A short history of Anupam Kher’s split incarnation.
There are at least two Anupam Khers in the public domain. There is one that New York’s liberals fete and another that Indian liberals abhor.
There is the award-winning actor of countless Hindi films who is now enjoying a second life as the West’s favourite go-to guy for dramatic roles, ranging from spy handler Shahbaz Karim, based in pre-Partition Lahore, in the highly regarded BBC One miniseries Mrs Wilson, to Dr Vijay Kapoor, the chief of neurology in the fictional New York hospital of New Amsterdam, NBC’s new soap.
In this avatar, Kher is universally beloved, living like a newcomer in New York, at the age of 63, “waking up early morning to learn my lines and walking around New York meeting new people and discovering art galleries”.
In this avatar, he plays the roles he gets with relish, whether it is father to Pakistani-American comic Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick in 2017, the BAFTA-nominated schizophrenic father in BBC Two’s moving The Boy With the Topknot, late in 2017, or the ultra professional Hemant Oberoi in the forthcoming Hotel Mumbai based on the 26/11 attacks on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai.
In this avatar, the two-time National Award-winning actor (one as a special mention and the other as a special jury award) is all set to make it again, in America, having signed a three-year contract for New Amsterdam which will keep him out of India for the most part till 2020.
And then there is Anupam Kher, the super patriot, who stages morchas against the “intolerance brigade”, berates a retired Supreme Court judge for questioning the Afzal Guru verdict, asks Naseeruddin Shah how much more freedom he wants in India, and acts as former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the forthcoming movie, The Accidental Prime Minister, based on Sanjaya Baru’s book, that reveals some uncomfortable truths about the UPA regime, quite conveniently playing into BJP’s dynasty-is-the-devil trope.
This Anupam Kher routinely retweets Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s various accomplishments, is a star speaker at The World Hindu Congress in Chicago to commemorate 125 years of Swami Vivekananda’s historic Chicago address, and has emerged as the right wing’s most vocal cultural ambassador on Twitter with 12.9 million followers, without actually being a member of the BJP.
This Anupam Kher is in the habit of tweeting some extreme views—from comparing the arrest of JNU student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid to an ongoing “pest control of the country” (Gharon mein pest control hota hai toh cockroach, keede makaude ityadi baahar nikalte hain. Ghar saaf hota hai. Vaise hi aajkal desh ka pest control chal raha hai”, February 20, 2016) to attacking young Gurmehar Kaur, a soldier’s daughter, who said it was war and not Pakistan that had killed her father in Kargil (The Intorant Gang is back. Same faces, different slogans.:
घरों में पेस्ट कंट्रोल होता है तो कॉक्रोच, कीड़े मकोड़े इत्यादि बाहर निकलते है। घर साफ़ होताहै।वैसे ही आजकल देश का पेस्ट कंट्रोल चल रहा है।
— Anupam Kher (@AnupamPKher) February 20, 2016
— Anupam Kher (@AnupamPKher) February 28, 2017
This Anupam Kher also occasionally gets sought-after sinecures—in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era, he was director of his alma mater National School of Drama, followed by chairman of the Central Board for Film Certification. In this version of NDA, he was made chairman of Film and Television Institute of India, till he resigned, citing work commitments. Oh yes, he was also awarded the Padma Shri in 2004 and the Padma Bhushan in 2016.
The real Anupam Kher sees no contradiction in his politics and in his art. As he puts it: “People confuse me talking about my concerns, my passion for India, with my wanting to be in politics in India. If I was in politics or if I wanted to get into politics, nobody could stop me. I have not been subtle about anything in my life. If I find Narendra Modi an honest Indian, I am vocal about it and if I find other people dishonest, I am vocal about it. I am passionate about everyone who does great things for India whether it is Virat Kohli or the soldiers on the front. That is the way I am made.”
His friends and colleagues vouch for it. “He believes in his politics,” says veteran media analyst Amit Khanna, who remembers calling him, at Ravi Baswani’s suggestion, from Lucknow where he was teaching drama in Raj Bisaria’s Bharatendu Natya Akademi for a small part in his directorial debut Sheeshay ka Ghar. “I think he was paid a mere Rs 5,000-10,000 for the role but he asked for an advance of Rs 1,000 because his father back home in Shimla had asked for a bottle of Vat 69 and 7 O’Clock blades.” Those were Kher’s years of struggle, which took him from the Department of Indian Theatre at Panjab University (where he worked with the legendary Balwant Gargi and first met his wife Kirron Kher) to Delhi’s National School of Drama and then to Lucknow in search of a steady income.
