It was the proverbial phone call every aspiring actor waits for. An agent for a TV producer rang Raj Vasudeva in 2003 to say he would be perfect for a role in a new show that needed a dynamic lead.
Vasudeva, 33, eagerly invited the agent over to view his modeling portfolio and acting tapes. The agent flipped through a book that featured shots of the former Mr. India California crawling through the surf seductively with a dress shirt fluttering open. The agent said he was impressed. Vasudeva thought he had the role, but then the real audition began.
"'Can I be blunt with you?’” Vasudeva recalled the agent saying. "'Are you ready to get your ass fucked by men and older women?’”
Vasudeva laughed at the sleazy suggestion and said no. The interview ended abruptly, and the agent tossed the following advice at Vasudeva as he left the meeting in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay: "If you're coming to Bollywood, you have to be shameless."
Welcome to Bollywood, or as they say in India, Bollywood mein aap kaa swaagat ho. Vasudeva, who was born in Delhi but spent much of his life in San Francisco, is trying to accomplish something no US resident has ever done: become a top star in the world's largest film industry.
For anyone still not familiar with Bollywood, it's entertainment on a scale that can make your average Hollywood production look like Saved by the Bell. The films are a brawling mix of Broadway-style song and dance, bling that rivals a 50 Cent video, and dizzying scene changes across two or even three continents. The pictures often mash up elements of drama, comedy, and action into a single bursting-at-the-seams melodrama that can last more than three hours.
Bollywood has grown increasingly popular in the United States over the last five years. While it was a lackluster summer for many of Hollywood's big summer releases, Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna (Never Say Goodbye) grossed $1.4 million in US theaters during its opening weekend in August — the best showing ever by a Bollywood movie in this country. The film shows Nov. 11 at 8:15 p.m. in the Castro Theatre as part of the San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival (www.thirdi.org/festival).
Vasudeva's transformation into an aspiring actor might work nicely as a plot for a Bollywood film. Vasudeva came to the States in 1990 to attend college. He graduated with a degree in industrial management and seemed to be headed down the path to a respectable, if somewhat unfulfilling, white-collar future.
His acting career began as little more than a hobby in 1997. He began taking classes at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. Later, he took a job in sales at Oracle in Redwood City. His friend Paul Chopra recalled Vasudeva renting a bunch of Bollywood films and then practicing lines from them in between fielding service calls to Oracle from India in the dead of the night.
He graduated to theater and film productions at the San Francisco Academy of Art, which was followed by his first feature film, Indian Fish. It traces the journey of an Indian software engineer as he makes his way through unfamiliar American culture. Vasudeva, who is tall and has boyish good looks, burnished his résumé by snagging the title of Mr. India California in 2002 on the strength of a performance of a monologue from a Bollywood film.
Vasudeva then starred in Khwaab, the story of another Indian immigrant who gives up a career in the tech world — against the wishes of his parents and friends — to pursue an acting career. Vasudeva declined to discuss whether the movie parallels his own struggles, but the similarities are striking. He said his parents were initially upset about his career choice but eventually came around.
With some solid acting experience to his name, Vasudeva decided to make the leap to Bollywood in 2004. He packed up his San Francisco apartment and moved to Mumbai.