Akshay Oberoi makes waves with Inside Edge 3, Dil Bekaraar: 'It's always about the story, not the platform'
Akshay Oberoi has featured in 10 shows across seven different platforms. He has not only seen the streaming landscape grow, he has grown with it.
Akshay Oberoi is having a bit of a moment.
Consecutive releases in the last three weeks have seen the actor play a hotshot lawyer in Voot Select’s Illegal Season 2, an idealistic journalist in Disney+ Hotstar’s Dil Bekaraar, and the captain of the Indian cricket team in Amazon Prime Video India’s Inside Edge Season 3. Between the three projects, it feels like he is everywhere - across the press, posters, billboards, and beyond.
Oberoi started his career in 2010, launched in the textbook Rajshri romantic vehicle Isi Life Mein. The film was considered a flop — something he maintains he’s grateful for — and set him on a curious trajectory. In the 10 years since, he went on to do smaller supporting parts in big films (Fitoor, Piku, Kaalakandi), and bigger roles in smaller films (Laal Rang, Gurgaon, Pizza).
More recently, like many talented actors, it is in the booming streaming space that he has found his footing and seen success. In the last five years, since the early days of the web space, Oberoi has featured in 10 shows across seven different platforms. He has not only seen the streaming landscape grow, he has grown with it.
With his recent choices, he has also made an active effort to break away from the pretty-boy image he was associated with, focusing on darker characters in grittier projects like Shanker Raman’s atmospheric Gurgaon, MXPlayer’s High, and Eros Now series Flesh.
“In the industry, everyone wants to put you in a box. And my career is so out of the box. I started with lead roles and then went to do two-bit parts. Then I went back to lead roles, but I still do two-bit parts,” he says, speaking with the frantic sincerity of someone that is grateful to finally be heard and have his work recognised.
Oberoi looks like a star but seems to operate like an actor. He repeatedly makes it a point to stress the fact that his focus is always the story and character over box office and commercial success. “The second i prioritise fame or money, I'll screw myself over" he says.
Over a conversation at his Mumbai apartment, he spoke to Firstpost about the eventful last few weeks, the evolution of the streaming space, the scourge of actors getting cast based on Instagram following, and the unique experience of working with Mahesh Bhatt.
Edited excerpts below:
(Warning: Mild spoilers for Inside Edge Season 3 ahead)
It has been a pretty prolific few weeks for you. You have had Dil Bekaraar, Illegal Season 2, and Inside Edge Season 3, playing three different characters in three different shows on three different platforms. What was your first reaction when you found out they would be releasing consecutively?
Honestly, for a second, I did think ‘is this too much of me at once? Should this be more spaced out? What if I’m bad in all of them?’ (laughs). But then I just went with the flow. I think they’ve all been received fairly decently, some more than others. It’s overwhelming right now because, after all those years of feeling like my movies don't get marketed enough, and I don’t get positioned enough, in a weird way, these shows have suddenly done that.
Does having these releases feel like this is a big moment for your career? Does it feel like an “I’ve officially arrived” kind of validation?
My wife has been asking me that over the last few days, and yeah it does feel like that. You get a sense of these things when people from the industry start calling you — casting directors, filmmakers, and producers. That’s how you know there's been a shift — when the phone just rings a shit ton. In fact, I was telling a friend recently that stardom and popularity of any kind in your 20s must be so damaging to process. Because you don't realise how transient these things are, like I do now.
But if I was in my 20s, and this kind of thing happened with three big projects like this and all this noise, I think that would have driven me insane.
I often think that if my first film (Isi Life Mein) was a big hit, I would’ve been screwed. It would've set me down a very different trajectory, and I would’ve had to do very different movies and be focused on a certain image and I don't think I would’ve been as versatile as I am. I would’ve been typecast, and would've had to play that whole game. So I’m just glad things happened now the way they have.
In Inside Edge, you play Rohit Shanbagh, the Indian cricket captain who is scared of coming out of the closet because of how it would affect his image. What were the kinds of conversations that went into portraying that arc and shooting that big public kiss moment in the season finale?
There was a lot of conversation that went into that because, for starters, I’ve never played cricket in my life. But when I met the team and they told me about the character, I said 'I have to do this,' because it’s such an important topic, and I knew the responsibility that role comes with. And I wanted to do everything to ensure we didn’t play into any stereotypes.
And in terms of the last scene, it was literally his ‘f*ck the world’ moment. But of course, you don't know how the director plans to shoot it. I still remember shooting that moment on set. We had 3,000 extras that day as spectators because we were shooting all the cricket scenes. We discussed how to go about it, and in the end, you try so hard to just not overthink whether you’re doing it justice or not, because the truth is it’s nothing. In that moment, for that character, it really is nothing. I distinctly remember after the kiss, when they called cut and we parted, the audience got up and cheered and clapped. And that was an organic reaction from those extras. It wasn’t part of the scene. That moment stayed with me because it really challenges all your preconceived notions about society. It makes you realise people are more evolved than we give them credit for.
In the last five years, you have been a part of 10 streaming shows across seven different platforms. Do you think it is now fair to say that Indian streaming shows can have as much of an impact and generate as much buzz as movies? It feels like Mirzapur, for example, is one of the biggest releases of the last few years.
Yeah, I definitely think so. The interesting part about it is, with some of my earlier films, I honestly think if they had more time at the box office they would have done well, but they weren't promoted well. But when they drop on streaming, they find an audience. Gurgaon was exactly like that. It became popular when it dropped on Netflix. Until that, no one gave a shit about that movie.
