In India, one of Aamir Khan's more recent films, 3 Idiots, was one of the biggest blockbusters of 2009. It tells the story of three college friends and their series of fun times and travails. In 3 Idiots, American actor-on-the-rise Omi Vaidya plays a supporting role, Chatur, a snooty, mischievous yet comical overachiever.
The story that the documentary film Big in Bollywood tells is surely the stuff of dreams. And Big in Bollywood itself surely represents the thrill of documentary filmmaking, in that the subject and film crew did not anticipate the way their story would turn out. Gaining massive fame for his memorable performances as Chatur, actor Vaidya begins an incredible ride through the frenzied and fun world that is the Indian film industry (and Indian film fandom). Big in Bollywood charts this ride, with Vaidya's friends behind the camera accompanying and witnessing the ups and ups. Through interviews with Omi and his family members -- as well as his famous co-stars in 3 Idiots -- Big in Bollywood is a nicely balanced, highly entertaining, feel-good film that shares the distinct perspective that is both an outsider from the inside AND an insider from the outside.
APA caught up with the guys behind Big in Bollywood during the San Diego Asian Film Festival to talk about their friendship, the traps and perks of fame between Hollywood and Bollywood, and some of the challenges they experienced while making the film.
Interview with Kenny Meehan, Omi Vaidya and Tyler MacNiven
October 22, 2012
Interviewed by Rowena Aquino
Transcribed by Mai Nguyen
Camera by Brian Lam
Video edit by Henry Chen
Asia Pacific Arts: You all met in college. Was it kind of like a 3 Idiots experience?
Tyler MacNiven (producer): We all went to college together at UC Santa Cruz. We were just all young, frolicking in the meadows, chasing waves on our surfboards. Just eating a lot of food when our metabolism was still raging. Over time, we all decided that we wanted to work on a bigger film together. So we made a film in Mongolia [Wrestling Mongolia (2010)] with the three of us: Kenny directing, me producing, and Omi starring.
APA: What was the dynamic like between you three that you found there, that you decided to continue for Big in Bollywood?
Tyler: It was funny because when we made the first film, we kind of thought, “Let's make this film to make a second film.” It was almost like a trial run. But we had no idea that the second film was going to be a documentary about Omi's role in a big Bollywood film. That was far from what we ever expected. But that's life: it's far from what you ever expect.
Omi Vaidya: Yeah, I feel like when you work with your friends on something, there's already an immediate understanding. Less has to be said and organized…
Kenny Meehan (director): The communication is better, and we can call each other out, too.
Omi: Yeah, things aren't as personal when you're working with each other, and everything is almost forgiven in a way, you know? So whatever we had in Mongolia was some crazy bonding that can never be removed from us. And I guess we wanted to continue that, because it was such a wonderful feeling.
APA: Can you more talk about how Big in Bollywood came about? Did it start with you, Omi?
Omi: No. I was against it from the beginning. [To Kenny and Tyler] But how did it come out?
Kenny: Well, it came out pretty well. [laughs]
Omi: Yeah, but how did it start?
Kenny: I would say it came about because of Wrestling Mongolia, which we made about two years before 3 Idiots. Then we heard that Omi had gotten this role [as Chatur] in 3 Idiots. Omi was over at my house hanging out one time, and he started talking to a friend of mine, who's from an area right next to India. He was telling him about Aamir Khan and the movie, and my friend just started freaking out, “What?! You're acting with Aamir Khan?! Oh my God!” And I was like, “Huh. That guy's reacting really weird. Maybe there's a story in here.”
Then Tyler and I, one night, were talking, and we called up some friends in the middle of the night and came up with this documentary idea. Then we started stalking Omi, following him around…
APA: [to Omi] So you had no choice?
Kenny: He had some choice. I mean, if he had said no, we wouldn't have done it.
Omi: Yeah. When I went to India, I was all alone, and I'm in this world that I don't understand. Having some friends there was a little bit of comfort, even if they are taking advantage of me and recording me for their own benefits.
But there was a story. I didn't believe that there would be. I thought I would just be in a big-budget Bollywood film as a small actor. But they had faith in me and faith that they had a story, and one appeared -- a big one. They got a really exciting story of rise-to-fame in a matter of hours.
APA: How has your fame with 3 Idiots resonated with you here [in America] in particular?
Omi: That's a good question. It has somewhat resonated in certain communities. When I go to certain Indian communities, I can't walk around. I'll have to take photos with everyone.
Tyler: You don't go to 7-Eleven anymore.
