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Interview Hindi

Exclusive: Gurgaon is the crown jewel of my career so far, says Akshay Oberoi

US-born actor Akshay Oberoi credits the Shanker Raman film with changing his career but wishes it had been released better.

Mayur Lookhar

The gift of the gab is unnecessary for someone blessed with hypnotic eyes. Nothing said and they can still cast a spell on you.

While Akshay Oberoi’s light-green eyes have sex appeal, they also go a long way in helping the actor pull off intense characters.

In 2017, Oberoi was appreciated for his portrayal of Nikki Singh, a chauvinistic Haryanvi young man whose lust for power consumes his family, in Gurgaon (2017). While the character was restrained in speech, Nikki Singh’s light-eyed cold-bloodedness reflected the chaos within.

A year later, though not cold, Oberoi was seen playing this confused youth Angad in Akshat Verma’s Kaalakaandi. 

Born in the United States, Akshay Oberoi had his first tryst with celluloid as a 17-year-old in the little-known film American Chai (2001). Nine years later, he played his maiden leading role in Vidhi Kasliwal’s slice-of-life tale Isi Life Mein...! (2010).

Akshay is a nephew of veteran actor Suresh Oberoi and cousin of Vivek, but he has grown gradually in his career without most people noticing the connection.

The 33-year-old is currently seen in Hungama Digital’s web-series Bar Code, a bitter tale of one-upmanship. In an exclusive interview with Cinestaan.com, Akshay Oberoi spoke about his journey so far, what he has learnt about acting and about the business of nightclubs. Excerpts:

First it was Gurgaon (2017), then Kaalakaandi (2018). Now in Bar Code you own a nightclub. Add to that the fact that you were born on 1 January, that too in America. I guess that makes you the ideal man to go clubbing in films and web-series?

(Laughs) I think so. It’s in my destiny. Well, studying, working in America, helped. I have seen a lot of people like this [Sahil Chopra, his character in Bar Code]. I have seen nightclub owners, wild parties in New York City.

Vignesh Shetty [director of Bar Code] is a master of all nightlife. Every Sunday you will find him in some bar or the other. He has been researching this for the last 15 years. He came up with this fantastic idea.

For some reason, we have never covered it. Those who live in Delhi and Mumbai and other metros are familiar with the nightlife. People in the smaller cities are curious to know about the nightlife in the metros. I feel the subject works across many audiences.

Be it a nightclub or any other business or profession, no matter how hard we try to focus on just ourselves, eventually we all have to enter the rat race. Does it get very dirty in Bar Code?

Yes, it does. As the trailer kind of hints, Sahil and Vicky Arora were friends once. Once ego seeps into friendship, however, it becomes a whole different ball game. The drama stems from this friends-turned-foes saga.

We have seen business rivalries before, but I don’t recollect seeing a nightclub war. Is this story refreshing enough to attract an audience?

We have never made any content on nightclubs. I think the early numbers are quite solid. I reckon we got about 20 million hits for the trailer. That is huge for a web-series.

Honestly, I was surprised by the numbers in the show. Hungama also has a large subscriber base, but they were more into the regional space. Our trailer will be screened when Baazaar (2018) is released. [The interview was conducted before the release of Baazaar.] Also, the way we are promoting Bar Code, it is similar to promoting a feature film. I think the penetration has been more than my films. Nightlife is always an interesting thing.

For the show to get eyeballs, don’t you think Bar Code will have to be promoted as a rat-race story more than as a web-series about clubbing?

I think the digital space is an interesting space. It reminds me of how films used to be in the 1990s. It wasn’t about the opening weekend collections. Back then, you spoke about films running for weeks, silver jubilees, golden jubilees. With the digital space, once your show goes live, you are still promoting it. Like I am talking to you now. If the content is strong, there is no such thing as failed marketing.

What I meant to say was that through the trailer, people shouldn’t perceive it as something else.

I agree with you. The film Pizza (2014) was perceived as a horror film, but the horror content was only about 15-20 minutes. It actually turned out to be a murder mystery, a thriller. The original Tamil film, released in 2012, was promoted accordingly. However, we [the Hindi remake] promised horror and the audience didn’t find any.

I guess we learnt our lessons there. Bar Code is largely about the business competition, which I believe comes easily through the trailer. We have been honest in our campaign.

Each film teaches an actor about the world of the character he enacts. What did you learn about the business of nightclubs in India? 

I didn't know there is a Food and Drugs Administration. There are agencies, unions of these people. I wasn’t aware that the top guys in the nightlife business, they actually set the rules. If they tell you not to sell a particular alcohol, you have to obey. I had no idea this is a regulated business.

