Cinema Asian America: A Conversation With ‘Big in Bollywood”s Omi Vaidya

Witness a true American underdog story made good in Bollywood! Follow Omi Vaidya as he goes from a struggling actor in L.A. to Bollywood mega star overnight.

In 2009, Rajkumar Hirani’s Bollywood film 3 Idiots opened to rapturous response world-wide, breaking box office records and ultimately becoming the highest grossing Bollywood film of all-time. While the film starred the actors R. Madhavan, Sharman Joshi and Aamir Khan as the film’s “idiots”, one of the film’s biggest discoveries – and surprises – was the catapulting of a little-known Indian American actor named Omi Vaidya into the spotlight.

With only a small, but very memorable role in the film (delivering a hilarious speech that would soon almost become a national mantra), Vaidya captured fans throughout India and would go on to win some of the most prestigious film awards, including the Best Comedian and Most Promising Newcomer in the 2010 Indian Screen Awards.

This month Xfinity On Demand features a Cinema Asian America presentation of the behind-the-scenes documentary Big in Bollywood, which chronicles Vaidya’s fairy tale adventure through Bollywood. Made by his close friends, who accompanied him to India for the film’s release (and had no idea what to expect), the film is an intimate, charming exploration of celebrity, friendship and what happens when the completely unexpected actually happens.

What was your introduction to the movies and acting? Was there a particular film or event that made it absolutely clear to you that this was something you had to do? At what point did Bollywood cinema make its way into your life?
OV: I really enjoyed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the original one from the early 80s as a child. Gene Wilder’s performance struck a chord with me. I found it just as satisfying as an early adult and was fascinating with acting and performing for others. Bollywood came into my life as an accident. Although I am of Indian origin, my family lived in rural California and I had maybe watched a handful of Bollywood films in my life. But as an actor I happened to audition for a movie while I was visiting family in India and that film turned out to be 3 Idiots.

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It’s been three years since 3 Idiots, and you star in several films a year in India. Have you settled into a higher profile lifestyle as a celebrity in India and how do you reconcile this with a lower-key life back in the US?
OV: It’s very weird being a celebrity in India and a regular person in America. I’ve always lived a low-key life in the US so every time I fly to India for work, I have to psychologically set myself up for all of the people, photos and autographs I will have to deal with when I land in Mumbai. I really enjoy my anonymity but when you’re an actor and especially when you act in huge movies like 3 Idiots, you have to let go of your personal space and understand that you will be recognized by the people who see your films. It’s very odd, but I have to act like a celebrity because in truth, I’m just a normal person like everyone else.

A big part of Big In Bollywood’s intimacy and charm, is that it was made by your close friends, all whom are not Indian, and traveled with you to India to capture your experience, and theirs as well. How did the documentation of your experience (through your friends, the cameras, and constant reflection on what was going on) affect what you were actually going through?

OV: Going through such a big experience in my life, with all of the pressure and expectations of being a breakout star all the while being an American-born Hollywood actor, I felt like a stranger in the foreign world of Bollywood. But having the camera and my closest friends there made all the experiences more familiar and easier to deal with.

There are a number of Asian American actors who have found more substantial acting opportunities in Asia and become stars outside of Hollywood – from yourself to Daniel Wu and Maggie Q in Hong Kong. Is this a path that is becoming more viable for Asian American actors? Has your success in Bollywood translated into more opportunities in the US? How has your take on Hollywood changed since 3 Idiots?
OV: Yes, there are many more opportunities for American actors in other film industries because the industry and the audience is becoming more global. For example, 3 Idiots is extremely popular not only in India but also in China, South Korea and Taiwan. If the stories are more relatable to a global audience, than global actors such as myself have a chance to be a part of these types of films.

My Bollywood success has translated into some opportunities but mainly for the Indian American market in the US. I have done commercials for State Farm and a mortgage company because they wanted to target Indians specifically. Hollywood doesn’t much pay attention to what Bollywood does because it is only 1% of the whole movie business. So I’ll just have to prove myself all over again if I want to succeed here in the west.

What are you working on next?
OV: Well, other than the commercials I have been doing and all of the auditions I go on, I am starting another Bollywood film in March with Anupam Kher, who recently co-starred with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. I have also written two screenplays which I am trying to get made in Bollywood as well. Now that the craziness has died down some, I am also getting back to enjoying that private life with family that I put to the side when 3 Idiots was released.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.
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