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What Keeps Anupam Kher Provoked?

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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A portrait of India’s most voluble actor

IN THE MID-70S, WHEN THEATREPERSON Amal Allana came to Panjab University to head its department for Indian theatre, she cast Anupam Kher, a wiry, extroverted young student, in a play—a Hindi rendition of Bertolt Brecht’s Exception and the Rule. The reason to choose him for the lead was, she says over the phone from Delhi, “a good voice, flexible body and he was a thinking actor who could analyse his role. Not very good at singing because it required a couple of songs. But he pushed himself.”

Exception and the Rule went on to be a success and Allana remembers him coming to her and saying, “Ma’am, I am going to be very famous one day and you will be proud of me. My name is going to be up in neon lights, you will see that.” She laughed and told him that before he started having such dreams he would need to work very hard and pointed him towards the three-year National School of Drama course. She continued to have a long creative association with him, directing him in future plays and even a television show. Allana mentions a defining characteristic of Kher, “He is very talented but his eye is always on, ‘What am I going to do next’. He always appears to be finding some new thing that he wants to do.”

It is a personality trait that runs through Kher’s life and perhaps also explains his new role on the borderline of politics; someone who has suddenly developed a large following among the Right in this country and who left-liberals look at with opprobrium. Consider the last one year of Kher’s life removed from his acting, beginning from the time the student agitation in FTII, Pune, started against Gajendra Chauhan being made the Institute’s chairman. Kher spoke for the students, against the appointment. He made news. And then went over to the other side when filmmakers and writers started returning awards. He made bigger headlines. When ‘intolerance’ became a buzzword, Kher started speaking against it and even organised his own anti-anti-intolerance rally in Delhi. He reached the front pages. He made a documentary on the uprooting and violence against Kashmiri Pandits and that made news. Pakistan denied him a visa and Kher said it was penalising him because he was a Kashmiri Pandit. That again brought him back to prime time. He went to a debate hosted by The Telegraph titled ‘Tolerance is the new Intolerance’ and gave a live scolding to a retired Supreme Court judge who had said he had issues with the Afzal Guru death sentence. Kher’s speech went viral. The next day’s The Telegraph front page had a banner headline with his name in it. In that speech he also managed to antagonise the extreme Hindu Right wing fringe by asking for their imprisonment, and Yogi Adityanath, an important BJP leader, called him a “real life villain”. When the JNU issue started, you could have taken a bet that Kher would land up there, and he did, railing against the students who were agitating against the Government.

The BJP has numerous film stars like Vinod Khanna, Hema Malini, Paresh Rawal and Kher’s own wife Kirron, but by far the loudest voice you hear in cultural issues in support of the Government is Kher’s and he is not even in the party. His is the fervour of either the new convert or the ambitious opportunist, depending on which side of the political fence you are on.

Even if the why is still a question mark, there is no doubt about the side he has chosen. While I was interviewing him, towards the end he got a phone call, and a wave of gratification seemed to pass through his face, the kind of look you see during Indo-Pak matches when Sachin Tendulkar hits a four. When he told me what the news he received was, it turned out to be somewhat inconsequential: “Sonia Gandhi in a Parliament speech, instead of saying ‘NDA’, said ‘UPA ki do saal ki sarkaar mein desh ka bahut bura haal hai’.”

KHER’S CHILDHOOD IN Shimla had been idyllic and lower middle-class. The family had shifted from Kashmir two years before his birth and there were altogether 14 of its members staying in a small house that included parents, uncles and siblings. His father, a clerk in the forest department, was the only earning member but Kher says it was a happy time and that as a child he was unremarkable in all aspects—studies, sports—but he had one thing that all actors have. “I had this issue of wanting to be noticed,” he says. “Unknowingly or knowingly, I used to copy my teachers, my father, my grandparents. I think those were my first lessons of acting. I must have been 12 or 13.”

In school, the two plays he acted in were both disasters and turned into unintentional comedies. In the first, he played Prithviraj Chauhan and was chosen for being the fairest boy in class and also because he used to carry the teacher’s bags. A scene came for the antagonist, Jaichand, played by the milkman’s son, to fall down. The milkman sitting in the audience told his son to not fall down. The boy then picked up Kher and tossed him to the ground. The second play was The Merchant of Venice and it happened a few years later. He played the clerk of a judge who has to read out charges. He fumbled the lines so badly in the dress rehearsal that they asked the judge to read the lines while he had to just stand there and nod. On the day of the play, the judge forgot the scene had changed and told the clerk to read it out. Clerk and judge kept tossing it back to each other until—in an English play—Kher rattled out whatever came to his mind in Hindi along the lines of, ‘You saala Shylock, what do you think of yourself?’ “People were cracking up and my father and mother were laughing the most because they thought this was the play,” he says.

