They’re best known now as actors in the Hindi film industry, but Omi Vaidya and Kalki Koechlin confess to knowing very little about Bollywood when growing up. As a resident of California, Vaidya had "a western perspective" on Hindi films, while Koechlin’s parents, raising her in Pondicherry at the Aurobindo ashram, introduced her to Satyajit Ray and Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay, but not to Hindi or Tamil cinema.
Even now, as veterans of two films that have been pathbreaking in their own way in Bollywood – 3 Idiots and Dev.D – the two actors have managed to retain a few traits not commonly associated with stars. Both were right on time for this interview, stepping into Café Basilico Bistro and Deli at Bandra, Mumbai, and quickly picking up the threads of conversation over iced tea and fresh lime soda, despite never having met before.
Brunch: Is Hindi your biggest challenge?
Kalki: We were just saying just now how we have the exact same problem with Hindi. We can both understand it completely, and speak it, but there are problems when we have to improvise.
Omi: I don’t think we know what our biggest challenge is yet. I have to find out. But as regards my lines for 3 Idiots, I managed somehow, especially with Chatur’s speech. It was heavy practice – you could wake me up in the middle of the night, and say ‘say your lines’ and I would be able to do them. But it was hard not to be able to improvise.
Kalki: And it depends on each new situation. When I did Dev.D, I was really nervous, but now I am not worried about my Hindi. I could just say my lines just like that. But the same issues come up, you’re not certain about pausing in the right places naturally. And you’re not able to ad lib.
Brunch: Where do you see your career path taking you in Bollywood?
Omi: I didn’t see my career path taking me here! I won’t even begin to say where I go from here. But hopefully, good, enjoyable movies people can watch, something challenging... that’s enough.
Kalki: I cannot plan the next three days, let alone the next three years. I just have to be completely interested in what I am doing in my life today, and if I don’t, that’s a problem.
Brunch: Omi, you’ve done a show for Disney...
Omi: It was just one episode, and I did it because it was very different, very weird, unlike anything I was getting offers for. I keep getting a lot of offers for dance shows. (Addressing Kalki) Do you get a lot of offers for dance shows?
Kalki: I don’t get them any more.
Brunch: To host them or take part in them?
Omi: I don’t know... I didn’t take the call. (Laughs) But to get back to the show, I played the part of an old, creepy man in his ’60s. I wanted to do something different and have fun.
Brunch: Kalki, you’re shooting two movies...
Kalki: One is a Sanjay Leela Bhansali production with a new director, Raghav Dar. And the other is Zoya Akhtar’s film, with Hrithik Roshan and Katrina Kaif. So I’m getting whipped right now.
Omi: I’m doing a Hindi natak (with Nirav Parekh). We’re looking at a mid-June premiere. I just wanted to do something that was immediately gratifying. And I did a quiz show for CNN-IBN as the host. That was fun, we found the brightest mind in India, and he won a car.
Kalki: What were the questions they were asked?
Omi: Questions on Indian politics, business, etc. And the contestants were so smart... it was multiple choice, but they would not wait to answer the question, because it was a speed round. But one question was like, ‘look at this thing on the screen and come up with a story,’ and they went ‘uhhhh’. They were the worst stories that I had ever heard. And they were viciously competitive. (Quoting) ‘You know I think she got that wrong, she didn’t say nitrous oxide, she said nitric oxide.’ They were so mean. They were all Chaturs! I can see why people related to the character.
Brunch: Kalki, in Dev.D, you played a fairly historic character, in the sense that the role is derived from a novel and has been played on screen before. Was that scary?
Kalki: You know, my only rule when I was preparing for Dev.D was not to watch any of the other Devdases, or read the book.
Omi: That was what I did too, I didn’t watch Raju’s films… I just stayed away from Bollywood.
Brunch: Now you’re immersed in the experience!
Omi: We have to be.
Brunch: So what is your take on Bollywood?
