The curious case of Vivek Oberoi
How you can freeze a year in an actor's life, slowly fast-forward his career from thereon, and script an incredible memoir!
Actor Vivek Oberoi is a story worth a memoir himself. And I don’t mean it in the way you might be thinking. Genuinely, some of the best showbiz anecdotes I’ve heard are from him. For one, they relate to Ram Gopal Varma’s film Company (2002), his acting debut, which has undoubtedly survived the test of time, and that is rare.
How did he land that role? Not as a star-son, he told me once. He had trained himself to become the quintessential Bollywood hero, ticking off all boxes in a ’90s resume — learning action, dance, romance, horse-riding…. He even had directors Abbas-Mustan lined up for his first film. He developed cold feet at some point though, knowing that his father had invested all the money into the ‘launch’.
The thought of his family losing savings, if the film didn’t work, made him do rounds of producers’ offices, on his own steam instead. During this so-called struggle period, he used to do Hindi dub/voice-overs for American shows like Santa Barbara, Bold And Beautiful, and Hollywood films like The Rock, Independence Day, etc.
Varma had first instantly turned down Oberoi for Company. He found the US-return, NYU-grad Juhu boy too suave for the "street-underbelly, rough" character called Chandu that he was looking for. Oberoi told him about how he had officially dubbed in English for Satya (J D Chakravarthy’s part), for the iconic movie’s international release.
Still unconvinced, Varma told him they could meet after a fortnight, once he was back from Shekhar Kapur’s shoot of Four Feathers in Morocco. Taking along a fellow ‘struggling’ still-photographer, Oberoi used these 15 days to check into a local basti/kholi, merge with the crowds, stay round-the-clock, tape conversations, and shoot ‘a day in the life of Chandu’, with himself at the centre.
He picked up the patois, look, grime, and under-stated bhaigiri to shock Varma when he saw him at his office next. The filmmaker was floored. He asked to know more about the actor. This is when he learnt the boy in his early 20s was actor Suresh Oberoi’s son. They immediately drove together to Oberoi Sr’s home, and signed on the dotted line.
This news was front-paged in mid-day as, ‘Oberoi Towers!’ As it happens in showbiz, producers started queuing up. Young Oberoi had a movie-deal with filmmakers Aditya Chopra, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Mani Ratnam, among others. He also had to rescue his close friend Shaad Ali, since actor Abhishek Bachchan was unable to shoot for Saathiya. Incidentally, Bachchan was also the first choice for Chandu’s role in Company (he had apparently said no).
Be that as it may, debutant Oberoi found himself shooting during the day for Company (home minister’s assassination scene) at Film City in the suburbs. And at night, with Shah Rukh Khan, Tabu for Saathiya (hospital scene), at Films Division, in town. The two locations being as far apart as his roles — the macho gangster, and the romantic hero.
With Shaad Ali’s crew, of course, he was the director’s friend, often hanging around, helping out with lights, and equipment. Company released on April 12, 2002. Two days later, while he was on an outdoor location — a railway phatak (crossing) — for Saathiya, he first saw about 15-20 people call out ‘Chandu’, pointing at him.
In an hour’s time, that crowd had turned into thousands, with him having to be whisked away into a vanity van. Same with a mini-riot, he recalls having caused, when he entered Novelty Cinema to catch Company. He had to pay for the theatre’s broken furniture, window panes, etc.
Now, for a moment just freeze that year 2002. Partially fast-forward his career thereafter. You’ll notice a gradual to free-fall from a high that few are ever likely to experience in showbiz. The jump-cut might well occur at a press conference on April 1, 2003, that he gave before live television cameras, from his drawing room, accusing actor Salman Khan of threatening him over a series of phone calls through the night.
I was there at his place, thinking in my head, "Is this is a Fools’ Day prank? Go to cops, yo!" Since then, Oberoi has often accused the film industry of wronging him under Bhai’s pressure. He could elaborate on this in his memoir.
In 2019 though, he decided to channel a lot of those energies into playing Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Omung Kumar’s eponymous biopic, where we see PM Modi, right through his career, being simultaneously wronged and personally maligned by several forces — news media, a crony capitalist; relentless opposition, within, without, the works.
The film is self-admittedly a puff-piece, laying "no claim to historical accuracy." And yet for all its possible experiments with post-truth, it doesn’t quite descend into a laughable parody — sticking well within the realm of a pretty high-quality production. PM Modi, of course, tramples over all adversities to get right to the top. That we know. Can see. It is a fact. As for Oberoi — National Award, anyone? Banta hai, boss!
Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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