In college, he began to act in more plays and realised that he had a flair for it. It was at Panjab University’s Department of Indian Theatre that Kher realised acting was going to be his vocation, but he almost didn’t join it. After graduation, he was going to do an MA in Economics when a friend of his showed him an advertisement in Tribune newspaper by the department. It offered a Rs 200 per month stipend to whoever got selected for a one-year diploma in acting. Kher couldn’t muster the courage to ask his parents’ permission to apply because they had assumed that he would also be a forest department clerk. He slinked away for a day for the auditions telling his mother he was going for a picnic. He stole Rs 100 from her belongings for travel expenses.

At the audition he immediately realised his chances of getting selected were dim because he didn’t know English and many others were well-versed in the language. Then an idea occurred to him. Everyone was being asked to do either a male or a female piece for the audition and it was assumed that the boys would pick the former and the girls the latter. Kher decided the only way to stand out would be to do the female role—of Vasantasena from Mrcchakatika. “It was very badly done and I came back. After two weeks my father came to where I was sitting and asked, ‘Where did you go that day?’ I told him I had gone to Chandigarh to give an audition as an actor. My mother asked, ‘Where did you get the money?’ I said I stole it. She gave me a nice thrashing and called me a thief. I told my father I will never do it again and will take up a job in the forest department. He said, ‘Shut up, you have been selected in the course,’” he recalls.

THE YEAR KHER spent in Panjab University was his introduction to acting as a formal all-consuming discipline. “Now I knew that this is the only thing that I wanted to do. I was working like a maniac. I used to get up at 5 in the morning to do my voice training. I used to sleep at 12. I used to go to the library. I used to do everything that was told to me. I did a play called Mirza Sahiban. After seeing it, Giani Zail Singh, who was the then Chief Minister of Punjab, asked me into his car and he kept saying, ‘Baap re, tu bada achchaa hai yaar, tu bada achchaa hai, bahut hasaaya tune mereko yaar, bahut hasaaya’.”

The National School of Drama followed and even then Kher was clear that he wanted to move on to the bigger stage of movies. “I did not want to be a theatre artiste only. I wanted to be known,” he says. Movies had fascinated him since his childhood days in Shimla, where it was the only form of entertainment. The hill town had four theatres and he would go watch a movie in each of them whenever they released. “I almost broke my nose because I ran away from school to take Gopi movie tickets. I told Dilipsaab (Dilip Kumar was the main lead in it) about that,” he says.

Kher wanted to be in Bollywood but he didn’t want to go through the bone-breaking struggle it entailed for a newcomer without family connections. In 1978, when he finished his diploma and left NSD, many of his batch-mates came to Bombay to test their luck. Kher stayed back in Delhi doing plays, and a year later when there was an opening as a lecturer of theatre in Lucknow, he took it up. He was 23 and after a year and a half, decided he needed to move on. “But I had no money and I felt that khali pet mujhse struggle nahin hoga. I must go (to Bombay) when I get some work,” he says.

On reading an advertisement for the opening of an acting school in Bombay by a former NSD student, he called up and asked for a job. His friend agreed, offering a Rs 5,000 salary and accommodation. “I said to myself, ‘This is how I wanted to come to Bombay’,” he says. He quit his job, packed everything and came.

The joy was short-lived. His friend had promised to pick him up on arrival. In June 1981, when Kher reached Bombay, there was no one at the railway station and the his friend wouldn’t take his calls over the next few days either. Kher went to his place and was told that the project had been postponed. “I said ‘Main toh aa gaya hoon’. He said, ‘Toh main kya karun?’. I had just 37 rupees in my pocket,” he says.

He took up tenancy in a room shared with four others plus the landlady and her family who stayed in the kitchen with a curtain separating them. This was exactly as he had not wanted to be in Bombay—penniless and unemployed. An omen gave him hope when he asked the landlady for the address. “She wrote it on a piece of paper and gave it to me. It read: ‘Anupam Kher, 2/15, Kherwadi, Kher Nagar, Kher Road, Bandra East’. I am an eternal optimist. I said this is a sign. I have to make it,” he says.