Omi: Earlier, it was a very western perspective – long movies, lots of dancing, less acting calibre, but then again, there were always great films in there. And when I got here, the productions that I worked on, they were fabulous. There’s a personal touch here you don’t get anywhere else. Abroad, it’s so corporate, you just sit in your vanity van, and when you give your shot, that’s the only time you meet your director. Here it’s like ‘What are you doing in your vanity, let’s have chai, chat a little bit’.
Kalki: I didn’t watch many Bollywood movies growing up, just stuff like Bandit Queen, Salaam Bombay and Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room (Jalsaghar). So I didn’t have a full-on take on Bollywood for a long time. Now, I see a lot of films, like Omkara, Kaminey, LSD… Those are the kind of movies I’ll never miss, but at the same time, I also take an interest in the blockbusters.
Brunch: Do you see yourself attracted to younger, edgier filmmakers?
Omi: It’s not the movie as such, it’s really the character for me. There’s enough guys out there that can do whatever Bollywood does… I can’t compete with them and I don’t want to.
Brunch: If your wife is going to be in the US and you need to be here, how does that work?
Omi: I don’t know how that works. It is a work in progress. She’s coming to IIFA, so that’s nice. She doesn’t watch Hindi movies at all. And it’s good, I like it, because you might be a big star, but then the dishes aren’t clean, so...
Brunch: Do you get recognised in the US?
Omi: Only when I go to Indian places. If I walk into an Indian restaurant, it’s like – ‘here’s a free sundae, sir’. And I’m like, wow!
Kalki: I never get a free sundae, that’s not fair!
Omi: And they’re like, ‘You should come here more often’, and I’ve been going there for three years! But I can also walk down the street unrecognised and I need that peace and quiet and anonymity. That was one of my fears about doing the film, that I wouldn’t have any space.
Kalki: I have pretty much survived by always looking like a tourist. Whenever I travel, I do that, and nobody looks at me. But it’s happening less and less. I was in Bangalore airport the other day, and so many people came up to me.
Brunch: How seriously do you want to make it?
Omi: I wouldn’t lose my ethics over it, I’ll tell you that. I won’t go that far, like endorsing some product I don’t believe in.
Kalki: Not willing to sell your soul.
Omi: And I probably won’t do nudity. (To Kalki) I don’t know about you – only backless for me.
Kalki: Maybe the inside of my arm...
Brunch: What’s it like being based in Mumbai?
Kalki: I have a love-hate relationship with Mumbai. I hate so many things about it – the crowds, the traffic... and if you’re not working, what do you do? There are three places you can go party, and I’m not into the partying life any more. I just sit at home and watch movies. Whenever I get time, I love to go trekking in the mountains. I want to go to Ladakh.
Omi: It’s amazing. Ladakh is like Goa, but nobody knows about it.
Brunch: Do you ever go back to France?
Kalki: Very rarely. My sister is getting married there in July, so I’m going for the wedding. I’ve gone to France twice, when I was 9 and then 14.
Omi: But you speak fluent French?
Kalki: Yes, because my mom forced me...
Brunch: Given that you speak Tamil, did you ever try to make it down South?
Kalki: I never tried to ‘make it’ anywhere. I didn’t come to Bollywood to make it here. I’m not going to go to Tollywood to try and make it. If an opportunity comes by and if an exciting part develops, I’d be very happy to do it.
Omi: We would come to Bombay every summer – my family is half Goan so we would go there a lot, so I’m very familiar with Mumbai. I didn’t know it gets more pleasant in December, because I never came down at that time. And I never used to take taxis, I took buses and trains everywhere.
Brunch: Do people here come up to you all the time?
Omi: All the time... they like to hold your hand. (Addressing Kalki) Do they do that to you?
Kalki: For me, it’s pictures. And wanting to put their arm around me. I don’t mind aunties hugging me, but not the 13-year-olds and the guys.
Omi: Oh, the arm thing! And I’m sure it’s more uncomfortable for her, but you have to remind yourself where they’re coming from – they’re thinking, ‘wow it’s exciting! I’m going to show this photo to everyone’, put it on Facebook...
Brunch: What else gets to you?
Omi: I have a lot more relatives now, I can tell you that!
Kalki: I have a lot more friends!