Thursday, 12 April 2012

Anupam Kher on Freedom, Professionalism, Optimism and Nepotism

altIf the hallmark of a great thespian is the ability transform, transcend and reinvent oneself, Anupam Kher ticks all the right boxes.
In an insulated industry where currying favour takes precedence over ability – not to mention one obsessed with generic physical beauty – a follically-challenged man born to a lower-middle class family in an obscure Kashmiri town has endured and entertained a generation.
His humble background has doubtless ensured his longevity and endowed him with an insatiable appetite for work.
The 57-year-old has appeared in a staggering 450 films and dozens of theatre productions, directed a multi-starrer with some of India’s biggest names and produced a brace of critically acclaimed films.
He has headed the Censor Board of India and the prestigious National School of Drama in New Delhi as well as running Actor Prepares: arguably India’s most respected acting school with a branch in the United Kingdom.
Appropriately enough, he’s also written a self-help book ‘The Best Thing About You is You!’ which details his struggles and experiences as an actor.

And, 30 years after making his screen debut in Saaransh – India’s official entry for the 1985 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film – Kher is venturing into Hollywood in 2012: first with Deepa Mehta’s big screen adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s ‘Midnight’s Children’ followed by ‘The Silver Linings Playbook’, an ensemble comedy starring Robert de Niro and Bradley Cooper.
Not forgetting of course, his standing as one of the leading members of India’s burgeoning Twitterati.
On a flying visit to London – where he shot several scenes for Yash Chopra’s upcoming film – Anupam Kher sat down with The UKAsian for a chat about creative freedom, Hollywood, optimism, professionalism and nepotism.
altOn ‘The Silver Linings Playbook’…
AK: The film is about a mentally imbalanced person (played by Bradley Cooper) who is taken out of an asylum and his relationship with his mother and father played by Jackie Weaver and Robert de Niro respectively.  I play an Indian therapist whose unconventional methods don’t sit well with the father.  The story is about how inherently dysfunctional we can all be; it’s about people who find themselves out of place, without context.
On comparisons between Hollywood and Bollywood...
AK: In Hollywood, there is a certain type of professionalism, a certain discipline about the movie-making process.  There’s also a tremendous amount of paperwork involved, a lot of pre-production and they stick to schedules.
In India the process is much more fluid.  As a consequence, there’s a certain human touch to making films in India.  You’re invariably involved with friends or friends of friends and things are a lot less regimented.  But like all things in India, I think that relaxed nature too is changing although not necessarily for the best.  When there were no vanity vans, no mobiles, there was a lot of togetherness. Now, there’s aloofness.  It’s fine for some people but I’m a people person so it’s much more difficult for someone like me.
But overall, the future of Indian cinema is very bright.  We have made massive leaps in terms of talent and content.  Now you can make movies you believe in.  You don't have to follow a certain formula, which is very good.  From 'Khosla Ka Ghosla', 'A Wednesday' and 'Kahaani' – these movies are proof that if small films are made well, they have an audience today.
The outside world might look at the Indian film industry with skepticism but whatever the world may say about us, we make movies for our people; for 1.2 billion people to be precise.  Not specifically for international audiences.  That’s not to say that Indian films are not being appreciated around the world; they certainly are in ever increasing numbers but what one has to realize is cinema is the one thing that unites the whole of India – apart from a cricket match against Pakistan.  We have a very large captive audience and that audience is our first priority.
On Midnight’s Children...
AK: I have read Midnight’s Children and in fact it’s one of my favourites.  I have a guest appearance in what is essentially an ensemble film.  I was very flattered that Deepa told me she had chosen me because she wanted someone to set the tone for the entire film.  I think it’s an outstanding film; it’s extremely difficult to adapt a book like that for the big screen but I think she and Rushdie have pulled it off.
On Salman Rushdie, the Jaipur Literary Fest and the media
AK: I think everybody has the right to express their view.  I don’t think his commentary is a representation of what India is about as a whole.  Today, people will latch on to anything and everything to sensationalize things but we need to have some perspective.  Blaming a country for being backward is very easy; much more difficult is the task to go deeper and understand people’s sensibilities and adapt to those sensibilities.  A nation as a whole has a different point of view to that of an individual’s.  When we shoot in London we have to follow the rules of the UK.  It’s the same in the US, Dubai or elsewhere.  Having said that, I think it’s very important to have creative freedom but creative freedom is open to interpretation.
