Script's in English, has medical terms: Anupam Kher is newcomer on New Amsterdam

The actor forays into American TV. He talks to us about work and living in New York

By Priyanka Roy
  • Published 12.10.18, 9:11 PM
  • Updated 12.10.18, 9:11 PM
  • 6 mins read
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Anupam Kher with Ryan Eggold and New Amsterdam co-stars on the set of the NBC medical drama The Telegraph

After 30 years in the business and 515 films, Anupam Kher is a newcomer — on the sets of his American TV show New Amsterdam. The NBC show — that’s currently airing in the US and premieres on Indian TV on October 13 (10pm on Colors Infinity) — has the 63-year-old actor in the role of Dr Vijay Kapoor, a neurologist who’s part of the medical team at a hospital called New Amsterdam. It also stars The Blacklist star Ryan Eggold.

Kher chatted with t2 from New York, where he’s been based for the past few months, shooting the medical drama.    

Priyanka Roy:

New Amsterdam premiered in the US in end-September. What’s the best thing anyone’s told you about Vijay Kapoor?

Anupam Kher:

That I am the pause in the story; that I slow down things; that I bring in the Indian philosophy of slowing things down, but in a good way. I calm things down.

The best thing someone’s told me is, ‘It doesn’t ever seem that you don’t think in English’. Whenever I have done an English film, it’s been about 15-20 days of work and the script has been handed to me many months in advance. Working on a TV series in America is completely different. In a show like (The) Big Bang Theory, the Indian character (Rajesh Koothrappali, played by Kunal Nayyar) speaks with an American accent, but my character Vijay Kapoor speaks English like an Indian does.

Just after it premiered, I was having breakfast somewhere and an American doctor came up to me and said she had watched the show. She told me, ‘You really look like a doctor’. I don’t really know what she meant by that (laughs), but I am glad I haven’t stuck out like a sore thumb. For me, the idea was to blend in.

As a doctor, the only thing you should be known for is humanity and not ethnicity. Yahaan pe Indian doctors ki bahut izzat hai. All the top doctors in New York — at Sloan Kettering or Mount Sinai — are Indian. I feel so proud.

I have been told that my character looks authentic and I am glad because to play a neurologist, I met a number of neurologists. The most important thing about this portrayal is that I have to say my lines as a doctor would, not like how an actor would. I want people to believe that I have been a doctor for the last 25 years. 

Priyanka Roy:

You’ve always spoken about the need to reinvent one’s career and we’ve seen you do that consistently over the years. Does a show like New Amsterdam help reinvent yourself?

Anupam Kher:

The most challenging bit about this show has been mastering the medical terms. Main agar dus minute se zyada angrezi mein baat karta hoon toh mere jabre mein dard hone lagta hai! (Laughs) I am the only Indian in the cast and crew, everyone else speaks English as their first language. So after 30 years in the business, I feel like a newcomer on this show. I wake up, I learn my lines, I shoot, I come back and again learn my lines…. It’s like going back to school. I have a speech coach, a doctor guiding me… all these things are very exciting and I feel like I am starting all over again. Kitne logon ko yeh saubhagya naseeb hota hai?

A lot of actors are insecure, they fear failure. But right from the beginning, I broke the myth of typecasting — I was 28 when I played a 65-year-old in Saaransh.

I have been a leading man, a character actor, a villain and a comedian, sometimes all in the same year. I have always tried not to take the tried-and-tested route. I am only 63 and I have so much left to do. I am grateful that I am getting so many opportunities. I am living in an apartment in New York without any kind of paraphernalia that accompanies an actor. I get my own stuff, I walk alone on the streets, I stop by any place for a cup of coffee, I am living a typical New Yorker’s life… it’s a whole new life.

