'I believe in eliminating competition'
Vivek Oberoi on why he is besotted with cinema
He likes to ask a lot of questions.
He has an opinion about everything. And always speaks his mind.
He adores Shah Rukh Khan.
He has to watch at least one film a day.
He likes to be called just Vivek. Sans accessories like ji and sir.
Focused, articulate and eloquent, this 27 year old clearly knows his mind. Meet Vivek Oberoi.
An Ayyappa devotee, this is the fourth year Vivek 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. The black T-shirt and lungi (pilgrims to Sabarimala wear only black) hanging prominently in the van bear testimony to this.
Sitting on a huge black leather chair, placed right in the middle of a white and blue spacious, air-conditioned utility van, the actor spoke to Sukanya Verma about movies, movies, and more movies.
How did you find the response to you in Road? How different was it in comparison to Company?
A lot of people spoke about Road not clicking at the box-office. They said it did not fare according to expectations like Company. Company attracted a certain strata that acknowledged me as a good actor.
But in terms of popularity, I owe everything I have to Road because of the song, Raste raste, toofan sa. The songs became so popular that suddenly I had this bracket of kids from 8 to 20 knowing me and reaching out to me. They connected with me. Secondly, I became very popular overseas. People started screaming for me and wanting my presence. I got calls to do shows there. Suddenly, I have a huge market there.
Don't you think there was too little of you in the second half of Road?
Firstly, I take it as a compliment if the audience waits for an actor's arrival on screen. That means your presence has been felt in a manner that they want to see you again.
Secondly, every film at the end of the day is a director's baby. Here, (director) Rajat Mukherjee and (creative producer) Ram Gopal Varma were completely in control of the project and they did what they thought was best for the film. They thought it would be best if the role of Arvind was minimised to an extent. And I completely stood by them. At the end of the day, in an overall and unbiased perspective, it is always the director and creative producer who know what the film is like.
What was the first thought that hit you when you saw yourself for the first time on screen?
It was kind of diluted because I had already seen myself doing advertisements earlier. I had done an international ad campaign while in New York (doing a post graduation course in film studies) for Chanel and Boucheron.
With Company I had seen the rushes. I saw myself for the first time with a bunch of people at a preview at Globus (a suburban theatre in Mumbai). I was quite stunned. It was quite an experience because I had not seen the film in totality. Suddenly I disconnected from myself as an actor, went into the story, the film, went with the flow. The film was so overwhelming that it carried me through. After it was over, I said I did not even see my performance because I viewed the film as an audience. I went to see the film again and again with different kind of audiences, in different parts of the city and country. It was a special experience each time because people in different places would connect to different things.
What is the criterion for you to accept a script?
There are three fundamentals:
Firstly, the character itself --- its relevance to the script.
Secondly, the script. Do I want to be a part of the story that has to be told?
Thirdly, the director's conviction, because he is the captain of the ship. It is his imagination that will be translated on celluloid. Do I believe in it? Does his conviction in the character and script carry me through it?
Most actors start off on a rather conventional note playing the stereotypical hero. Your debut Company is a role which an actor would play, perhaps, five, six films later...
When I started out with Company people said I was mad. They said since I was an actor's son, my father (Suresh Oberoi) should launch me. Hrithik Roshan had become the biggest rage in the industry and people said that is the way to go. They said my father should launch me in a solo hero masala film and I should do the romantic lead. I must look good and wear great clothes. Films like Company should be done later, when I want to experiment with my image.
They also said since I did not have a dance number in Company the audience will never know I am a dancer and so will never be consider me a hero. They threw names like Manoj Bajpai at me. And even my father. But I did not care. I believed in the script (for Company). I believed in Ram Gopal Varma. And I loved Chandu's character. I never looked at Company as a launch pad. I just thought of it as a film and that I should be honest to it as an actor.
I was playing a role opposite an established star like Ajay Devgan. I was playing a character that was supposed to dress down, look bad. I had to colour my skin a few shades darker. People are still confused about how I really look. When they see Saathiya's promos they say, 'Arre, yeh toh gora hai [He is fair].'
