It was a shock for him.
Vasudeva found the Mumbai film industry was more freewheeling than the one in the United States. Contracts are often nonexistent; producers hit him up for money to complete films and sometimes bounce his paychecks. Then there are the thickets of "secretaries" — movie agents who serve as intermediaries for actors looking to land roles.
"There are secretaries that will squeeze every penny from you," Vasudeva said.
Occasionally, the action off the screen seems as dramatic as that on it. The Indian underworld has been accused of threatening — and even killing — actors who won't pay it protection money or act in its films.
It hasn't been easy, but Vasudeva managed to get his first break by placing in the top 10 in another contest, called Grasim Mr. India, which was broadcast nationally in India. He compared the contest to Bravo's short-lived Manhunt USA, which pitted aspiring models against each other to win a contract with an agency. A publicity photo for Grasim Mr. India shows Vasudeva was right on the mark. It features him and a stageful of hunky guys decked out in mesh shirts. (Unfortunately, mesh shirts seem to be a staple fashion for male actors in Bollywood.)
Vasudeva's showing in the event prompted the interview with the sleazy talent agent. He has since landed a role in Kaho na Kaho, a Bollywood remake of Notting Hill. (Bollywood often liberally borrows from American films and music because, for the most part, artists in the West have not paid much attention to Bollywood, although this is coming to an end.) And he's starred in a remake that would seem an unlikely choice for Bollywood's romance- and family-centered cinema, The Ring. The movie is called Second Day. Both Kaho na Kaho and Second Day have yet to be released.
Lisa Tsering, who has covered Bollywood for the newspaper India West for 10 years, said Vasudeva's chances of making it in Bollywood are "not too good." And it has little to do with his talent.
"I think that NRIs [nonresident Indians] don't have a certain quality they are looking for in India," Tsering said. "They feel NRIs are too complacent and too well fed. They're not hungry enough."
An American has yet to crack Bollywood's A-list, although Canadian-born actress Lisa Ray (who starred in Deepa Mehta's Bollywood/Hollywood and Water) has generated buzz recently. Tsering said non-Indians are also at a disadvantage because many don't have the family connections that are so important to making it in Bollywood. Unlike in Hollywood, where actors often try to obscure their family connections by changing their name (think Angelina Jolie and her father, Jon Voight), blatant nepotism is part of the game in Bollywood. It is so pervasive it has become a running joke among Indian film fans, who often complain about the latest pudgy, bad-haired, leaden-acting relation who is foisted on them. Vasudeva may be able to capitalize on this nepotistic trend: he is related to Gauri Khan, an actress and the wife of megastar Shah Rukh Khan, star of Never Say Goodbye. (Vasudeva said he doesn't trade on his family connections.)
Vasudeva's current role could be his most challenging yet. In the psychological thriller tentatively titled Boomerang he plays three separate characters. The movie is based on the story of a famous London crime novelist who returns to his ancestral home in India to write a novel. The novelist, played by Vasudeva, soon realizes that someone has followed him there. Drama ensues.
Vasudeva's choice to pursue a career in Bollywood instead of in the States says as much about Hollywood as it does about the Indian film industry. Despite the exasperations of Bollywood, he's happy with the choice and doesn't plan to return to this country anytime soon.
"I didn't want to spend my career playing a cab driver," Vasudeva quipped about the limited roles for Indians in Hollywood. SFBG