Q&A with Kenny Meehan and Bill Bowles: Big in Bollywood

    A scene from Big In Bollywood.
    A scene from Big In Bollywood.
    Ray Kouguell
    Luck often means being in the right place at the right time.  But talent also helps. VOA's Ray Kouguell tell us about a new documentary showing how all of that came together for an actor who ended up in Bollywood’s top money-making film of all-time.
    His name is Omi Vaidya, an American-born actor who is not well known in the United States but a very big name in India.   After struggling for parts in Hollywood, an audition for an Indian film at the age of 27  turned his life around.  Omi’s  inability to speak Hindi helped win him a role as a non-resident Indian in the Bollywood comedy called “Three Idiots. ” The story about friendship, competition and making fun of India’s educational system turned into the country’s biggest money-making movie ever. Omi decided to invite four of his college buddies to go along with him to the 2009 premier in Mumbai-and film a documentary about the experience.  But none of them had a clue about what was coming.

    Although Omi had a small part playing the role of Chatur, the fourth idiot-it’s a speech he delivers before an assembly that launched him to instant fame.  He uses an obscenity in place of the word “miracle” and the rest is Bollywood history.  Omi became an overnight success and public appearances to promote the film turned into mob scenes.  “Three Idiots” was a tremendous hit sweeping 10 awards at India’s  prestigious Star-Screen Awards-including two for Omi-as Most Promising Newcomer and Best actor in a Comedy. 
    All of Omi’s instant stardom, along with his efforts to maintain a balanced domestic married life back home in California, are captured in the documentary called “Big in Bollywood”-- co-directed by  Kenny Meehan and Bill Bowles.  I spoke with both of them about their experiences and the unexpected turn the story took because of Omi’s sudden fame.  I begin with Meehan who talks about the decision to do the film.

    MEEHAN: Accepting Omi’s invitation was surprisingly easy. Obviously, it’s a big deal to fly to India from the US. Actually, the bigger thing was really convincing my friends that we all should go together and that there was a worthwhile documentary story that I thought we could capture if we went to India.

    KOUGUELL: What made the producer of the “Three Idiots” pick Omi for the role as a non-resident Indian?

    MEEHAN: I know that the producer had auditioned a lot of different actors for this role. I think when he saw Omi’s audition tape, Omi had a certain, very realistic character that he was able to present. Omi’s parents came from India. Omi was actually born in California and so he’s always had this kind of dichotomy going you know, back and forth, from speaking partial Hindi with his parents and then having a total California accent when he’s at school. I think Omi was able to kind of present that and leverage that in a comedic way.

    KOUGUELL: Bill, was it difficult to adapt your film making in the wake of the tremendous popular success of the “Three Idiots” and Omi in particular?

    BOWLES: Well yea, it was difficult to follow Omi once he was famous. There was no problem for us before the premier. We followed Omi around, we hung out with him, we interviewed him and then as soon as he was famous after the movie came out, which happened pretty quickly, it was very difficult to not just to get a hold of him, because he was so busy, but also just to sometimes find him in the crowd.

    KOUGUELL: Why do you think Omi’s speech in the film, which propelled him to such fame, received such an overwhelming response?

    BOWLES: The speech is kind of a tricky issue, but what I think about it is that one word that he uses. It was the first time that the word was spoken in a major motion picture in India and so they kind of had a scandal power to it. Because Omi was a foreigner and he was playing character who didn’t know what he was saying, the audience kind of allowed it, even though the word itself is very offensive and it was done in a really funny way by an outsider so it’s okay.

    KOUGUELL: Kenny, were you surprised by the intense passion felt by Indian audiences for this film?

    MEEHAN: The reaction that the audience had for the movie “three Idiots” was very surprising. Everyone was talking about it, everyone was singing the songs, the songs were all over the radio. Also I guess the subject matter of “three Idiots” really seem to resonate throughout Indian culture and I think that was something that caught us all off guard a little bit, because part of the reason that “three Idiots” was such a hit is that it was a film that was speaking to the younger generation of India.

    KOUGUELL: Bill, how does Omi feel back in the United States after all the adoration that he received in India?

    BOWLES: Omi loves it back here in the States. This is his home. I know that he definitely enjoys going to India and he enjoys working, but his wife is here and his home is in California. You know, in a lot of ways he kind of has the best of both world. He can go travelling to India and have a little dose of fame, you know, and be adored and sign autographs and all that. Then he can come home and just be a normal guy. So I think at this point, I think he prefers being normal guy back here, but at the same time it’s pretty fun for him to be able to go and be famous in India.

    KOUGUELL: Bowles and Meehan have put together a high-energy documentary about a most unusual road trip. Along the way you get to know an engaging actor whose professional life hits spectacular heights with his good friends along for the ride.  “Big in Bollywood” is a journey you  too should join.  More than 30 international film festival screenings and a US release coming this Spring is proof of that.
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