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Anupam Kher:: Vastly Versatile

April 2004
Anupam Kher:: Vastly Versatile

He is a rare gem of Indian cinema and theater ? one who is equally at home with silly slapstick as well with somber roles such as his masterful debut performance in Saransh; where he plays a 60-year-old grieving father, even though he himself was only 26 at the time.

Recently in Atlanta for a run of his autobiographical play, Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai, Kher took the time to chat with our correspondent DEEPA AGARWAL about his career and his signature philosophy of embracing and overcoming failure?

For a decade-and-half we have seen him in every conceivable role on screen?from playing a buffoon to a menacing underworld kingpin to a loving papa to an understanding dear friend. And every time he hit the bull's eye. In life too, Anupam has loved experimenting. Cinema, theater, production, direction ? he has done it all. He has also served as the chairperson of India's Censor Board of Film Certification and of The National School of Drama.

On screen, he has held the audience captivated with his scintillating performances in a plethora of films like Saransh, Daddy, Dil Hain Ke Maanta Nahin, Tezaab, Ram Lakhan, Karma, Dil, Lamhe, Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge, and more recently Bend It Like Beckham. Whether as B.V. Pradhan, Sir-jee, Dr. Deng, or Mr. Bhamra, the movie buffs just can't seem to get enough of him. With Anupam, it has always been the case of "yeh dil maange more!"

It is hard to imagine that this winner of 8 Filmfare Awards and a Padmashree by the Government of India in 2004 would do an autobiographical play where he portrays himself as one hounded by failures all his life!

The first time I saw Anupam Kher was not on the sets of one of his films, but on the verandah of Dilkhush Special School, Mumbai, where he was laughing heartily along with a group of mentally challenged children and it didn't take me long to figure that he was a man of superlative character ? far from one who could be remotely associated with failure.

Two weeks ago, I saw him again. This time in Atlanta. We met at the Global Mall for a t�te-�-t�te about his new play, his role as the Chairperson of the CBFC and NSD and life in general. Still a little jetlagged after the long trip from India, Anupam was nonetheless refreshingly forthcoming?

Let's begin with the play for which you are here, Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hain. How did it happen?

Nearly seven years ago, Penguin Publishers had asked me to pen down my memoirs. At that time I did not think much of it, though I must admit that the idea kept playing in the back of my mind. In the last couple of years, I kept increasingly thinking of ways to write my experiences. During one such time I realized that being an actor and leading the dramatic and interesting life that I do, I should perform my life story rather than write my memoirs. Also being a die-hard optimist, I wanted to do a play on staying positive in life. That's how Feroz (Khan) and I conceived Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai?as a play that showcased my experience with failure. But the basic idea was to portray how trivial and comical failures seem in retrospect. We didn't want too many people in the cast because it is difficult to adjust my schedule with that of others. Though, unquestionably, at the outset I was a little skeptical (about doing this solo). It is not easy to draw a crowd for a two-and-a-half-hour play and more so, when it is a one-man show. But so far we have been successful. The audience response has been great and needless to mention, I am thoroughly enjoying performing in it.

I think that Feroz's direction has given the play a beautiful dimension by putting it across as a theater production. That's why although there is only one actor, when you see the play you realize that it has a vast canvass.

It is easy for you to talk about your failures now, because you are successful. But how positive were you as a struggling actor in your earlier days?

I have always believed that failure is the best thing that can happen to you. You can't frighten me with failure. Today, I feel like the tallest person, because I am talking about my failures, my shortcomings, my disasters and that too, on stage, to countless people. So now what can you frighten me with?

But that's my point. You can say that failure doesn't bother you now, because you have made a name for yourself?

No, I have said that even when I was not so successful. And, in fact, this indifference to failure is precisely what made me successful. Maybe it was the survival instinct that made me hang on to this belief. If you recollect, I was not one of the best things to have happened to Bombay film industry, when I arrived in the city. I was balding, I was thin and lanky and could see through a keyhole with both my eyes. But I had the audacity to ask for roles in commercial cinema. Even the role of the 60-year-old Mr. B.V. Pradhan in Saransh wasn't really something that actors were dying for. I mean, how many 26-year-olds would even attempt portraying a 60-year-old, tell me? But the only thing that kept me going during those days was the desire to strike it big. I never let the fear of failure bother me. There were no two ways about that. I did not develop the "failure theory" because I am successful today. Even today, I might be very successful in my own eyes. But professionally, I might not be perceived as successful, considering that I have just one Hindi film, Abraca Dabra, coming up.

Was did your transition to theater happen?

Since 1994, for about 5 years, I had acted in the play, Saalgirah, with my wife, Kiran. This was also the time when I was doing a lot of Bollywood films. But in everybody's life there comes a saturation point. It wasn't as if I was unhappy doing the not-so-great, rather, ridiculous Bollywood roles. However, I guess, I did so many of them that I reached a stage when I stopped enjoying acting. I cut down on my work because I had stopped growing as an actor, rather as a person. I had reached a point when even putting on make-up and costume seemed cumbersome. So I decided to do only those projects that stimulated me. I decided to do one film at a time and pour all my energy into it. Once I made that decision, everything else just followed suit. I remember not accepting any projects for about 6 months and then Bend It Like Beckham happened. Following Bend It Like Beckham, I got involved with Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hain. But I must grant it to theater that not only has it kept me alive as an actor but has also helped me in keeping my kitchen running without having to compromise on my creative interests.

Wasn't that a risky decision though?

Yeah, it definitely was. But I wanted to do only films that excited me. I wanted work that would inspire me as an actor. And that was the choice I made. I am quite happy today with my play, and the few films that I am doing, because they satisfy my creative urges.

