After winning a National Award at the relatively-tender age of 30 for Govind Nihalani's Drohkaal (1994), Ashish Vidyarthi's career has been a journey. He's starred in over 200 films across 11 languages, and he says he's been written off many times. Now, just over a year after he launched his YouTube channel Ashish Vidyarthi Actor Vlogs, Vidyarthi has gone from being one of the most prolific actors in Hindi cinema to one of the fastest-growing vloggers in India, with over a million subscribers on YouTube and nearly a million page likes on Instagram.
Vidyarthi's name rarely comes up when names of memorable actors are discussed today, yet he remains undeniably charismatic. Just listen to the Hindi-dubbed version of Jon Favreau's The Lion King (2019), in which Vidyarthi voiced Scar. His voice-acting is almost faultless in a film that feels like a dishonest dive into nostalgia for its entire runtime. There are moments — like when Scar says, "Maharaj ki jai" (Long live the king!) with a sadistic relish in his voice, while pushing Mufasa (voiced by Shah Rukh Khan) over a cliff — that remind us of Vidyarthi's glorious run in mainstream Bollywood at one point.
It was Vidyarthi's dissatisfaction with the roles coming his way that nudged him away from the Hindi mainstream towards other industries, including playing the charismatic villain, Mr Gore, in Sandip Ray's Bombaiyer Bombete (2003). After some time, even that became uninteresting and Vidyarthi all but disappeared from mainstream consciousness during the 2010s. Since the pandemic, he has found a new role for himself — that of an influencer. "I'm of the opinion that once we discover more facets to ourselves, we give ourselves more opportunities to succeed," he said.
We were chatting while Vidyarthi was on his way to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where he had a corporate speaking engagement. Vidyarthi began the motivational talks in 2016 and has since set up a company, Avid Miner, for these engagements. The talks initially began as a way of the actor using social media in a way that felt constructive to him. A self-professed "tech friendly" person, who claims he's been taking selfies with the rear camera of his Blackberry since 2003 (long before the term had even been coined), Vidyarthi initially wasn't keen on social media. He saw it as a narcissistic tool, especially in the hands of actors. "They're [fans] adulating me, but what am I giving back? It [social media] felt almost parasitic on my part," he said, describing his initial response to social media.
Around three and half years ago, Vidyarthi began a YouTube channel called Ashish Vidyarthi Official where he shared videos about self-improvement. Which is why, unsurprisingly, the first platform Vidyarthi began to get traction on was LinkedIn. On YouTube, his channel grew slowly. "We diligently put out three videos a week, and views would range between 60 to 200. We would also get four-five comments on each video, one of which would invariably say something like 'What a great video, and what a shame that it has such poor views!'" he said, adding that this continued for two and a half years.
It was in 2021 that Vidyarthi noticed food and travel vlogs on YouTube. Following the likes of Indian YouTubers like Tanya Khanijow and also foreign channels like Mark Wiens and The Best Ever Food Review, he started thinking about pivoting to food and travel. "They were travelling to different parts of the world and they were all telling really distinct stories," said Vidyarthi. "What appealed to me was how unabashedly some of these people were showing the ordinary." He found these channels far more interesting than the ones that explored expensive places. In August 2021, he bought his first GoPro and began shooting his days on sets, discovering food joints on his way and striking up conversations with strangers on streets. And that's how the YouTube channel Ashish Vidyarthi Actor Vlogs was born. You can see Vidyarthi sampling a famous joint's filter coffee inside a car. There's hardly any pretence as he pours the coffee from a plastic pouch into his thermos, slurping and aahaa-ing his way to glory. In one video, where he discovers Mangalore buns (which "in fact is like a kachori"), the waiter seems to vaguely recognise him and grins goofily.
Vidyarthi said his social media fame has renewed interest in him as an actor too. "I used to joke how people were waiting for me to die so that they could say 'What a fine actor he was! He deserved many more opportunities!'" After a lean decade of acting jobs, his career is witnessing a second coming of sorts, with Prashant Nair's Tryst With Destiny (2021), more recently Kaun Pravin Tambe? (2022) and Vishal Bhardwaj's next, Khufiya on Netflix India.
For his YouTube work, Vidyarthi is aided by his 25-year-old colleague, Swapnil Sonawane, who named the two cameras 'Arun' and 'Pradeep' (they're the names of the actor's two closest friends). Sonawane accompanies Vidyarthi on many of his trips and also edits the vlogs. His instructions to Vidyarthi were that the actor should speak to the camera, as he would speak to the real Arun and Pradeep. "I took that bit of coaching, and I started showing 'Pradeep' and 'Arun' my travels," said Vidyarthi. The Avid Miner team soon realised that certain kinds of content were 'working' on certain platforms. Food reels were good for Instagram. Motivational talks flew on Facebook and the "A day in my life" format tracked on YouTube. For the "A day in my life" series, the vlogs usually begin at the crack of dawn in Vidyarthi's apartment or hotel room and then follow him around through the day. Sometimes, he drops into a friend's place for breakfast or stops at a roadside joint for a quick meal before reaching set. Along the way, Vidyarthi drops pearls of wisdom about being grateful for opportunities in one's life, and making the most of one's ability.
There's a charming unadorned style to Vidyarthi's Vlogs, where the focus is on the actor's own experiences rather than unnecessary aestheticisation. Sometimes that includes a GoPro following a Tandoori momo from a plate to being gobbled by Vidyarthi in one bite. There's an earnestness with which he eats and drinks, and therefore his reactions are generous like a real foodie's. Vidyarthi said he prefers the vada pav in Mumbai, rolls in Kolkata, the Maggi points in the hills of northern India, and filter coffee joints in the southern states to fancy restaurants. He'd frequent such places before too and the only difference now is that he goes with a camera in hand. It's mostly the sincerity and candour of the videos that have resulted in them becoming so successful. "These could be small establishments, which have probably been struggling, and if I can get some traction for these places, it really fills my heart," Vidyarthi said. An ardent admirer of the late Anthony Bourdain, Vidyarthi is similarly curious about people. Wherever he travels around the world, he tries to discover as much as he can about the cultures and cuisines that he encounters. He's recently visited countries like the United States of America (where he was attending his son's graduation from UC Berkeley), Azerbaijan, the United Arab Emirates and Congo among others. When I ask Vidayarthi what his dream destination is, he replies, "The next one."
When asked how he feels about being known as an influencer, Vidyarthi said he's never thought of himself as only an actor. "For me, acting is an integral part of my life, but it's not the only thing," he said and spoke about the iconic Tata Steel tagline, "We also make steel."
Just before I let Vidyarthi go, I ask him for an anecdote from the sets of Drohkaal, one of my favourite performances by him. He tells me how he would bang his head against the wall before a scene, so that "my eyes appear defocused like Robert De Niro's in Raging Bull." The young actor's overt enthusiasm landed him in a hospital, where he would have fits because of a clot in his brain. "It tells you about the innocence and hunger when you're starting out," Vidyarthi said. Reinventing one's career in their fifties, is still testament to that hunger, isn't it?