You entered Bollywood with the gangster drama ‘Company’. How was the big debut planned?
Now, nepotism is a big word, but back in the day, it was very normal for every film guy of the second or third generation to be launched by his dad and for me also, it was the same. Son has returned from New York, let’s launch him–there was this whole setup with Abbas-Mustan. It was all going solid but in the middle of that, I had this crisis of conscience. My dad is my idol and he came in and made it purely on merit, no last name, nobody writing any kind of letters for him. He just auditioned and made it. And I said, I want to do it the same way. And the thought I had was that if something goes wrong with this film, my dad’s life savings were on the line. And I’d seen a lot of people doing the same thing and going bust. So for me, it was very scary. And I just had these sleepless nights and I went to my dad and said, ‘I can’t do the film, I’ll struggle like you’, and he said, ‘but I built a platform, so you don’t have to struggle!’ A few weeks later, I met Abbas-Mustan, apologised to them saying I will not be doing their film.
So, how did ‘Company’ happen?
I struggled for a-year-and-half, went to every single studio, and auditioned across the board, dropped my last name because I didn’t want anybody to know that I was Suresh Oberoi’s son. And the one thing that I realised is that you get a lot of free advice in India and most of the time it’s useless. So, I saw many people telling me don’t become an actor, give up it’s a terrible career or you don’t belong here, or you can never be an actor–a lot of statements like that. So, I kind of had my own version of Arya Stark’s diary, I used to write down all the names of people and would tell myself, ‘One day, this guy will come to my house to sign me’. So, I went through all of that, and then I found out that RGV was casting for this film. I was a huge fan of his work. During my college days, I was also working as a dubbing artist–which is how I earned my pocket money–so I had also dubbed for ‘Satya’ in English. That’s how I first met him but it was only later that he met me as an actor. However, he didn’t remember me then.
When ‘Company’ released, everyone loved your gangster avatar, and with ‘Saathiya’ you were the hero that everyone wanted to date. So with every film was the pressure mounting to perform differently?
Well, actually it was really funny, because when I made a decision to do ‘Saathiya’, everyone, including my mentor RGV, was really upset and told me that it was a terrible decision. They told me it’s a career killer and that I was crazy. I had just established myself as a man’s man and people advised me to continue doing action movies. But I was an actor. I just wanted to do every different colour of cinema. ‘Saathiya’, to me, was a really interesting challenge. Shaad (Ali) and I have been friends for eons and suddenly he told me that I had to do a film with him. I saw the original, spoke to Mani sir and that was it! Post the success of ‘Saathiya’, it was very different because then everybody started saying, ‘Oh wow, you’ve done this, now only do love stories, don’t do anything else’. The perception, until then, was that this one guy does one kind of cinema, the other guy does the other kind of cinema. You don’t mix the two. But I didn’t want to bind myself in a stereotype. And I really enjoyed coming out from an extreme character like ‘Chandu’ to playing Aditya in ‘Saathiya’, which was even more difficult because there was no homework I could do.
Do you remember the best compliment you received for your performance in ‘Saathiya’?
My biggest compliment was when Mani sir, who had written the film and worked on the original, came to me and said, ‘You surprise me’. He told me, ‘I’d like to do a film with you’. And I was like, ‘Sir, that would be my honour’. And that’s how ‘Yuva’ happened. So, for me, ‘Saathiya’ was an amazing experience.
You’ve had your family’s support, industry’s blessings, and box office success. What is more important to you–audience validation or box-office?
I always thought that the box office was more important and felt that that’s what made you and empowered you because it’s economics, and economics gives you the power to do what you want. But then I realised that when you look at a film, like ‘Saathiya’ for example, nobody cared what the budget of the film was. We made it on a shoestring budget and nobody cared what the collections of the film were or what it earned in the first week or second week. 18 or 19 years later, people only talk about how they loved the film or what they felt when they saw the film, and I have realised that that’s all it is. It’s a feeling of contentment and that’s what made me want to be an actor and connect with so many people. When I met Shah Rukh (Khan) for the first time on the sets of ‘Saathiya’, it was the same emotion as watching him in ‘DDLJ’ with my then-girlfriend in the theater, it was that emotion. It wasn’t how much money he was making or how much did the film collect. I didn’t care about any of the data or the statistics. To me, it was what he made me feel. And I think that’s what I’ve realised now, after so many years, that it’s actually purely an artistic medium.
You started off as a baddie in ‘Company’, then ‘Omkara’ and ‘Krrish 3’ saw you playing shades of grey. How difficult is it to not repeat yourself with such roles? How do you choose your scripts?