Omi: No, I don't. I really don't. I go to 7-Eleven and I'm like, “Oh, he's Indian, I gotta get outta here,” because I'll have to take photos with them. I mean, I got a free…what's it called?
Omi: I got a free Slurpee once.
Tyler: 64[oz] or 32[oz]?
Omi: No. Come on, they're Indian, it was like 16 or something.
Kenny: It's probably like 12oz.
Tyler: A little thimble taste.
Omi: [laughs] But anyway, in other ways, it hasn't changed at all. So I can go to India and I can be a big Bollywood star, and I'll come back to LA and nobody knows me. It's kind of nice to have a little bit of both worlds.
Vaidya promoting his recently-released 2012 film Players.
APA: So would you like to continue to navigate between Bollywood and Hollywood? Are you considering moving to India for a longer period of time?
Omi: I don't know. The first 24-25 years of my identity is so steeped in America, even though I am of Indian origin. I feel like I'm an American most of the time. My comedic timing and everything is more Americanized. Even my friends are American, as you can tell.
Kenny: You were born and raised in America.
Omi: Yeah, so it would be really hard for me to go to India full-time. I know I could do it, but I still think I have a lot to offer for Hollywood. I've been in shows like The Office and Arrested Development, so I could still do that. It's just finding that break. And I feel like both the Indian industry and the American industry, and the whole world, are just becoming one. [In the future, for] all of the products, they're going to put one Indian guy, one Taiwanese guy, and one Hong Kong guy in a film, just so they can get the whole market. I mean, that's what's going to happen in twenty years for Spiderman 31, you know?
Tyler: But they haven't made Spiderman 30 yet.
Omi: Yeah, we're waiting for that. But once that happens, they're going to be wanting people that can speak English but who are very commercial to the Indian territories. And I will be there, with my -- hopefully -- 5-10 movies that I've already done. So I feel like that's gonna be what it is.
APA: Omi, when you were making guest appearances in public, there were these huge crowds. What were some of the logistical challenges in shooting Big in Bollywood, especially in India?
Omi: I mean, that was crazy. I never thought… Living in America, we see fans, we see concerts, maybe we see a lot of people, but that sort of fandemonium that happens in India, with thousands of people... There's so many people that you can't even focus on one. It's like some abstract painting; it's unfathomable. For those people to be so excited to see me, a person that doesn't speak the language well, who never grew up in the country, who doesn't understand the sensibilities, it's just mind-boggling. So I'm always just trying to cope and trying to play the role that they want me to play, but it always feels awkward and never enough at the same time. But they all seem very happy, and that's why I keep doing it.
[To Kenny and Tyler] What were some of your problems in India?
Kenny: It was pretty challenging, being there, for us. I mean, we got sick. Just renting an apartment -- they don't really rent apartments to foreigners. That took like a full-time week, just looking for an apartment. I don't know. I just feel like the challenges of communicating and the language were vastly more than what we were expecting.
Tyler: Another challenge, as filmmakers, was [that] we weren't exactly sure where our story was going.
Tyler: So we had about six different B storylines. We knew we were following Omi, but we didn't know he was going to be famous. It was like we were following the underdog's sports team, and they just so happened to have won the gold medal in the Olympics or the Superbowl. Of course, we didn't know that was going to happen. We hoped for it. But if you watch the film, there's an awards ceremony, and -- well, not to give anything away -- but we sure put our money on the right horse.
Omi: You just gave it away.
Tyler: I'm never going to give the film away. I'm the producer, I gotta sell it.
Big in Bollywood dance rehearsal. Photo courtesy of the film's Facebook page.
APA: You concluded the film with a Bollywood dance.
Omi: All Bollywood films have dancing and singing, and our film is about Bollywood. It's such a fun, good time when you're watching it. You feel like you're part of the gang and going through the journey. We didn't want to end just normally like any film: “Oh, he's doing well” or “Now this is what he's doing.” We just wanted to have a big party at the end.
I didn't know if it was going to be in the film, they didn't know if it was going to be in the film. It was such a great experience that I think there was sort of a celebration that happened -- and that included a big Bollywood number.
So they got a song produced in India, they got dancers, and they got a music video director. This was all done without my knowledge. And I just showed up that day to do whatever they wanted, because that was one of their last days in India. And that's what they made me do. It's a sweet thing, just like if you watch the [end of] Slumdog Millionaire. It's really nice that at the end of the film they do a nice number.
Tyler: It pays homage to Bollywood.
Omi: It feels good. The audience feels good. Everybody feels good.
For more information on Big in Bollywood, go to their official website.