Today, because the film clicked, a lot of people say, 'Oh what a fantastic debut'!
As far as Road is concerned, Babu's (played by Manoj Bajpai) role was one of the best roles in the film. I had told Ramuji in the beginning that I wanted to play Babu's role. His was the most happening character. My character was very linear, the parameters were definable. I had to perform within those parameters because mine was the only reactionary character. All the other characters were doing something while I was reacting to what was happening to me. The moment I tried a different perception, it would take away from the extraordinariness of the rest of the characters. The dynamism in my character is thanks to the way Ramuji and Rajat Mukherjee presented me. I will not take any credit for that. Also, in the climax, I had an opportunity to play a transitional draft. It worked.
How would you describe your approach towards acting? Do you do your homework, spontaneous or a blend of both?
I blend both. I do homework before the film starts. I sit with the director and get to know him better. I try to understand his perception of the character. Once I am thorough with that, I do a lot of homework, which includes writing the biographical sketch. Why is the character the way he is? If the character I play is 25, I question what did he do in the 25 years of life? How was his relationship with his parents? What are the psychological and sociological parameters? What are the most important events in his life? I walk backwards. I take something that he has done in the film and ask questions like 'Why would he have done this?' 'Why is Chandu taking it so seriously here?' 'Why did Chandu react like this to his wife and mom?' 'Why doesn't he try to understand Malik and become more like him?' All these questions are answered when one walks backwards.
Why is he is so protective and aggressive towards his mother? Maybe because his father, a worker, would get drunk and beat her up. One day, Chandu walks up to his father says 'You touch my mother once more, I will kill you. Leave this house.' And he leaves. Now this is not there in the film. It is a part of my back story, which is why even if he talks rudely to his mother, he loves her. He touches her head lovingly and begins to cry. That back story defines one important moment between Chandu and his mom. That's how I work. Once I am on the sets, the draft I created is in my subconscious. Then I go for it.
All the people I have chosen to work with till now like Shaad Ali, Rajat Mukherjee, Sameer Karnik (Kyun, Ho Gaya Na Pyaar) and Ram Gopal Varma, are very democratic and interactive. They have always asked me, 'What would you like to do?' ' How do you perceive this scene?' Right from Company Ramuji would explain a scene to me. I would tell him I am uncomfortable about it and he would ask me how I wanted to do it. I have been lucky to share a great working relationship with everyone I have worked with till now. All of them believe that cinema is a cohesive effort. You have to operate as a unit.
One person cannot make a film. No person is more important than another. If one person is removed, the balance will change in the making of the film. Everybody on the sets should be respected. There are hierarchical systems but still it is teamwork. That's why I believe interaction is necessary. I have to know what my director is thinking and I have to be sure if that will be translated on the screen. For me, acting is neither a job nor profession. It is a passion. I live for this.
You had said that once the camera rolls, you lose your identity. How long does it take for the real you to resurface?
It takes a few seconds to snap out. Sometimes if it is a very heavy scene, then it takes a few minutes. Then I walk away from the sets, breathe easy and go somewhere where I can relax.
Besides acting, are there any other hidden talents waiting to be explored?
I don't think they are unexplored. With every passing day, we discover new things about ourselves. Humans are so complex, they evolve continuously. It takes a lifetime to even know oneself. Every now and then, I discover something about myself. I don't like to measure myself because the moment I do, I am defining myself, limiting myself. I don't like to describe myself except with the exception of one word --- indescribable. I write poetry and film scripts. I am extremely ambitious.
How seriously do you take stardom? The industry and media are very fickle. They lap you up as the next best thing and a few unsuccessful films later, the same people will find a new hero.
I don't think so. Stardom depends on the barometer you use to measure yourself. If you determine your success with external comparisons, you feel unsuccessful because there will always be someone bigger. Today, if I become the biggest commercial saleable hero, doing a business of Rs 100 crores, which is $20 million, it is nothing in comparison to the business a Tom Cruise film does, around $400 million. I believe in eliminating competition. The only way of achieving that is by eliminating yourself from the competition.
