When the audiences (and a whole lot of them across the globe), left the screening of 3 Idiots, the character of Chatur Ramalingam, aka “Silencer,” was what stayed on for the longest time in memory. He had not been seen before on the Bollywood screen, but had become the scene stealer. His was no ordinary protagonist by Bollywood standards, his Hindi speech was the comic highlight of the film and his subsequent breakdown scene, made us sympathize with the character of Chatur. Let’s face it, we all have been Chatur’s at some point in our lives and the portrayal was truly the work of fine creativity, which had been evident to the American audiences earlier, in the immensely popular television series, THE OFFICE. Here is Omi Vaidya in his own words:

A little about what got you into the creative world?

I have to give credit to my mother because at one time when she was in Mumbai, 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 lead to entertaining people, 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 got better in acting. 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.  Followed this with going to NYU for film making.  Decided to come back to LA and pursue acting, since all that was required there, was to be a good actor and to audition. This lead to getting onto shows like THE OFFICE, ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, CSI-LAS VEGAS, etc. Did a lot of advertisements, Kelloggs, McDonalds, The Yellow Pages, so this lead to a lot of people getting to know me.

So how did the Three Idiots happen?

While I became well known in Hollywood, the roles I would get were very stereotypical, the guy with the accent, the third or fourth guy, etc, and you can only do that so many different ways. So here I was vacationing in India looking at what other people’s projects were doing if there was anything different, one of my Michigan based friends, Supriya Kelkar, she’s a screenwriter and she works with Abhijeet Joshi, one of the staff writers at Vinod Chopra’s, she said that they are auditioning for people in LA and you should audition for them, I responded that I am in Mumbai so cannot audition in LA, plus Hindi is not my forte, since I grew up speaking Marathi in the house, along with of course English. She responded that they are actually looking for a NRI so you can go their office in Santa Cruz, Mumbai and just audition there. So I showed up there and they said “thik hai,” your referral is good and we have seen your work and Raju said you might be good as one of the three idiots. So they gave me the lines and said take an hour or two, learn the lines and then let’s do the audition, I responded right away that I can’t do that since it would be very hard for me to memorize the lines and speak them in Hindi. But he said, give it a try, so I went to the casting director, who looked at me, heard me speak a line or two in Hindi and said , “thank you and good bye.”  And I was like, great it was a good experience I got to meet Raju and it was nice. So I went home, lived the experience, with no expectations really. Anyway they called me the next day and said we have this NRI role and we haven’t yet written it all out as yet, but why don’t you take this Munnabhai lines, practice it, don’t worry about the diction, etc, just go in there and do it the way, NRI Omi would do it.  And I was like, Omi wouldn’t know Hindi very well, but would be very confident about what he’d say, just like how it was in my speech in the movie. So I think they really liked that audition and they also saw that I was very good at Improving, something that is quite common in the US, like in the OFFICE, you do have lines but a lot of comedy comes in what is not written. So I was on and they actually started to develop the character based on what I was doing, hence it fit me so well.

And from there?

I really worked hard on the character, did a second audition in New Mexico, since Vinod was there for this next film. After the second audition they told me, Omi you need to stop learning Hindi from whomever is teaching you, you need to stop watching Hindi movies, because we like your natural style and we don’t want you to be influenced by Bollywood. Also the instructions were not to exercise since the first schedule was the fat guy, so I put on 10-12 kgs, unfortunately the last Ladakh scene (the climax scene) was snowed in, so we couldn’t do the climax scene right then, then I had the next month to adjust my weight, quite a challenge, after which I did all the Bangalore scenes, with my lost weight, then 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 it was a real good challenge I have had in a few years and I like challenges. I also 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.