On set, everyone knows the kind of work I have done — they know about Silver Linings Playbook, The Big Sick, The Indian Detective, Bend It Like Beckham... — and they respect me for that. But when I face the camera for this show, I have to translate that respect into reality, na? I can’t tell them ki panso pandraah film ka kalaakar aapke saamne khade hokar aapko aashirwad de raha hai… woh mujhe bolenge ki aapko aashirwad nahin dena hai, aapko sirf dialogue bolna hai! (Laughs)

Priyanka Roy:

You’ve worked in quite a few big Hollywood productions. How is working on American TV different?

Anupam Kher:

Har episode mujhe meri pehli film ki tarah lagti hai. There is a deadline. The show is already on air and one needs to have a bank of episodes ready. For a Hollywood film, the actors get the script six months in advance. On TV, we get the script only four days in advance. While you shoot one episode, you are already learning the lines for the next one. I have memorised dialogues that have run into 27 pages, but that was in Hindi. Here, I get the script only a few days in advance and it’s in English and contains medical terms… main toh paagal ho jaata hoon! (Laughs) Mera pehla reaction hota hai, ‘Marr gaya! Marr gaya! Marr gaya!’ But the excitement that ‘I have to do it’ keeps me going.

I have the pressure of 515 films on me. I have the pressure of people back in India seeing me in a new format. It’s not that this is a Holly film that will not release in India; it’s premiering this week and will run concurrently to the telecast in the US. Aisa naa ho ki people back in India say ki chala tha udhar kaam karne, dekho kya kiya hai issne!’ I hope they say, ‘Arre, yeh toh kar ke dikha diya Anupam Kher ne!’ 

Priyanka Roy:

What do you miss the most about India now that you have been away for so long?

Anupam Kher:

The people! I miss the chaos, I miss the fact that we interfere in everyone’s lives… I am serious! (Laughs) I miss saying ‘Namaste’, I miss the warmth… that we interfere in each other’s lives as a birthright is what makes us amazing!

In Bombay, Anil Kapoor stays almost next door; I have always entered his house without ever calling up in advance. Thoda aage it’s David Dhawan’s house and I land up without an appointment. I can call up (director) Neeraj Pandey any time and say, ‘Aa raha hoon, thodi chai pila do yaar’. But this kind of thing doesn’t happen here. Here a father and son live in the same building and have to fix an appointment to meet, and this is also prevalent among Indians living here. I miss the smells of India, I miss the food, I miss meeting my mother the most. I am asking her to come and stay with me for a bit.

But it’s not that I am miserable here. I am learning to play the piano. I have been travelling abroad for decades now, but I never visited a museum. I recently went to the Metropolitan Museum (of Art) here. I keep walking on the streets and clicking photographs. I want to join an acting school all over again. Here, your passion is not defined by your age. There’s a different kind of freedom here.

Yahaan pe har Indian jisko main milta hoon mujhe khana khilaana chahta hai. I have sat in so many taxis where I haven’t had to pay the fare. The number of invitations I’ve got to visit people’s homes here, I can have dinner for the next five years without visiting a restaurant! (Laughs)

Priyanka Roy:

You recently met up with your friend Rishi Kapoor and posted a very cool Reservoir Dogs-like video of the two of you walking the streets of Manhattan… 

Anupam Kher:

I came to know he was unwell from his tweet. When he came here, I told him I wanted to meet him. We started walking on the streets and we chatted for one-and-a-half hours. His tests are still on and I didn’t want to prod much. But I am sure he will come out of it fine. Sometimes, we all need to take a pause in life and I am glad he’s doing that. We quarrelled over who will pay for the tea we drank (laughs) and it was so nice to do such normal things. He’s a very entertaining person and we plan to catch up soon again.

Honestly, illness is not anything to be hidden. I suffered facial paralysis while doing Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! And everyone knew about it. Whether it’s Irrfan (Khan), Sonali (Bendre) or Rishi, I think it’s been liberating for them to talk about the fact that they are not well. I am sure they all will be fit and fine in no time.  

Anupam Kher
Anupam Kher File picture