On Deepa Mehta choosing to film ‘Midnight’s Children’ in Sri Lanka instead of India...
AK: Contrary to what the media likes to say, Deepa didn’t apply to shoot the film in India in the first place because she didn’t want to disturb anyone’s sensibilities so she made a decision at the outset to shoot elsewhere.  But that was interpreted in a wholly different way.  She actually wanted to do part of the filming in Kashmir and I had personally spoken to the chief minister about it and permission had been granted without any qualms but the shooting was cancelled due to logistical difficulties.  The problem is that kind of thing can be interpreted in the most negative way possible and placed in the public domain.  Catherine Bigelow has been shooting her film about Osama bin Laden in Chandigarh for a while and there haven’t been any problems.  So it’s important for the public to understand that there will be these kind of problems anywhere in the world; not just India.
On Censorship and the Censor Board...
AK: I don’t think the censor board has any type of agenda but it can get ridiculous sometimes.  My producers and I were recently discussing an upcoming film with the Board; a film which references both Manmohan Singh and George W Bush.  We were told that mentions of both names must be muted in the final cut.  It’s absolutely ridiculous.  If the humour is based on these two individuals and then we mute their names, what’s the point of a movie into which a tremendous amount of work has gone in?  There would be nothing left to say.  But we are continuing to fight the ruling against the film.
altOn being an optimist...
AK: I’m the ultimate optimist.  I was born an optimist.  I think my whole family is optimistic.  When you’re from a poor, lower-middle class family, the only thing that is cheap is happiness and holding on to the thought that things can only get better.  When you’re rich or worse, if you’re born rich, you become sceptical and wary of people.  I come from a large family.  My late father – who was a clerk at the forestry department – was the only earning member.  He brought in Rs. 90 a month which sustained a family of 14 people back in the late 50’s.  But we were happy.
It’s easy to be pessimistic; to feel downtrodden.  It’s much harder to make things work.  Look, I made it.  I was a bald, thin, nobody who didn’t have a decent place to sleep but I made it didn’t I?  You can find reasons for not going that extra mile but what is there to lose, especially when there’s so much that can help you along the way?  If you want to be an actor today there’s so much that can help you.  There are casting companies, casting directors, there’s reality TV, millions of TV channels.  I had none of these things back in the early 80’s.
On Actor Prepares...
AK: The acting school is my passion.  The thinking behind it wasn’t, “I’m an ageing actor, and I need to secure a regular source of income, let’s start an acting school!”  I’m very much a working actor, and not only in India.  I truly feel that acting can be taught.  My theory is that people who can lie can act.  The job of Actor Prepares is to help hone that ability.
On how long he intends to entertain...
AK: I will go for as long as my mind and my body are in sync which is hopefully as long as I shall live.  More and more older actors are doing amazing work.  Look at Clint Eastwood, for example.  He’s done some of the most amazing work of his career in the last 20 years!  Who would have thought that Dirty Harry will turn out to be such an amazing director?  It gives us all hope!  You don’t retire from this profession.  And I enjoy living.  Living life to the optimum; obviously that helps.
On Shobha De’s allegations of Nepotism in Bollywood and his own sons...
AK: Shobha De is not in the film industry.  I doubt she has the full picture.  She’s a writer of fiction.  I have great regard for her as a person but her opinions are skewed.  She’s of course entitled to her opinion but no one will give you work in Bollywood just because you’re someone’s son or relative.  It’s not as black and white as that at all.
I’m definitely like my character of Dharamvir Malhotra in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in that I’m one of those fathers who celebrate failure and a person’s ability to overcome failure and become better and stronger.  I will do all that is necessary for my children and my family but I will never ask someone to give my brother or my son work because I don’t think it would be appropriate on my part.  If I make such a request and the producer in question refuses then that damages the relationship between the two of us and I would never put myself in that situation.
On what is left to achieve...
There are so many things that I want to achieve.  You can pose the same question in 30 years time and I’ll list 100 things I’d like to achieve.  Perhaps that article will outline what more I’ve done!
-    Poonam Joshi (with additional reporting by Isha Chandra. Edited by Vijitha Alles).

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