My rule is that every day, I must get better and better in every way.
I don't believe in the concept of a star. Stardom is a myth. If stardom had any reality, then every star's release would receive the same response. Why do some films get a better response than others?
My favourite example is Aditya Chopra's Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. The film released eight years ago and it is still playing in theatres. To me, Raj (played by Shah Rukh Khan) is the star. I don't think I care how Shah Rukh is in his real life. Maybe there is some degree of enigma you associate with that character. But I fell in love with him and his face only because of Raj. The characters they (actors) play, the ideas of the director or the film itself could be a star. That is stardom to me. I never look at myself as a star. I am an actor.
Are you an avid movie buff?
Yes. I don't smoke, drink, have tea or coffee, paan, tambaku or supari. The only addiction I have is cinema. I need to watch one film a day -- any film, any kind. Language is not a barrier.
Do you have a great DVD collection?
No. Most of the time, I borrow films.
Why do you think films aren't doing well?
I am not equipped with that kind of experience to comment on the state of affairs.
The film industry is very interesting. We theorise a lot, but none of them work. Everybody has a formula for a superhit film and yet nobody can make that happen. It just happens. The intimidation of not knowing what is going to happen on a Friday makes us console ourselves by making theories. People, who claim to be trade pundits, vouch for some films. When their estimation goes wrong, they come up with fresh theories.
No one knows why a film does well or not. The reasons for this are not important. What is important is the intention you start the film with and the final state when the film releases on a Friday -- whether people liked it or not.
Unlike Company and Road, your next release Saathiya sees you playing a soft, emotional guy...
All the characters I have played have been emotional. The degree of emotion has been different. My character in Saathiya is a simple guy, who does not go around clinching his wrist or beating anybody.
Saathiya is about love, discovering yourself through the way you love someone.
We have a tendency, before marriage, to wear masks. During courtship, you dress up and talk sweetly. You are at your best. She is at her best. After marriage, you start taking things for granted. You don't dress for that person anymore. Romance goes out of the window. You say things like, 'Why are taking so long in the bathroom? I have to get to work. Why isn't the breakfast ready? Where is my newspaper?' These small things become reality. If you can still feel butterflies in your stomach, if you can still look at this person and smile, in spite of all this, then you have found love. That's what Saathiya is all about.
It's almost like someone planted a video camera in a newly married couple's house.
Considering director Shaad Ali is your friend, how was the comfort level?
I have known him since I was four years old. How can there not be a comfort level?
I remember during the first few days of shooting, I decided to call him 'sir.' I called him this for a few days. Then I realised that no one besides me called him 'sir.' I felt so stupid when I heard everyone only calling him by his first name. It was like a family affair (between the unit members) and I was the only one trying to be extra professional.
I have always believed in Shaad. I delivered the way he wanted me to. I am a director's actor.
How was it working with Rani Mukherji?
Brilliant. She's a sweetheart.
Were you approached for Ram Gopal Varma's Bhoot?
No. I went to Ramuji for Bhoot. I asked him for an older character, or even a woman or one scene. But he refused, saying I would disturb the film. I irritated him so much, I even went with different looks. Ultimately, he said he would do another film with me!
Is it true that if a biographical film were to be made on Shah Rukh Khan, you would like to act as him?
I am fascinated by Shah Rukh Khan. He is brilliant. Every time I meet him, I tease him, 'Hello God, how are you?' Gauri (Shah Rukh's wife) keeps saying 'Stop calling him that. He is just Shah Rukh.' Here's a guy who comes from nowhere, has no connections to cinema and has no way to make it in. On his beliefs and convictions, he enters films, marries his childhood sweetheart, rules tinsel town and walks into offices and tells filmmakers to either sign him now or regret later.
I do not idolise Shah Rukh. I am fascinated because he is an interesting story. He has an interesting career graph. He won the award for the best actor and best villain in the same year. He is arrogant, yet he is also the humblest person around. He is so complex and interesting. I have immense respect for him. I am in awe of Shah Rukh.
I also love Salman, Aamir and Amitabh Bachchan.