Every business in this country is chaotic. That is why only the good businessman survives. I did my research and found out that there are so many levels of pay-offs [bribes to be allowed to operate], these expenses run into lakhs of rupees. This is like a fire-and-ice business. It's very difficult to sustain.

I believe you are part of a couple of more web-series. Can you talk about them? 

I am currently shooting for a Netflix show called Selection Day, based on Aravind Adiga’s novel of the same title. It has Mahesh Manjrekar and Ratna Pathak Shah. Then I’m doing a show for Voot [a digital platform] called Law And Order. It has Neha Sharma and Piyush Mishra. Then I have a couple of films, Chhote Nawab (2019), Junglee (2019). There is another web-series which has Swara Bhasker.

As of today, the internet has no censorship, and we are getting edgy, bold content on digital platforms. But shouldn’t Indian filmmakers exercise caution that no censorship doesn’t mean you show everything?

Barring one or two shows, I don’t think anyone is taking advantage. There are a couple of shows on a certain platform that may be risqué and are using foul language too much. But 99.99% of web-series being made in this country right now, if they take them to theatres, I don't think the CBFC [Central Board of Film Certification] will stop them.

On the web-series, you get a little more freedom. If a particular character is abusive in nature, you can show it. If he is having sex with his wife or girlfriend four times a day, you can show it. We don't show like complete nudity. Studios and corporations backing these shows are international companies. No one is going to put their reputation at stake. Everybody has corporate responsibility in mind when they put shows together.

A Sacred Games or a Games Of Thrones works not just because it has violence and sex, but primarily because it has strong storytelling. Only then will viewers binge on the content. Do you agree?

Correct. If you force stuff into your show, then you are irresponsible. But if you are showing it for the benefit of your storytelling, there is nothing wrong with it. Indian audiences are very knowledgeable. We don't give them enough credit.

You were much appreciated in Gurgaon (2017). The film received great reviews. How do you look back at that film and your performance? How important was it for your career?

Gurgaon is the crown jewel of my career so far. My films haven't worked at the box office, but my work has often been appreciated. Earlier films were liked by some and didn’t appeal to some. Gurgaon is the only film that was unanimously appreciated by the media, critics and viewers.

I knew this [would be the case] while we were making this film. I felt we were making something special. I had totally immersed myself in this film. [Director} Shanker Raman is a genius. As actors, it’s great to have validation. Any actor who says this is untrue is lying. All the work I am getting now, the appreciation that I received as an actor, is largely because of Gurgaon.

The film, though, could have been released better. I wish it were marketed better. Most people have watched the film on Netflix and Hotstar. I remember telling [Gurgaon co-star] Pankaj Tripathi that once this film comes online, people will watch it. The reviews obviously helped.

It’s not often that through the chaos in one family, a film can tell what ails a particular region. Gurgaon showed the dark side of Haryana.

Absolutely. When I walked out of the screening it didn't matter to me what people felt. I found it so good. I usually am not able to watch myself on screen. The only time I watched it was at the special screening. I got reactions from Haryana, where most people said we have made an honest film. They simply said, “Yeah, this is the real Gurgaon.”

Nikki Singh is a reflection of today's Haryanvi youth, who has inherited wealth on account of his father selling off their lands but still struggles for acceptance in society. Is that a stereotype or a fair reflection?

I think it is a fair reflection. We said at the beginning of the film that it is based on true events. We told the story of one family. Such people have wealth but they are dead inside. They are hollow. A lot of this stems from their attitude where the son believes he is entitled to run his father's business. So, when that business doesn't come to you... (pauses) Nikki is shocked to know that his father is handing over the business to his daughter, an orphan. Nikki feels I am the 'man of the house'. I am the firstborn. I deserve the opportunity.

In my first meeting with Shanker Raman, he told me the film is about the chaos within Nikki. He has suppressed a volcano within him.

What was it like to face off with someone like Pankaj Tripathi in Gurgaon?

Pankaj Tripathi in Gurgaon (2017)

I have been lucky to have worked with some good actors. What I love about Pankaj is that he is a very easygoing guy. Here he is playing such a mean, dark character, but he knows when to switch on and off. I love the ease with which he approaches his role. Acting is all about relaxing. The more relaxed you are, the better your work will be. That is the approach of Pankajji. He is unperturbed by fame or success. I remember he used to say, I have flowed here like a river, and if I didn’t succeed, I would have flowed like a river back to my village.

You honed your skills at some reputed institutions. I believe you have learnt the Meisner technique. Would you be able to simplify that for the desi audience?