Tell us about your forthcoming international projects.

I will be seen in Gurinder Chadha's soon-to-be-released Bride and Prejudice playing Mr. Bakshi (alias Mr. Bennet). It is the role of a man whose tongue-in-cheek sense of humor is in absolute contrast to that of his chatty wife. The film, as the name suggests, is a brilliant adaptation of Jane Austen's very famous Pride and Prejudice. I had already done Bend It Like Beckham with Gurinder Chadha, and thoroughly enjoyed it. So when she offered me Mr. Bennett's role in Bride and Prejudice, there was no doubt whatsoever in my mind about doing the film. Sometimes, you do films just because you enjoy working with a particular director and the atmosphere they create in the film.

Mr. Bakshi seems to remind of Mr. Bhamra in Bend It ?

Not at all?Mr. Bhamra was a little boring as a person. But Mr. Bakshi, as the audience will realize when they see the film, definitely has his moments. And also, (smiles)...he doesn't have a beard and a turban.

You ventured into film direction with Om Jai Jagdish, a film that was written off in no uncertain terms at the box-office. Coming from you, the film obviously did not live up to its expectations. What went wrong?

In hindsight, I think the story was hackneyed, though I did try to treat the film differently. I think that the people in the film were more believable despite their star status. Also, you must keep in mind the fact that, that year somehow people did not actually go to see movies in the cinema hall. The only movie, if I remember correctly, that did well that year was Raaz. And, anyways, I wasn't out to make a classic. What was important is that I tried my best. And for me, that effort is as important as the outcome. The journey is much more important as the final destination. But nevertheless, I learnt my lesson from Om Jai Jagdish. Today I would not accept a film for direction, unless the script is ready. I also realized that it would be best if the director could write the script, because there is so much of the director in the script itself. In fact, I just finished working on the script of a film, which I intend to produce. The name of the film is The Return and it will be shot in America in September/October of this year. This is more like an American film and not the traditional crossover cinema. The story of the film revolves around the relationship between a father and son. It is a human drama.

Since you took over as the chairman of the National School of Drama, what are the changes that you brought in?

When you are working on a change, it takes years for others to discover that change. It takes time for the change to be perceptible to others. The NSD is an institution with its own system and policies. What had to be changed at NSD was the attitude of the students and not the administrative policies. Theatre has a pseudo-superior attitude towards other art forms and that is why 90% of the people coming out of drama schools are jobless. They graduate from NSD with the knowledge of Konstantin Stanislavsky and Arthur Miller and when they come into the real world, they have to mouth the lines written by somebody who is not even vaguely aware of these legends. That is what puts the NSD graduates off. I guess, though, it is more important to accept the work that comes your way, than to wait for an opportunity to knock on your door. After I did Saransh everyone advised me to do similar kinds of roles. But if I had listened to them, I would not be sitting here giving this interview. All work has dignity; it is the actor who keeps becoming bigger or smaller. The attitude of the actor cannot change depending on the kind of role he/she is offered.

You are also currently the chairman of the Censor Board of Film Certification. The position was vacant for about a year, after the resignation of the earlier chairman, Vijay Anand. What made you decide on accepting the position?

I am very happy to have been offered the position of the chairman of the CBFC. I think it is a prestigious position with a lot of responsibility, and just because other people have refused it, does not make it secondary. That is a very cynical attitude. I don't look at life like that. I think anybody would give his or her left arm to be in the position that I am in. It was my way of giving back to the film industry (and also to the society), which has made me what I am today.

Was there any hesitation accepting the position since you could be offending the very people you are going to be working with?

I have never really been a diplomatic person. I have always chosen to do what I want to.

My friendships won't be affected so long as they don't override my professional responsibilities.

What are the major issues that you are going to be dealing with in this position?

Television vulgarity is one of my major concerns. It is one issue that I have vehemently spoken about since I took over as the chairperson. The recent music videos have been the focus of my attention. Have you seen some of the recent music videos? They are atrocious and are made without any sense of responsibility. Television is a family-oriented medium and should remain so. I am also against the television soap operas, where everybody seems to be sleeping around with everybody. We are now insistent that makers of music videos get a U-certificate from the censor board. And this really isn't an issue just in India. Even in the United States, after the Janet Jackson debacle, television censorship is a major ongoing debate. And I personally think it is fair. In cinema at least the person knows what he or she is getting into. He has seen the poster, the ad, he knows what to expect in the movie and then has the choice to make a conscious decision to watch the film. But television channels, at least in India, are not controlled. A ten or twelve-year-old kid can easily watch rated programs. So for me, this is a serious situation and I wanted to do something about it. That is why I have taken this unpopular position to speak out in favour of censorship, whether people like it or not.

Tell us about your work with children

There comes a time in everybody's life when you realize that there is more to life than just your work. Personally for me, the time when I suffered from Bell's Palsy, or what is commonly known as Facial Paralysis, was one such occasion. That was when I realized how blessed I was in so many ways and decided to give back to the society in my own small way. I teach speech therapy and drama to mentally challenged children. I also like spending time with them and for their cause. Working with children is one of the things that I really enjoy. I have done a television serial with kids: Say Na Something to Anupam Uncle. It felt great working on this show because all I needed to do was be honest. Children react to honesty. It isn't easy to con them. Through this show I did a show with mentally challenged children, with cancer patients and street children.

I feel that the children in big, cosmopolitan cities are at a disadvantage. When I was a kid, there was always somebody to answer my questions. But in today's fast-paced lives in nuclear families, nobody really has the time to answer children's' questions. That is why they form their own answers, which may not be right. When these children grow up, they have emotional and psychological problems. So spending time with children is extremely important.

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