Lessons Life Taught Me Unknowingly- An Autobiography Review: An Exhausting Attempt at Caricature

Anupam Kher’s autobiography is an exercise in hubris, and reads like a Wikipedia page with just a faint, beating heart

Written by: Anupam Kher
Publisher: Hay House India

For a while I have been wondering why Indian actors are compelled to write autobiographies. I wonder this, because they rarely feel literary, (read: Gulshan Grover’s Bad Man) and perhaps that was not even the intent. Anupam Kher’s autobiography Lessons Life Taught Me Unknowingly fits this line of inquiry. The self righteous tone sets us up for a book that is not interested in vulnerability.

“I started writing my autobiography at the age of 10, way before I became an actor, a movie star, or an award-winning performer.”

This book is an attempt at archiving a career, as opposed to archiving a personality- a Wikipedia page with a faint, beating heart, if you will. His childhood is spoken off with choppy nostalgia, but beyond childhood, his life is defined singularly by the movies he has done or been replaced in. This makes sense, since cinema is not just a full time job, but is an all consuming craft in a largely insular, inbred world. And that shows.

The tone is very intriguing to start off with, toeing the thin line between self-confidence and hubris. There is this sense of arrogance under the guise of pride. But when he begins to subtly conflate himself with Ram (calling his brother Lakshman) or Krishna (calling his lovers Radha and Meera), it gets a little tedious, and the tone becomes untenable. Because even when he speaks of moments of despair or depression, the tone does not let you, as a reader, experience the pain, or helplessness. But again, for a book to make you feel, it needs to have a literary quality, which this book completely dispenses with.

His story existing between polarities of rags and riches is the stuff of intrigue- from being homeless and sleeping at the Bandra railway platform, to borrowing money from his current wife to travel and convince his then lover to not get married, heartbreak and paralysis, … cursing Mahesh Bhatt for even considering replacing him for Saaransh, bankruptcy and banter… honestly, this book should have amounted to a raging, sprawling saga of endurance. But, alas.

The book starts off with an indulgent ode to a family that seems to exist as caricatures, converse in aphorisms and proverbs, almost like a dialogue piece from Kalank. I am not arguing against the moral heftiness of the proverbs, but honestly, it is just exhausting.

Towards the latter half, the book just descends into a laundry list of actors and directors Kher has worked with. There is not even an attempt to weave a narrative around these people. Every paragraph is a new actor. It made me wonder if perhaps, bullet points, or a numbering system would have been more effective. Writing in paragraphs demands continuity, or at least some semblance of it.

[S]ome of Kher’s trysts almost give you second hand embarrassment as a reader.

This fundamentally comes from Kher’s obsession with moments as they are, as opposed to circumstances belonging to a tapestry. When Woody Allen said something remotely intellectual, Kher gasps happily.

“There was another Woody Allen moment that I was able to capture for posterity.”

But an autobiography cannot just be a collection of moments. Besides some of Kher’s trysts almost give you second hand embarrassment as a reader. The tone is confusing, because it speaks about being rejected, and being told off by his cinematic idols with such self righteousness and sometimes, even awe, that I wonder if he is being self-deprecating or merely unaware. Either ways, it doesn’t land.

The book would have been unreadable had it not been for some sweet moments he shares with his father, his lovers, and his cinematic idols. His story existing between polarities of rags and riches is the stuff of intrigue- from being homeless and sleeping at the Bandra railway platform, to borrowing money from his current wife to travel and convince his then lover to not get married, heartbreak and paralysis, confrontation and clarity, standing up on a table and rousing the people in the restaurant to get his producer to pay him more, cursing Mahesh Bhatt for even considering replacing him for Saaransh, bankruptcy and banter… honestly, this book should have amounted to a raging, sprawling saga of endurance. But, alas.

I remember in Introductory Economics class, when teaching the concept of comparative advantage, the example of David Beckham being a professional lawn mower was given. He could perhaps mow a lawn adequately. But should he? The students would reply in chorus- No. He should stick to things he is good at. I never wholly subscribed to that idea. But the cynic in me increasingly is conceding. Perhaps this actor should do what he does best- act.

Click here to buy the book.

"Prathyush Parasuraman : Prathyush Parasuraman read a pop culture philosophy book, changed his mind about an Economics PhD, and moved to Mumbai to write. He reasons backwards, loves writing but hates reading long sentences. He believes in the magic of literature, cinema, and coffee, but not too much. In his free time he re-watches Devdas, while telling people Saawariya is his favourite film. He has not watched Fellini, nor read Austen.."
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