I feel the same about web shows. Dil Bekaraar wasn’t promoted well but now, I see the numbers growing, and people are constantly messaging me about it. Even if you take a Squid Game, for example, none of us saw a trailer or a poster or anything. But suddenly one day, we woke up and that’s all everyone was talking about. It was all word of mouth. So I think the power of this medium is you will have more Scam 1992s and Mirazpurs, which feel like massive event releases that are on par with your big movies.
But we still haven't figured that out as an industry because we're so used to attributing dollar values to things to gauge whether they are a success or not. Regardless of the impact of these shows, people still say ‘Yeah, but did it make Rs 100 crore?.'
As someone who has worked on so many shows across multiple platforms, how much does the platform matter when considering a new project? From an audience perspective, the platform definitely matters, but I am curious to know if the same is true for an actor.
It’s a really good question. It never used to be. For me, it was about the show, not the platform. But now, I do see people around me who say things like 'just do the big platform projects.' But I still think it doesn’t matter. For example, SonyLIV wasn't the biggest platform, but now they're coming out with some of the greatest stuff. Like Tabbar, which is one of the best shows I’ve seen. That show was phenomenal.
Even with High for example, people at the time said, 'Why do an MX Player show?.' And I said, 'Who cares?.' I think it stands apart from MX’s other shows, and if I had been entitled and worried about that, I would’ve never done such a cool show. Also, you can’t deny that MX’s numbers are insane. Bobby Deol told me recently that close to a billion people have watched Ashram. Everyone I know has seen it. So I don't think the platform should matter. It’s about the story, script, and show.
You said in a recent interview, "The digital guys are looking for actor-actors... That’s why the content is really good because casting for digital series has been authentic." While it is clear there is a lot more focus on talent on streaming, a number of actors have said there is a star system creeping in with people even getting cast based on Instagram following. Would you agree?
I think there is. It’s starting now, and it's unfortunate. Even I have started to post more on Instagram because I don't want to lose a part just because of my following. I definitely think there is truth to that but so far, it hasn't dominated the space, and it’s still about talent and merit, which is exciting. This industry was never an even playing field, and now it feels like it is, and I hope it stays that way.
But I have seen the Instagram thing myself. There was a show I did where I was the lead, and I had the lowest following from the cast, and I remember there was a discussion saying, “This person has 2 million but this person only has 200k” as a legitimate casting conversation, and I remember thinking, ‘What the hell?.' Luckily, the directors in the web space are very smart so when it comes to that, they are always pushing back and focusing on casting the right person. But there are people who fall into those trappings.
People have also talked a lot about how much the audience has changed in the last two years, and how the audience coming out of the pandemic is a lot more evolved than the one going in. Do you think that’s true? How do you even measure something like that?
I think there was a time where people would go and watch any damn thing, and it was accepted. And then, more recently, when that same audience would go watch that same tentpole movie and say, 'That sucked.' And I honestly think people have been exposed to more stories and storytelling in these two years.
When I see the way audiences react now on social media, as compared to before, the way they dissect a story and the kind of feedback they give a project or scene, it just feels like it’s a more evolved audience. I genuinely think the pandemic made a big difference.
For example, recently I was talking to the guy who’s been doing my make-up for the last seven years. He always used to watch just about anything and all the big star movies. But he was recently talking to me about a review he saw of Inside Edge, and he started breaking it down and discussing specific characters, and comparing it to Season 2. It was just such an interesting perspective he brought to it, and I was just mind boggled. He’s now watching differently to how he used to. I don't know how it happened but it happened, and happened really fast.
The other big development of the last year is the rise of conversations around censorship on the web feeling like it is now inevitable. Does that worry you?
Yeah, it really worries me. As an artist, freedom of speech is the most important thing, and it’s sad to see what's happening. I think the very reason a character like Taj from Flesh exists is because of a lack of censorship. You can never tell that story the way we did in a movie.
The second you start doing that, it's really damaging to the artistry. And we’re finally on a path as an industry where we’re actually growing and evolving. We’re finally telling stories, and going beyond that one pan-India film that's supposed to cater to everyone.
You already see self-censorship around you with production houses and platforms. It’s like a soft censorship where there are no set guidelines, but everyone knows the topics to stay away from. Even with my character in Inside Edge, for example, we never spoke about the homosexuality angle during interviews and promotions because you never know how people will react or take things out of context. Everyone’s just scared in general. But now that it’s out, they can see it for what it is. You just want the work to speak for itself. I just hope we aren’t headed there, and better sense prevails.
What are you working on next?
I’m doing an interesting horror movie which Mahesh Bhatt has written, and Vikram Bhatt is directing, called Cold, and man, it's so different from the spaces I've worked in. I'll tell you one thing about those guys, they really want a realistic performance. I’ve never worked with someone like Bhatt saab. He has the most amazing mind. He really gets inside of you, and extracts something, which is not what I expected. I expected something louder, but they're looking for genuine emotional truth in a performance. And whether you like Vikram Bhatt’s work or not, he's a very detailed guy, and he knows what he’s doing and knows his space.
And Bhatt saab’s energy is just... there was a day we were shooting a close-up and he was briefing me, and he gives you these big impassioned speeches when he briefs you, while he’s jumping all over the place. After I did the first take, I was given a note or two and we went again, and in the midst of the take, Bhaat Saab sat down and started massaging my feet during the shot. After they called cut, he embraced me and said ‘beautiful!’ and I was like, 'Bhatt saab, what was that?,' and he said, 'Transference of energy my boy! I was transferring energy.' And I was just shocked at seeing a 73-year-old cinema legend sitting at my feet. So I’ve just loved working with them.
Suchin Mehrotra is a film journalist and movie junkie who sincerely believes movies can change the world. You can find him on Twitter at @suchin545.
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