my own movies. I am not desperate for money. I was looking to direct the script I came with, but now I might be acting in it. It feels great to be able to pick your choice.”