Doctor Dang or Dil Ka Doctor... he’s been there, done that — in almost 450 roles, actually! And the ‘boy who came from Shimla’ picked up quite a few life stories on his way before jotting them down in a book titled The Best Thing About You Is YOU!. The actor-author-teacher chatted with a select Calcutta audience on love, life, politics and books, steered by writer-curator Ina Puri. The occasion was ‘An Author’s Afternoon’ with Anupam Kher, presented by Shree Cement with Prabha Khaitan Foundation and Taj Bengal, in association with Jaipur-based literary consultancy Siyahi.
Ina: You came to Bombay from a rural background, unexposed to the limelight. For Saaransh (1984), did you really walk into Mahesh Bhatt’s office dressed as an old man? Were you desperate to get a role or to fulfil your dreams?
Anupam: I was both desperate and hungry — literally. And what you call rural, the word you should have used is ‘poor’. But then your background doesn’t stop you from dreaming. What is important is the level of happiness and that is what my family was all about. I remember my father earned Rs 90 a month and he had to feed a family of 14. But we never had the time to feel depressed. My parents never indulged in self-pity. When your childhood is happy in spite of all the problems, you will grow up to be an optimist.
So, June 3, 1980, I landed in Bombay to be an actor in the movies. Today, this bald look is a dignified one but in the initial years when I was balding, nobody took interest in me. They said: ‘Why don’t you become an assistant or a story writer?’ But I was a trained actor, so I waited.
I was fed up hearing ‘don’t worry something will happen’. Meanwhile, Saaransh came up and Mahesh Bhatt said: “I have heard... you are a good actor.” I said: ‘Sir, you have heard it wrong. I am a brilliant actor.’ He later said that was when he decided to take me.
I was a 28-year-old playing the role of a 65-year-old man. People said: ‘What are you doing? You will be finished!’ But I saw the role was phenomenal and I had no qualms in playing an older or a younger person. I wanted to establish myself as an actor.
However, what kept me going through those years were books. I did not come from a literary background; my father was the first graduate in 100 years of the Kher family. In Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge the scene where I introduce Shah Rukh Khan to our forefathers, I actually asked Yashji if I could use the actual names of my uncles as they fit the profile very well. And so I went, ‘Yeh Dwarkanathji hain, jo saatwi mein aath baar fail huye...’ I actually have an uncle like that!
My father’s youngest brother once gave me a book called Maa (Mother) by Maxim Gorky, which got me hooked to Russian books. Later, when I joined the department of drama in Chandigarh, I discovered that there were books on acting — I never knew that! For the next one year, the library became my world, keeping me away from things like drugs, smoking... because I figured that books were educating me and making me feel important.
Childhood has a lot to do with imagination, books, movies, acting... I wish everybody had a childhood like that.... My childhood stars were Manoj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Sunil Dutt, Dilip Kumar... actually Dilip Kumar intelligent logon ke star hotey thhe, I was happy with Rajendra Kumar (grins). Cinema and these actors taught me to dream, while books took me to some very interesting places.
Ina: Tell us about the next stage...
Anupam: I got 38 per cent in graduation. But in drama school (National School of Drama, Delhi), I suddenly got a gold medal for standing first. I thought, ‘This is an area I need to study’. That is why I feel the education system in India needs to be revamped, so that the child learns what he needs to.
In Delhi, I got to read more books and learnt many other things. Then there were relationships. I got to know about heartbreaks, jealousy, possessiveness, that there is manipulation in relationships, there is violence and suicide... though I can talk about it now, at that time it was traumatic.
Ina: Anupam just lost his father, who had been a long-lasting influence in his life. And the way he chose to mark his father’s passing was through a party. This has inspired a lot of people to do similar things…
Anupam: My father would have hated it if we did the normal white clothes, dark glasses, chautha and bhajan. His life needed to be celebrated, so I called a rock band and asked friends to come in coloured clothes.
The crux of the thing is to be yourself. The world is constantly trying to make you somebody else; trying to tell you that everyone is doing better than you... that the world is a dangerous place. My struggle, right from childhood, was to remain myself.
After this chat, you may think ‘Oh, he has written a book which is on its 11th edition but when he speaks he doesn’t seem that intelligent’. I am not here to impress you. It’s perfectly all right if you think I am the least interesting person. Now the onus is on you — now you have to like me.
This is what I have said in my book. I have been doing a play based on my life, the many failures, my shortcomings, disasters — I went bankrupt around 10 years back, I had facial palsy… and by the end of the play I suddenly felt I was a free man. Now what will people frighten me with?
The moment you make other people responsible for your happiness, they will make sure you are not happy. So the whole struggle is to be yourself. But we make the easiest things in the world so difficult.
Ina: The book must have come as a surprise to a lot of people... so, how did it happen?
Anupam: When I started doing the play, I was being called a lot to deliver lectures at IITs, IIMs. And I thought why are they calling me? I chose to talk about the power of failure... how failure can teach you more than success, how success is boring and one-dimensional.
Here is one example. If you come first in your class, then the stress is to remain number one. But when you rank 57th, you can try being 48, 39, 26… (laughs).