Still too early, since the ride has just started, but where do you see yourself in the future, splitting time between LA 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 PhD from UCLA right now, so I will be back there soon since she needs my support, so when the offers come and if they fit me, I’ll do them, I don’t want to be stereo cast, in the NRI bad guy, the thing about this role was that it was a dynamic role, it was not one dimensional.  Chatur did what he did cause he wanted to get a good job so that would bring him his happiness, it wasn’t just meanness for the sake of being mean. It wasn’t also just making fun of the NRI, it was an interesting role and I really enjoyed being that role. It became more real in that scene where I am drunk and crying at those guys and people were “Oh I understand why he feels the way he does.” I think a lot of people also related to the character, every school has their Chatur or many Chatur’s in their school. I think everyone has that selfish side and wants to be the one to get ahead at the cost of the competition.

Bollywood being what it is, odds are you will not be flooded with the same kind of roles?

I just want interesting roles. I want a challenge, that’s all I’m going to say. As an actor, I’m not sure they really know what is best for them, as far as the third party is concerned they come with roles where they feel they can place the actor. It’s actually not upto me, but for the directors and writers to match the script to the role. Hence I don’t think I could ever play Sharman’s role, so everyone has their niche and I have to find mine, so just because a role pays a lot of money or has a lot of glamour, doesn’t mean that I will take it, I will have to do something that fits me.  Casuse even the audience are going to be sick of seeing me as Chatur two to three times over, so to make my career more long lasting I will have to take more risks and try different challenges, within my niche. And if that means I fall flat that’s ok, cause life should be exciting and challenging.

How did your work in THE OFFICE, help you evolve as an actor?

A lot of people auditioned for that role, bigger Indian American actors, but I had watched the British show and knew about it, it wasn’t very popular at the time, they weren’t sure whether it would continue, people were not watching it that much, but I knew the style of the show, the camera, and at the time of the audition I decided to play that role to it’s entirety. I took a scarf, created a turban out of it and walked to the audition room wearing it on, which resulted in the other actors looking at me oddly, of course I was beyond caring and gave it my all and I guess they decided that was what was needed for the character and the show. It’s really exciting cause they don’t do any rehearsals on that show, so I would ask Steve, if he wanted to do any rehearsals and he was like, no, just let it be natural. It was probably one of the best productions in the US that I have been a part of. It was very comfortable. It’s probably because they shoot in the same location, it really feels like an office, everybody in the background is just checking YouTube and doing stuff, not really acting, but almost like being themselves in an office. This calming atmosphere helps not only the show, but also my performance on it. I think they might be showing it this week on NBC reruns, not sure, if it has something to do with 3 Idiots.

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. So filmmaking has been a passion and will always be so, and I do aspire to make a feature, since it is so much more challenging. As an actor, you come to the set 2-3 hours after everyone else and gets treated like royalty, sure has to do a good job, but it’s not as much a hard life as everyone else. No matter how good a job you do, it’s always been directed by somebody else and somebody else wrote it and you come in at the end and you get all the glamour, but the real credit goes to the writer and the director, so I really wish that I can be as good a director as Raju and a writer like Abhijeet. They really deserve all the credit and they are probably just giggling inside cause they know the film is a credit to them and they won’t get all the credit, but that is fine cause they are more grounded and live for their own satisfaction and actors live for other people’s satisfaction. So one day I will be making a film, but 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 cause I think basically I’m an unknown and everybody was like, who is this guy with these 3 Idiots. In a way it was good cause while I has seen the works of Aamir, the whole thing of being in their midst wasn’t so big a deal for me. This helped me to play 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, so to have someone treat them as regular folks , they really appreciated that and they would welcome me to their vanity van. That sort of personal touch you rarely, if ever, get in the US. This personal touch really helped the film, the acting and it really helped me, since I felt that I was one of them. It was also good cause the attention would be on them and I could concentrate on my acting without being conscious of who was watching me. I would like to add that Indians in general, you being one of them, are becoming truly global citizens and Bollywood films will continue to showcase that, since that is the society we live in today. Cause $2 mill on the first weekend came from the US and that’s 10% of what they made last weekend, a significant number. So Bollywood really has to play to the Indians in US,UK, Australia, etc, because their experiences are different and these will have to be captured accurately on the Bollywood screen, so when those roles come up, I will be there and if one day my Hindi becomes very good, then I aspire to play a regular Indian character in Bollywood films.


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