Kher didn’t have the conventional looks of an actor and had already started balding. When he went to auditions, he would be told to be a writer instead. “Nobody took me seriously. Soon a time came when I had no money, no house to stay and nothing to eat. Then I slept for a few days at Bandra East railway station on a bench,” he says.

Saaransh changed all that. By 1983, Kher, though still in penury, had started doing plays in Mumbai and was being recognised. He was told that Mahesh Bhatt, the filmmaker, had asked to meet him. Kher landed up at Bhatt’s house the next morning and showed him the recording of a television play he had done some years earlier called Wapsi. Directed by Allana, he had played an older character. It got him the movie and Kher began rehearsing.

When AAP was formed, I was getting a sense of self importance, that the history of India was being written and I would be there

They were supposed to start the shooting on 1 January 1984. On 20 December, someone told him about a rumour that Rajshri Productions, which was producing Saaransh, had decided to cast Sanjeev Kumar in the main role. Kher called up Bhatt, who confirmed it. “He said, ‘They don’t want to spend money on a newcomer. Don’t worry, you do the other old man’s role. Okay, bye’. I was stunned by his callousness,” he says.

Humiliated, Kher decided to leave Mumbai. On his way to Victoria Terminus station, he decided to meet Bhatt one last time. “I wanted to tell him what I thought of him,” he says. Bhatt, he says, congratulated him on taking the news like a sportsman. “I took him to the window and showed him the taxi. I said, ‘I am leaving this place and I want to tell you before I leave that you are the biggest fraud on this earth.’ I was also using gaalis and crying. I was desperate and heart-broken. I said, ‘Saaransh is about truth, you don’t have truth in you, how will you make a film on this? I know Sanjeev Kumar is a great actor, but I can do this role better than him.’ I said, ‘I am a brahmin and I give you a shraap’.” He then walked out. As he was getting into his taxi, Bhatt called him up again. He then rang up Rajshri Productions and said he would not make the film without Kher.

After Saaransh catapulted him to critical acclaim and instant fame, Kher signed 57 movies in one week. “I did not want to get into this selective kind of films. I had no norms that I am a theatre actor and this is what I should be doing. For me work was important. After the three years of humiliation that I had gone through, I just lapped up everything,” he says. It is something that Kher has remained true to even now. Through the 80s and 90s, he remained Bollywood’s most sought-after character artiste, in a range of roles from the comic to the villain; from memorable to bizarre to awful movies. He made a lot of money and when his position seemed secure, he went almost bankrupt in the late 1990s.

“After having achieved everything every actor wants to open a company. Because I was a little more educated at drama school, I said we must have a studio. I started making serials. I had eight serials on air in various channels. But I was borrowing money to shoot those serials and that money used to come after six months or 90 days. But I was taking money on interest and [to pay back] that interest I used to borrow again,” he says. An industrialist who was going to partner him backed out.

This whole new word ‘intolerance’ started coming up, which I had not heard for 59 years of my life. I felt this was a
word that is being marketed

Around that time he was approached by a publisher to write his autobiography. Kher said he would tape it. “As I was taping and listening to it, I discovered I was talking about the failures of my life and laughing at them. I thought, ‘Why should I write it? I should perform it’,” he says. His one-person play on failure, Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai, turned out to be one of the most profitable things he had ever done. He also started an acting school. Career-wise, even now, he remains in demand and his selection of movies continues to be without filters. Last year, he was seen in the blockbuster Prem Ratan Dhan Payo and also in a movie called Dirty Politics, which came and went without a whisper.

Kher’s sole involvement with active politics in the past was more than two decades ago when, at the behest of a friend, he had gone to address rallies for Maneka Gandhi. “Dilip Kumar, me and Subhash Ghai went. We had humongous crowds and that was the only time she lost. So I lost this faith that election mein aise jaane se kuch nahin hota hai,” he says.

He has however been thought to be close to the BJP much before present times. When he was appointed Censor Board chairman in 2003 under the earlier NDA Government, some filmmakers accused him of not clearing films critical of the regime. Anand Patwardhan, a National Award winning documentary filmmaker who also returned his award in protest recently, was part of that group. “Many films about the Gujarat violence of 2002 like Final Solution were being rejected,” says Patwardhan, “When the Government changed in 2004, and the UPA came to power, filmmakers lobbied to get him removed. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry asked him to look at Final Solution again. He knew that the tide had turned, got a new committee formed, which passed the film.” Kher’s defence on Final Solution is also that he was the one who cleared it without any cuts. Patwardhan says that is technically true but it was only because he was protecting his job under the new Government. He feels that with the BJP back in power Kher is now wearing his ideology on his sleeve. “He does not try to hide it,” he says.