I try to do them differently. I mean, after I did ‘Shootout At Lokhandwala’, I was flooded with offers of only gangster films. I refused to do it. With ‘Kesu Firangi’ (Omkara), he was less of a gangster, more of a loverboy. The innocence of Kesu and the immaculate faith he had in Omi Bhaiya (Ajay Devgn), was beautiful. There was a moment in that film when we were shooting on top of a mountain in Prague when Omi anoints Kesu as the next Baahubali instead of the senior Langdya Tyagi. Vishal (Bhardwaj) bhai, who is a phenomenal director, asked me what I should do in the situation and I said the character would be lost for words. He asked me if I could do the same just through expressions, and we did it. And after that scene, Vishal bhai came and hugged me, and he just didn’t stop hugging me! When I watched the film later, it was an amazing experience and I ended up winning some very coveted awards for that performance. So, I think, it depends upon each script I like to pick. I mean, it’s not that I’ve picked only great scripts; I’ve picked some really trashy ones also and I laugh at my own failures. I don’t take them seriously but I’ve had the good fortune of doing some fabulous roles.
Is there any movie that you regret turning down?
In the early stages, yes, there were a few I couldn’t end up doing. But I guess every actor has these films in his career, which he ends up not doing and somebody else does. In my case, I also got the benefit of other actors not doing those roles. For both ‘Company’ and ‘Saathiya’, I was not the first choice. So, that helped me make my career too. Such things happen in the industry all the time.
So, how do you deal with things when a film does not work out?
I love talking to all the wise seniors in my industry, and love listening to them reveling in their tales and anecdotes. And the late Chintu uncle (Rishi Kapoor) once told me something that I will always remember. He said, ‘The only way to stay sane as an actor is that you don’t take your success seriously, and don’t take your failure seriously. Think of it as an attempt, whether successful or a failed one’. It’s like a player who plays a match. It does not define his ability. He’s the same player, who’s able to win a match also and can lose a match too. You fail as an actor only if you start compromising on your performance, or are not honest with your art and even with the film you are doing. I’ve done that too. I’ve been through that experience where I’ve just done a film out of pressure, out of a relationship, or due to the money being offered. I’ve done films for the wrong reasons too. And then it was a punishment, sitting on the sets and wishing I wasn’t there. And then after those experiences, I said, no, no matter what, I’ll do something else, but I won’t do something that I don’t believe in and don’t enjoy.
After nearly two decades in Bollywood, what is that one learning which has stayed with you?
I think in a very simplistic way, because when young people come to meet me and ask for advice–even though advice is useless because everybody has to find their own path–one thing that I always tell them is that the industry is very personal space. So, success is also very personal when people say, ‘Vivek, I love you,’ and failure is also very personal, you are trolled, attacked. So if you’re going to take it personally, you’re constantly placing your mental peace of mind and your happiness in the hands of other people. And that’s a very difficult way to live. So, I always tell people two simple lines in Hindi: ‘
Bure waqt mein ghabrana nahi, ache waqt mein paglana nahi’ (Don’t get scared of the bad times and don’t let the good times go to your head). That sums up the whole ethos. Bad times? Don’t worry, everybody goes through bad times and the good times are crazier.
Given a chance, is there something that you would want to change or do differently in your career?
I really had a good time. If I had to think back and really nitpick, I think I would not have mixed my personal and professional life. And that’s something that I always tell young people who come to me. Because being actors, being emotional, people, being artists, it’s very easy to blend the two and then you make mistakes, wrong decisions. So, you have to be very responsible with what you’ve been given because there are no two ways about it. There must be a million, much more talented actors than I, but I’ve got the opportunity and I’ve been blessed. And that’s a responsibility. You have to take care of it. You can’t treat it casually like I did! In my life, I have made the mistake of blending the two and not treated it with the respect that it deserves separately. Your art has to be sacrosanct. Your career is your art and therefore your career has to be sacrosanct.
If you had to pick one best performance and one terrible performance from your career, which ones would that be?
I can’t say which is my best performance because, in different zones, I’ve enjoyed different roles. To me, I did a Malayalam film called ‘Lucifer’, opposite the legendary Mohanlal and it was so difficult because it was so subtle and I had to be this guy who was the hero of his own movie. In his own world, Bobby, my character, is right in everything that he does. On the outside, he was so easy, charming, and relaxed, but on the inside, he was so messed up and twisted. And that was an interesting journey for me to do it, especially for the language and to be able to match up with the legendary Mohanlal and then to win awards for it. Malayalam cinema is very evolved, they are very superior in terms of their quality of cinema. So, to go there and to perform like that, it’s one of those performances that I’ve really enjoyed. And then, in Hindi, I think a film like ‘Shootout At Lokhandwala’ was interesting for me because it was a blend between larger-than-life and real, swagger, emotions, attitude. Doing the attitude and not coming across as filmy was the tough part, and I think that really worked for me! As for terrible movies, I’ve done quite a few roles that I’ve hated, and felt that I shouldn’t have done. ‘Kismat Love Paisa Dilli’ with Mallika (Sherawat) tops the list; I should’ve never done that film (laughs).