I had never thought of writing a book but when I was called to speak at universities, I realised I was talking sense only because the reference point was my life. I was not talking about Jean-Paul Sartre or existentialism or other isms. I only understand the ism of life and I did not pretend otherwise.
When I was invited to Kellogg Business School, I thought, ‘Arey, I am someone who has scored just 38 per cent, yet I am giving lectures at Kellogg, Oxford, Cambridge...!’ That was when my publisher, Ashok Chopra, said I should write a book about life.
I said I didn’t know how to. So he asked me to write whatever came to my mind. For one year I used to note down thoughts as and when they appeared, whether in a lobby, airport or aircraft... and I used to keep sending it to him. After a year, it took the shape of a book. I made sure it had my photograph on both sides of the cover!
See, after Saaransh released, nobody recognised me, for I was 28 years old and had an old man’s get-up in the movie. I was quite devastated because that’s why I had gone into movies... to be recognised, to be asked for autographs. This time, with the book, you just can’t miss me!
In fact, when I told my father that my book was a best-seller, he said: “Allah meherbaan toh gadhera pehelwaan” (laughs heartily).
Ina: You have been active with Anna Hazare’s movement and have become a regular commentator on social affairs on TV. Where does that stem from? Will you join politics?
Anupam: I am never going to join politics, otherwise I’d have joined 10 years back as I wanted to be the Prime Minister of the country! But I can’t just see things happening and allow them to continue. It is silence that leads to all these problems.
While shooting in Pune for Chhodo Kal Ki Baatein, I heard about Anna Hazare. On the way back to the hotel, I was wondering how could I just talk about all this with my co-actors and then go into a five-star hotel and relax? So, I took the next flight out and when I reached Jantar Mantar, I discovered that it was a movement by millions of people. I also realised how government manipulates movements.
When I read that Delhi girl’s mother’s interviews or about the Indian jawans who were beheaded, I can feel their pain, but what we do is intellectualise it while the government says we need to let the law take its course. I can swear if any of those 540 MPs’ daughter was raped, they would not wait for the law to take its course.
Ina: What is the audience reaction to your becoming an author?
Anupam: I never thought that I would be introduced as an author. Never! The only literary thing I had ever written were two stupid Hindi lines — “Mujhe teri kashti ke doob jaane ka gham kam tha, gham tha toh iss baat ka jahan kashti doobi wahan paani kam tha”!
So, from there to this, I have totally enjoyed everything that has happened to me.
Hari Mohan Bangur, managing director, Shree Cement: You were talking about the importance and multidimensional aspect of failure...
Anupam: I have always believed failure is of an event, not the person. Suppose at this event the mike hadn’t worked or people hadn’t come, then the event would have failed, not the organisers or me. But we take it as a personal failure. Failure can teach you so many things. No one can teach you those, you have to go through the grind yourself.
Sundeep Bhutoria, of Prabha Khaitan Foundation: After a lot of success in Bollywood, getting bit offers from Hollywood... do you feel proud about it?
Anupam: I am very proud. In fact, I am also my best critic. If I have done atrocious work, I know in my heart how bad it is. I am really thrilled about this Hollywood film [Silver Linings Playbook]. I am thrilled that I am able to send an email to Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro... how many people in the world can do that? There is not a single actor in India in the last hundred years who has shared screen space with De Niro. There is a joy, an arrogance, when you start on your own and make it on your own.
Ritesh Agarwal, freelance writer and contributor to t2 Feedback: Don’t you think filmmakers today are more concerned about making quick money?
Anupam: It’s not just with cinema, everybody today wants a shortcut. When we play antakshari, even now we actually refer to the old songs, I don’t remember any of the songs out there now. Like instant coffee, we all want instant success. If I had not done Saaransh, I wouldn’t have been sitting here talking to you. The fact that you are asking me a question like this means that you are bothered and maybe you should talk to 10 other people.
Sangeeta Datta, filmmaker and film historian: Which has been your favourite comic role? Any role that you would still like to portray?
Anupam: I would still like to portray 500 roles more and if you ask me this question 30 years later, you may still get the same answer! On a realistic level, a role very close to me as a person is Lamhe (Prem, Anil Kapoor’s friend). Then Khosla Ka Ghosla was a different kind of comedy. Shola Aur Shabnam, Khel… I enjoy doing comedy a lot as it gets an immediate reaction from the audience.
I now look for roles that have more human complexity. Though the roles remain the same, I think my perception of life has changed. Like (the forthcoming) Special 26
is a very interesting film, it has both comedy and seriousness. Akshay Kumar and I play fake CBI officers and it is being made by the director of A Wednesday !(Neeraj Pandey).
I was also very happy working on Silver Linings Playbook, which got eight Oscar nominations. To be there in Los Angeles sitting in a ballroom with the world’s best actors, I thought about that boy who started from Shimla. When I met Robert De Niro for the first time, I had tears in my eyes. According to me, he is one of the best actors. So, he got a little awkward and asked me why I was crying. I said: ‘It’s not you, I am moved by my own journey.’ That reference point in your life has got to be there constantly. It also shows your graph as a person, not only as a professional.