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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. 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