Vivek Oberoi: I am attracted to grey characters
Ahead of the release of his second Malayalam outing, Kaduva, Vivek Oberoi discusses his penchant for unconventional characters
Twenty years ago, Vivek Oberoi was set to debut under the direction of Abbas-Mustan, the director duo behind ‘90s blockbusters like Baazigar, Soldier and Khiladi. Vivek’s father, actor Suresh Oberoi, was willing to pool in a substantial chunk of his life’s savings to launch his son. One fine morning, Vivek walked up to his dad, who was having chai, and broke the news that he wasn’t interested in the project, and instead wanted to grab a role of his taste. Months of auditions and rejections later, Vivek did what would go on to become an urban legend. When Ram Gopal Varma called him "too polished” to play the roguish Chandu bhai in Company (2002), he spent three weeks in a slum to prepare for the part, observing people go with their routine, clicking pictures of the locality. He then walked into RGV’s office with the swag he had absorbed from his recce and bagged the role that launched him to stardom.
Twenty years later, the actor believes his commitment to acting and pursuit hasn’t shrunk a bit. In his next, Shaji Kailas' Kaduva, he plays Joseph, a character he describes as “a devoted Christian from Pala who has earned his reputation. A man who loves his mother, wife, and kids, and is conscious about upholding his family’s name.”
Vivek believes understanding the milieu and the culture his character emerges from is essential as an actor. He is also aware that the structure of Malayalam cinema cannot pay him the way he gets paid in Hindi. “But it is double the work because you have to learn the language and think in the language. I am serious about it; I don’t casually opt for mouthing random dialogues instead of saying the actual lines. I respect other languages. When I do a film in Tamil, Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu or Marathi, I spend the time learning not just the language but the cultural references,” Vivek says, adding that his process for Kaduva was no different. “I had to imbibe the thought process of a Pala man, understanding the mentality of the plantation people and the Christian community. I would do research and homework to understand how they behave and think.”
Vivek admits that he commits to a role—completely aware of the extra effort that it demands—when he believes the process ensures a good time and if he likes the people he is collaborating with. “I don’t think I have completed signing my contract for Kaduva yet,” Vivek says with a smile. “I am quite old-school in that sense; if I give my word, I will do it.” On this front, he is all praises for team Kaduva and Prithviraj. “I love Prithvi and [his wife] Supriya. They are like family now; our kids play together. Listin is an ever-smiling producer; we had a riot-like situation on the set at 2 am while filming a huge climax sequence. He calmly told me, ‘It is okay, sir. Pack up. Sleep. We will take care of it.’ Only on the following day did I realise the seriousness of the issue. It is a great team and they have all done a great job.”
The actor goes on to add that Malayalam cinema stands out from other industries in terms of characters that are being etched out. Speaking about Jinu V Abraham’s script and treatment of characters, Vivek shares, “It is a norm to have a Ram and a Raavan pit against each other. That is the typical thought process. But what I like about Malayalam cinema is that they will explore two male egos and if you observe carefully, they are both right in their own way. In Kaduva, if you look at Joseph’s perspective, he is right. It is a minor issue that triggers his ugly side and brings out his ego which then turns into the arrogance of power. This applies to both the characters. Either of them could have relented and put an end to the conflict over a conversation; the film wouldn’t have existed then.”
For someone who began his career with a grey character, it’s no surprise that the actor went on to paint several shades of grey throughout his career—be it Maya Dolas, a young gangster, from Shootout at Lokhandwala (2007); Pratap Ravi, a youngster who paves his way to politics with violence in the Raktha Charitra duology (2010); the comic book-ish villain Kaal in Krrish 3 (2013); Aryan Singha, a smart opponent to Ajith Kumar in Vivegam (2017); Bobby, a charming devil in disguise in Lucifer (2019); or the out-and-out baddie Raja Bhai Munna in Vinaya Vidheya Rama (2019). Many of his recent choices have indicated an inclination towards grey. “I am personally attracted to grey characters. In mythology, we have the maryadha purushotham Ram, who can do no wrong. I, however, connect with Krishna more than Ram. I find making difficult choices more exciting. I think that’s also the direction contemporary cinema is moving towards,” Vivek explains. “If you see Kaduva, Prithvi has played his character in a way that lets you see his mistakes as well. He has a grey side too. Like I said, that’s what I love about Malayalam cinema. I enjoy playing these characters.”
Vivek’s choices have always been punctuated by non-conformism and diversity. “I am crazy that way; I am a mad guy. When I started my career, everybody wanted me to have a typical launch vehicle with designer clothes and dance numbers; I did Company. When that worked out, everyone advised me to stick to action; I did Saathiya (2002), a romance. People wondered what is wrong with me when I signed the web series Inside Edge in 2017; when it received an Emmy nomination, they applauded,” Vivek says. “Kuch toh log kahenge. To me, it is never about what people say, but having a good time and enjoying yourself.” Looking at the variety of roles and films Vivek is being a part of, he is clearly having a good time.