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Like every other Bollywood
star child, Vivek Oberoi says his famous father offered him
no shortcuts to fame. Unlike the other kids, he has a resume
that backs him up. But the guy who promised to shift Bollywood's
spotlight from star antics back to acting forgot about something.
A former acting student, model, and dubbing artist, Vivek Oberoi has slogged for decades to reach the top. Decades, you say? The guy's only in his twenties! Ah, but he caught the acting bug at age six, when his performance in a school play astounded the audience. "So impressed were the faculties by my performance that they advised my father send me to theatre workshop in London. And my father did the next year." (Yahoo Movies, 4/17/02)
London drama schools would do right by this son of acclaimed character actor Suresh Oberoi. It was in that city, during a post-graduate acting course, that he caught a very important eye: "I remember after having completed the course successfully, we were told to do some auditions. I was given a long sheet of dialogues to say. After reading it, I enacted it out in my own style, it was kind of mono act. I was not aware that someone watching me. He was none other than director of NYU. He took me to New York. And I did my post graduation in acting from there." (Yahoo Movies, 4/17/02)
After intensive studies at New York University's famed Tisch School of Drama, Vivek returned to Bombay, determined to take Bollywood by storm. But the storm almost passed him by. Director Ram Gopal Varma, casting for his gangster film Company, dismissed Oberoi as too pretty for the role of Chandu , a slum-born visionary who schemes and murders his way into the upper echelons of the mafia. "He found my face too soft for a gangster," Vivek recalls. (Rediff, 1/3/02)
In answer, Oberoi headed for the chawls, spending a few days perfecting a look and dialect. "I wrote a 300-word biographical sketch for my character Chandu. I tried to figure out the way he would talk, the kind of clothes he would wear, how he would interact with people around him.... On the 11th day, I marched into [Varma's] office dressed up as Chandu and smoking a bidi. I remember kicking his door open, pulling up a chair and putting my feet up on his desk like I owned the place. I looked him straight in the eye and said, Kya? Kya bolta hai?[What do you have to say?] He was completely stunned. It was destiny, because at that very moment, my conventional looking photographs were lying on his desk and his editor and he had just made a decision that I wasnt right for the role." (India Currents, March 2003).
Now convinced otherwise, Varma gave Oberoi the role, and in the months before Company's release, buzz about the performance netted Vivek several prestigious offers. He chose roles spanning the gamut of romance, action, and drama, keeping pigeon-holers off guard and all eyes trained exactly where he wanted them: on his daredevil acting. "There is always a demarcation between being an actor and being a star. I dont believe in stardom. I believe its a fallacy, a myth." (India Currents, March 2003)
But deflecting attention from his personal life became difficult when he broke off his engagement to his long-time girlfriend, model Gurpreet Gill. Rumors circulated that Oberoi's father had found Gurpreet too controlling. Others murmured that Gurpreet hadn't been able to contain her jealousy over her fiance's co-stars. Though Vivek remained silent on the matter, Gurpreet admitted to Rediff, "Vivek and I had a lovely relationship while it lasted, but the film industry is known to consume relationships." (Rediff, 12/02)
In the following months, film glossies talked of a romance between Oberoi and Saathiya co-star Rani Mukherjee. He accompanied Mujherkee to her cousin's funeral, but threw off journalists by spending a night dancing in a Calcuttan disco with actress Aishwarya Rai. Rai had recently ended a long (and by her account, physically abusive) relationship with Bollywood bad boy Salman Khan. Khan's disruptive visits to her movie sets had cost her at least one film. Tabloids quickly recognized that the Aishwarya-Vivek pairing was a juicy story, but could find no definitive proof. Burned by one too many rumors, fans remained skeptical.
...Until, that is, Oberoi called a press conference on April 1, 2003, making allegations about Salman Khan that surprised and titillated the nation. According to Mid-Day reporter Mayank Shekhar, the press conference was broadcast on live television at Vivek's behest: "Oberoi is [sic] in no hurry. In fact an hour after the announced time, Zee hadn’t yet arrived. 'We’ll wait for a few minutes more.' Then Aaj Tak had some problems with its live feed in the OB van. 'We’ll wait for a few minutes,' apologised Oberoi again. Then, this time smiling at a print journalist, he quipped, 'Seeing your face, it looks like I should expect a threat call from you soon!' The calm demeanour that preceded the nationwide outburst could probably be explained by the fact that the subject of our attention was an actor. And in control. To the extent that he said, 'I am taking it too lightly. It is a serious issue.' And finally, since NDTV had no technical glitches, Star News was ready and Zee had arrived, Oberoi asked, 'Should I start? OK...'" (Mid-Day, April 2, 2003)
Oberoi proceeded to tell journalists that on March 31, Salman Khan had called his household forty-one times, accusing Oberoi of having had affairs with former co-stars (including Aishwarya Rai) and Salman's ex-girlfriend Somy Ali. Khan, he said, had insulted his own father (Salim Khan) as well as Oberoi's; had slurred former friends, including Shahrukh Khan; had trashed the appearance of Gurpreet Gill, and most disturbingly, threatened to kill Oberoi. "I am going to come over and kill you," Vivek recalled Salman as saying. Vivek also alleged that Salman hinted at his mafia connections, telling Vivek, "You don't know who you're up against."