Some part of Kher’s new public profile is due to the rise and influence of social networking platforms, which are a battlefield in India right now between the Left and the Right. He has become a figurehead for the latter for a reason. On cultural issues, the Right wing in India suffers from the handicap of being defined by extreme Hindu communal elements. Kher’s constituency is the moderate nationalist—the kind who voted for the BJP’s development plank, don’t think the Ram temple is important but would be enraged if someone didn’t stand up for the national anthem. It is their calibrated language that Kher speaks.

Kher’s current run in politics however does not start with the BJP. It has its genesis in the India Against Corruption movement of Anna Hazare and which led eventually to the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). He could be seen on stage with Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal then. Kher says he was invited and that the things that were being talked about resonated with him. “I genuinely started feeling that there is much more to life than being an actor. I was the first actor who participated in it.”

When AAP was formed, it was Kher who read a list of points in public on what the party would stand for. “I think I was getting a sense of self-importance; that the history of India was being written and I would be there. I agreed. I was neutral. My job ended there,” he says. He claims to subsequently have become disillusioned with AAP when they backtracked on their promises against corruption after coming to power.

Ashutosh, a former editor of IBN who is now an AAP leader, says he does not buy Kher’s claims. “To say that he got disillusioned with the Aam Aadmi Party is an overstatement. Because his ideological leanings were always clear. Somewhere down the line, he has an alignment with the BJP and RSS. He used to take more neutral positions, but of late he has been more forthright with his alignment with the rightists.”

Kher’s attitude towards Narendra Modi is outspoken admiration. To a question on whether he knows Modi personally, he says he has met him just a couple of times, once to invite him for the opening of his acting school in Ahmedabad. “I chatted with him for half an hour and he told what schemes he was doing, he was talking about yeh gaon mein bijli ko iss tarah se le jaana hota hai. Yeh tareeka humko dhoondna hai, yeh ho jayega, toh yeh aisa ho jayega. Once I called him for my play, but he couldn’t make it,” he says.

It was in his high-pitched opposition to the award wapsi movement that Kher came into his own as a political figure, becoming both admired and reviled. Those who had thought him on their side when he spoke against Gajendra Chauhan’s appointment found him against them. Kher says there was no contradiction.

“Gajendra Chauhan was a bad choice. How can they put someone like that? I thought it was ridiculous. Then it became more political, Rahul Gandhi entered there. I told students, ‘I run an acting school, your job is to study. The chairman has nothing to do with your creative thing.’ This award wapsi started happening and I thought nobody returned their awards when Kashmir was happening, when 75 (the Emergency) happened. And when 84 (riots targeting Sikhs in Delhi) happened. Why are they returning it now? And then it became an epidemic of returning awards. And the more they were returning [them], I started seeing through it. This whole new word, ‘intolerance’, started coming up, which I had not heard for 59 years of my life. I felt this was a coined word, a word that is being marketed,” he says.

KHER MAINTAINS HE does not have an agenda and the mere alignment of his views with the BJP’s does not make him their man. He points to his speech at the Telegraph debate as an illustration of how his opinions are not dictated by anyone else. He had gone with talking points for another speech and then lost his temper when he heard Justice Ganguly speak against the hanging of Afzal Guru. “I spoke extempore. You can make out that it is not a planned speech. My speech there was based on this judge saying things like that. It went viral because I think it was the truth and it is what every Indian feels. Mr [Asaduddin] Owaisi says that he doesn’t want to say Bharat Mata ki Jai. I have a right to comment on it but that comment is not necessarily BJP’s comment. I am saying what millions of people are actually wanting to say,” he says.

Kher says when he talks against the communal Hindu fringe, it stems from the same position. “They are saying, ‘Arre balance karne ke liye. Balance karne ke liye mujhe kya zarooorat hai bolne ki?’ I can easily avoid, naa. If we have a prime minister who has an agenda, who wants things to happen, these are the people who are derailing that,” he says.

The natural culmination of all this is obviously politics but he says there are no such plans in the immediate future, at least for four or five years. Neither does he rule it out. “The day I want to join politics, I will do it shouting at the top of my voice. Why will I do it in a hidden manner?” he says. It is unclear what Kher’s strategy is, or even if he has one, beyond just reacting to issues. But, for a man who has always aspired to jump to bigger stages, the restless ambition that has trailed him all his life is definitely at work again.

(Click here to read Anupam Kher's full interview)