Meet Vishal Malhotra, the man behind the befuddled character who has become a national sensation. On the streets, he has posed for over eighty selfies in a single day.
How many times does a 25-year-old actor leave you wanting for more? Whether it is just the right timing or a fun script - the fact remains that the 'Mauka Mauka guy', as he has come to be known, has been discussed, applauded and even Googled about tremendously. Delhi lad Vishal Malhotra, though, doesn't let that get to his head.
"I had never planned to become an actor while growing up. After completing my engineering, I landed a job in Accenture where I worked for a year. But, I wasn't enjoying it, so without telling anyone I quit and enrolled myself in Balaji's acting school in Mumbai. Do I regret it? Not for a second!" chimes Malhotra.
Malhotra - very much an Indian, in case you had any doubts - plays a Pakistan supporter in the now famous 'Mauka Mauka' ads from Star Sports. The ad spots have become all the rage in just a few weeks, and Malhotra is finding it quite hard to believe. Why so? Because, we learn, when he started shooting for the first India-Pakistan Mauka film, all he knew was that it was a one-film deal.
But, as the spot became popular, Star decided to make it into a series. And guess what - the team skipped featuring Malhotra in the second film. It was a bit of strategy from Star's side, and luck on Malhotra's, that the third film onwards, he became the face of the campaign.
"I was shooting in Punjab when Suresh (Triveni, Bubblewrap Films) called me and said they are doing a third film and that I had to fly back that night itself. Well, what had to be done was done. And things have been on a roll since," he quips, over a cup of coffee.
Malhotra is no stranger to short notices for ad film shoots. After auditioning for the campaign, he waited for the team to get back to him. And then, after an overnight discussion with the team, the next day was spent in the studio. All he had been asked to prepare for was the portrayal of different aged men (notice the moustache disappearing somewhere along the series?).
The folks at the production house had done their bit as well, taking photos from his Facebook profile to experiment with different looks. There was a makeup man tasked with churning out one new look after the other. With the back end in place, it was all up to Malhotra to deliver - not dialogues, but strong expressions.
"Suresh asked me whether I follow cricket, which I did. This helped me connect so that I could get the reaction for each age right. Body language, however, was the biggest focus for all of us, since the film had just a single dialogue 'kabh phodenge yaar', which had to be delivered in a matured yet dejected way," he recalls.
He feels it is the character's repeat appearances in the films that have helped forge a strong connect with the audience, an audience that, according to him, wants to know what 'the Pakistani guy' will do next.
In reality, Malhotra is half the age he portrays on screen; he doesn't have a moustache nor does he wear a stern expression. What he does have is the toned biceps which he flaunts in the first ad. Incidentally, his is another fat-to-fit story where he lost over 40 kilos to look the part before joining the industry. For the Mauka films, though, looking the part was a tough job - his makeup took hours to put on and he was also required to don a fake belly to appear middle-aged.
Ceasing The Mauka
How has life changed for Malhotra? What's post-Mauka life like for him? Well, turns out, the on-screen Pakistani has managed to confuse several spectators. Recently, he shot the trailer for the India-Ireland ad. Wearing a blue jersey, Malhotra was asked to walk around a street in Colaba, Mumbai, and speak to strangers. While most of them recognised him and even expressed their excitement on seeing him with a box of crackers in his hand, a few actually asked him if he indeed hails from Pakistan.
Though he has, in this short span of time, learnt to laugh off these kinds of questions, Malhotra had, in fact, made sure that the ads would not be offensive to any country or supporter, before starting his work on the campaign. A follower of the game, he feels the campaign has been taken in the right spirit by people from both sides of the border, and world over.
While he has little to complain about on the work front at the moment, becoming famous for a specific role comes at a price. Does it bother him at all that he will be looked at as 'the Mauka guy' for a long time now? It's a bit like getting trapped in one's own success. He disagrees. In his opinion, ads usually work when there is a social message attached or when humour is involved. He hopes to pull off both kinds of roles in subsequent ad films. Interestingly, he is preparing for future projects by asking for detailed feedback from each of his directors.
In the two years that he has been in Mumbai, he has not only done ad films like the Lux ONN campaign with Shah Rukh Khan, SonyLiv.com Boss ad, KFC's Hot and Saucy ad and Priya Gold Biscuits ad, but also landed several cameos in Hindi movies such as 'Ragini MMS 2' and the upcoming '1920 London'. Malhotra is also shooting for a Telegu film at the moment, and is sure that he would want to be known as an actor rather than a model. The reason he has stayed away from television so far has been so that he can pick his scripts wisely.
But did any of his past roles in ads or films affect his life as much as this Mauka campaign has?
"A film may be remembered. But ads are mostly short-lived, unless they leave a mark. And this is a 'remember-able' campaign. Not just that, now people know that here is an actor who can portray different emotions and, more importantly, different ages. People don't get such an opportunity as easily," says a grateful Malhotra.
In fact, Malhotra admits that while in the North people "go ga-ga over celebrities," in Mumbai people don't react as much. Which is why, he always got a sense of having "arrived" in the industry only when someone in Mumbai recognised him or asked him for photo or an autograph. Guess what - after 'Mauka Mauka', he has been asked to pose for selfies by over 80 people in a single day.
Mauka's biggest advantage for Malhotra has been to get him noticed. Compliments have not just come from viewers, but also directors and other sporting celebrities including Harsha Bhogle and Shoaib Akhtar. In an industry where people take pride in having connections and references, and where he had neither, Malhotra is hoping this campaign will land him meatier roles in both movies and television in the days ahead.