His part as Disco Killer the misdirected hitman in cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron was cut, and after six months of preparation for the role in Saaransh, it seemed even that was to elude him when the producers wanted to cast Sanjeev Kumar instead. Director Mahesh Bhatt intervened after Kher protested and the role of an aged father who has to fight a long and arduous battle to claim his son’s ashes, made him a phenomenon.
He was 28 and worked virtually non-stop after that, ensuring great relationships across the board in Bollywood’s notorious cliques. Whether it was Subhash Ghai or Yash Chopra or Yash Johar, he networked, built relationships to last, and excelled in all genres with almost all major directors in over 500 films. Along the way, he created a school to train actors, worked with differently-abled children, told his life story in an engaging two-and-a-half hour, one-man play, Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai, and became one-half of BJP’s most popular Bollywood couple, with wife Kirron Kher becoming Lok Sabha MP from Chandigarh in 2014.
He is also a card-carrying member of Bollywood’s informal club of ultra nationalists, whose undeclared president is Akshay Kumar, his co-star in Baby andSpecial 26 and whose other leading lights are directors Madhur Bhandarkar, Vivek Agnihotri and Ashoke Pandit.
Kher has another identity, one which he has cultivated carefully though he is not from the Valley, that of a Kashmiri Pandit exile. In this incarnation, he speaks resolutely for the rights of migrants and calls out ‘pro-Pakistan’ elements in India. He shoots videos which play on news channels at prime time and speaks of how the Muslims of Kashmir had given Hindus just three choices: Ralive, tsaliv ya galive (convert to Islam, leave or perish). Ashoke Pandit, his ally in this cause, calls him his ‘elder brother’ and ‘guiding spirit’. “I’ve known him from the early 80s when he had just come to Mumbai and was staying in a small room in Kherwadi, Bandra with four others. Whenever he was homesick, he would come home to eat ‘ma ke haath ka khaana’. I have never seen him complaining even in the darkest days and it is for this very reason that he jumps back after every setback.”
And he has had a few—whether it was the financial disaster of his TV production company, the failure of his directorial debut Om Jai Jagadish or the ban he imposed on six movie magazines in 1992 after slapping a Stardust correspondent who reported the allegation that he had molested the sister of actress Mamta Kulkarni. It is typical of the shifting loyalties in the Mumbai film industry that Naseeruddin Shah then spoke up in his defence in a short video for the video magazine Bollywood Plus.
Kher insists he is not interested in active politics, “at least for the next many years”. “This is the greatest phase of my life,” he says. “I feel alive as a person and as an actor, in a profession where age has nothing to do with exploring new horizons. I am completely desi. I think in Hindi being from a Hindi-medium school. And now as the only Indian in the cast of New Amsterdam I think in my mind somewhere I am representing India and I must do my country proud.”
His television bromance with fellow doctor Iggy Frome (played by actor Tyler Labine) has even earned them a celebrity nickname—Kapiggy. Kher has engaged directly with politics before, when he read out the memorandum upon the formation of the Aam Aadmi Party because he was impressed with their stand on anti-corruption, but his constant desire to be in the news may not fit with the regimentation required of a member of any political party.
Whether he is dining with Robert de Niro, fellow New Yorker and co-star of the Oscar-winning Silver Linings Playbook; shooting videos of his mother Dulari; or strolling on the street with a visiting Rishi Kapoor, Kher is enjoying the success he has made of his life. He is, of course, entirely unaware of the irony of being a Modi fan who criticises other people’s intolerance, working in a hit broadcast show which celebrates all kinds of diversity, in Trump’s America where plurality is under threat.
But the young man who came to Mumbai with Rs 37 in his pocket, and was not given the Rs 500-job he expected as a teaching assistant in a fellow actor’s new school, will never be a mere memory for Kher who has intimate experience of failure. Which may well be why the busy actor will always overwhelm the nascent politician—this is the man, after all, of whom it was said in the 1990s, that there were two absolute essentials for any Hindi film to be made. Raw stock and Anupam Kher.
The former may well be out of fashion now but the latter continues to remain relevant. Whatever it takes.
For ThePrint's smart analysis of how the rest of the media is doing its job, no holds barred, go to PluggedIn.