Sanford Meisner believed in simplifying the acting technique so that everyone can understand. He felt acting is all about listening and reacting. It’s like how we are talking right now. I don’t know what is going to be my next word. He felt that all preparation, animal study, emotional sense, memory, etc, simply forget all that. Just be in the scene, listen and respond.

So, this technique relies more on instinct, instant reaction, improvisation?

Yeah, the idea is that better the actor, better the instincts. The more you work as an actor, the better your instincts will become. Do your preps and rehearsals, but once you reach the sets, he wants you to throw all of it out of the window. You know the situation. Listen to the lines of the other actor and react accordingly.

Yes, it leads to improvisation. So it becomes a problem when you are working on... when I worked in Fitoor (2016), the language pertains to a time period. In that scenario, you have to stick to the lines. To a certain extent Gurgaon, too, had the same issue. As long as the director or the screenwriter are okay with it, a lot of improvisation happens. Improvisation keeps me fresh and real.

I’ve heard Ranbir Kapoor say in an interview that all that he learnt from the Lee Strasberg acting school did not help him in Hindi cinema. You, too, have honed your skills abroad. Do you feel the same?

Everything that I have learnt, I have used all the way till Gurgaon. Each actor has their own experiences. My thought is that this [learning acting from the Stella Adler Studio of Acting] is the best thing that happened to me. Because I had learnt acting, done theatre [with the veteran Makarand Deshpande], I was able to do auditions confirmedly. If I hadn’t learned so much, then my performance in Gurgaon wouldn’t have been the same.

I was 15 when I told my father I wanted to be an actor. He kept quiet for 10 minutes and then said, “Fine if you want to be an actor, but please note, it’s not in your hands to become a star. You should strive to become an actor. Learn the craft.” I may not be a Varun Dhawan, but whatever I have achieved, it is all due to that education.

You also learnt acting from John Astin. I am not sure how many today are familiar with him, but he played Gomez Addams in the 1964 TV series The Addams Family.

John Astin (left) in a still from the TV series The Addams Family

That man is special! Before I met him, I never believed in the mentor-disciple relationship. He is the greatest thing that could have happened to me.

On the first day of his class [at Johns Hopkins University], I was stunned to find that he is the John Astin from The Addams Family. While I knew who he was, I wasn't aware that he used to teach acting there.

He is like a second father to me. When I graduated, he said you are going to India to work in 'Bollywood'? I said yes. He asked me to stay back as I wasn’t ready yet. He asked me to dedicate another year to understand the craft. It was on his recommendation that I sought admission to the [Stella Adler school].

He changed my perspective, my goals towards acting. If it wasn’t for him, I perhaps would have just aimed to be Shah Rukh Khan. I no longer wanted to be a star. I only thought about respecting the craft, the art.

You were born and brought up in America, but, remarkably, you don’t have the American accent. As a matter of fact, your Hindi diction is quite good.

Well, thankfully, my parents made sure Hindi was spoken at home. From the age of 13-14, I thought of becoming an actor. I had a sense that I am not on the backfoot because I have studied in America. I have studied Hindi literature carefully to ensure I get a good grip on the language. I have a flair for accents too. You need to have a manic passion.

Your father is Suresh Oberoi's brother. Any early memories of your uncle or cousin Vivek when they came to the US?

Suresh Oberoi

To be honest, we have not been very close, for whatever family reason, but I have always watched their work. My father used to tell me watch how your Tauji [older paternal uncle] works. Of course, I have seen Vivek’s work. They are both fine actors, and they are inspirational. Though we didn't meet often, they are still family.

I don’t know if your filmi connections helped, but you seem to have grown in your career without too many people noticing you are Suresh Oberoi's nephew.

That’s true. Most people are shocked when they learn that. The directors and producers I have worked with, some of them didn’t know this. Six months after working with them, they come asking, 'Are you Vivek’s brother?’

I am proud that I have grown without most people knowing my relationship with Suresh uncle and Vivek. Ordinary people may comment that he is here because of his family, but people from the media, the industry know how I have struggled my way till here. Brick by brick, my career is being built.

From American Chai to Bar Code, how do you look at the journey so far?

I have learnt about acting along the way. My only hope is that people don't stop hiring me. Whatever work I have been getting, I hope to get in future too. Let’s hope directors and producers keep signing me up. I don't want anything in life other than to act. This fear [of losing work] stems from my earlier experience when I scarcely got any. From Isi Life Mein...! (2010) to Pizza (2014), it was a long gap. I’m a workaholic, so I have to keep working.