Vivek invited him to come over and duke it out, boasting, "I am a boxing champ and have taken on people twice his size in the ring." (Vivek holds a title in the junior division.) After waiting outside the compound gates for forty-five minutes, Oberoi called Salman, who allegedly responded: "Main thaka hua hoon. Kal jhagda karte hain. [I am tired. Let’s fight tomorrow.]" (Mid-Day, April 2, 2003)
Vivek told reporters that he had lectured Salman: "You’ve gotten drunk and taken someone’s life. You are living on time borrowed from the person you killed...You should spend three hours everyday in the mourning family’s house to realise what it is to lose a loved one. Instead, six months after killing someone, you are still drinking. Quit drinking at least now." (Mid-Day, April 2, 2003) (For more on the manslaughter charges pending against Salman, see his bio.) Oberoi continued to reporters, "His family should take him to a clinic. Like there are places for drug de-addiction, there are enough places for alcohol de-addiction too. Are we waiting for him to take another life? Or to take his own? (Ibid.)
In a post-conference interview with the Times of India, Vivek explained his purpose in calling the conference. "Aishwarya called me on April 30 morning and said Salman had been sending her messages the previous night in which he said he was a 'real man' and was 'not scared of Vivek Oberoi.' The messages also contained threats about how he would 'fight Vivek' in order to prove who the 'real man' was. Ash wanted to know if all was well. It was then that I told her that Salman had been calling me all night, threatening and abusing me.... She is free to see whom she wants, get married, have an affair... he has no business to harass her like this." (Times of India, 4/1/03) He equivocated on the matter of filing charges: "The cops did come and take a statement from me but I'm not sure that I want to initiate legal proceedings against Salman. Please understand, I am not a vindictive person." (Ibid.)
However, vindicitiveness may have less to do with it than family ties. Suresh Oberoi is close with Salman's father, and is rumored to be furious that his son called the conference without consulting him. Some speculate that he has pressured Vivek to refrain from legal action. Too, Vivek has long been friends with Salman's brothers, Arbaaz and Sohail. In the press conference, he claimed that Arbaaz had told him over the phone that Salman wasn't right in the head, and that Vivek should deal with him in whichever way he pleased.
But Arbaaz was singing a different tune to the press the next day. "Who is Vivek Oberoi to make a statement on Salman’s mental health?" he demanded of journalists in Mumbai. (Mid-Day, April 2, 2003) "Salman is a bigger star than Vivek. To become a star everyone in the industry is targeting Salman." (Rediff, 4/2/03) According to Mid-Day, "Arbaaz said that the very fact that Aishwarya had not admitted her love to Salman despite them having a four year affair, Vivek was uncertain about Aishwarya confessing it to Vivek in a four month relationship. In fact it was Vivek who provoked Salman. He said that in his conversation Vivek had told him that being a blue-eyed boy of the media, his press briefing would ruin Salman’s career." (Mid-Day, 4/2/03)
As for Salman, he caught a flight to London on April 2 and said he would make a statement upon his return. He remarked only that "I never called him up on his cellphone and this can be checked up with BPL." (The Hindu, 4/2/03) However, "close friends of the Khan family told Mid Day that Salman was surprised to hear of the press conference and at first thought it was an April fool joke. 'I did not expect Vivek to be so sensitive,' is what Salman told some of his friends...The actor was reportedly surprised that Vivek chose to go to the press instead of coming over to his house to settle the issue or even discussing the matter with his brothers, Arbaaz and Sohail." (Mid-Day, 4/2/03)
Other Bollywood personalities apparently shared this surprise. Kareena Kapoor told the press, "If he had a problem with Salman, why could he not solve it instead of going to the press?" (Rediff, 4/3/03) Abhishek Bachchan agreed: "In the film industry, there is a code of honour whereby all problems are sorted out internally." (Ibid) Sunil Shetty also chimed in, saying, "I don't know what's happening with Vivek and how he looks at life. Being an actor and a coartiste, he should not have taken the matter to the press. If he felt Salman had behaved badly, he [Oberoi] should have confronted him [Khan] physically instead of talking about it on television. I thought it was in very bad taste. Everyone believes Vivek has done it for publicity." (Ibid)
But the harshest words came from Devdas director Sanjay Leela Bhansali (who worked with Salman on films including Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, the sets of which gave birth to the ill-fated Aish-Salman romance): "I think Vivek Oberoi has committed the biggest blunder ever by any actor in Mumbai," the director opined to Rediff, before launching into a sarcastic spiel nonpareil. "He is so powerful. He knows kick-boxing and karate. Bush should call back his army from Iraq and send Vivek instead. I am very scared of Vivek. I will never be able to work with him now. I may shout at him on the sets and he may call a press conference against me. All the heroines should touch his feet for protecting their dignity...The media should be ready to cover every event at the Oberois' residence. If Vivek's dog has dysentery tomorrow, we should be prepared to hear Vivek talk about it on camera for three hours." More seriously he added, "The film industry functions on fraternal feelings. If there is a problem, we solve it in-house. Vivek has no business talking about Salman's mental state...Salman's problem is he thinks with his heart. He gives his life to people he loves. That is why his friends have always stood by him. He is perfectly sane and there is no need to send him to a shrink, as some self-styled psychoanalysts think. As for him getting professionally insecure, Salman will be around for a long time...It is not Salman who is insecure at 37. If Vivek was threatened, why is he giving unsolicited advice to Salman and his family? I don't think Salman needs counselling from any self-motivated colleague. How much time has Vivek spent with Salman to know how he handles his women? Why should there be a press conference to hear Oberoi put forward his views based on hearsay? Did we ask him what happened between him and his fiancée whom he broke up with after an elaborate engagement?" (Rediff, 4/3/03)
And what about Aishwarya, allegedly the cause of the whole spat? On April 2nd, she was away from Mumbai, shooting for an upcoming film and unavailable for comment. But in a weird twist, she was struck by a car on the sets, and airlifted to Mumbai that night for surgery. No matter whether Arbaaz's aspersions about Vivek's relationship with her were true or not, the question of whether the two were indeed involved finally seemed to be settled. As her plane touched down at the airport, Vivek Oberoi stood waiting on the tarmac...no longer judged by his acting alone.