Anupam Kher is starting again. In a career spanning over 500 films, there’s a good chance he’s seen it all. Which is why, he says, in recent years he’s chosen to focus more on his Hollywood career in an effort to start afresh rather than be considered another jaded legend in Hindi cinema.
His 501st film is Hotel Mumbai, a Hollywood film based on the Mumbai 26/11 attacks which also stars Dev Patel and Armie Hammer, among others. Aside from that, the actor also has a recurring role in US medical drama New Amsterdam where he plays neurosurgeon Dr Kapoor.
I met the actor at a press event ahead of the release of Hotel Mumbai. It’s difficult not to form certain preconceived notions of him. On the one hand, there’s the actor who’s been the reliable presence in so many films we’ve loved. On the other, there’s the unabashed, politically charged social media persona.
When discussing his craft and international body of work, Kher speaks with a child-like enthusiasm which is hard not to buy into. He spoke to me about starting again in New York and the drawbacks of being considered and legend.
In Hotel Mumbai you play chef Hemant Oberoi. Is there an added pressure when you’re playing a real person? Do you approach it differently?
Hemant Oberoi is a celebrated chef but he’s not a public figure, so I didn’t have that worry. I’m not such a stressed-out person. There were a million actors before me and there’ll be a million after me. For me, it’s a profession, it’s not my life. But I’d like to do it as passionately and sincerely as I can. In fact, I didn’t even meet him before starting the film, my director’s instructions were not to meet him. The only time I had that pressure is when I was playing Manmohan Singh because he’s a very well-known person, so I needed to be accurate.
In this particular film, the director’s brief was he wanted an honest performance rather than a crafted one. Since I’ve done so much of work, the craft creeps in somehow or the other. Actors beyond a certain point start depending on craft, but that exercise of not making it look crafted is the challenge. So to unlearn the whole thing was an exercise, and I’m very fortunate that our director Anthony Maras, even though it’s his first feature film, made us go through this 5-6 day workshop in Australia of what it means to be trapped in a situation where you can be killed at any time. It was a very exhausting experience mentally and physically but that was the only way.
There’s been criticism in the past of films where foreign filmmakers tell stories about India with a Western gaze. Was that a worry for you?
I think they do a better job. I’m not taking away the fact that Indian directors are superb, but the truth is Gandhi was made by Richard Attenborough. They are brilliant filmmakers, so they bring a different perspective and look into it with more authentically, so that worry never came to my mind. They may not be able to make a Hindi film musical, but this is a film based more on research and homework, and the kind of research they did was unbelievable. My first meeting was supposed to last half an hour but went on for three hours and that’s what convinced me I need to do this.
You’ve done a fair amount of international work and I read an interview where you said you choose roles that would ‘make India proud’. What did you mean by that?
When I work abroad, with any work that I do, I feel like I’m an unofficial ambassador of my country. The same way sportspeople go there as part of India. I always refuse to play any cliched Indian in anything that I do because we are anything but clichés. And they have never told me to ‘speak like an Indian’ or whatever. At the same time, I’m very proud of being able to bring in a certain level of Indianness into those characters.
At the end of the day, I’m an Indian actor in New York. I’m known for Indian movies, so over here (in India) I don’t mind sometimes coming up with trash or ordinary work or embarrassing work because it’s within our people. But when I go out there, I feel like with everything I do, I have the responsibility of 1.3 billion people on my head and it makes me give my best and I make sure I don’t take on roles which demean India in any way.
Is there a specific kind of role you get offered more overseas? Something they seem to associate you with most?
I’m always approached to play an Indian role but if you see, I was even father to a Pakistani in The Big Sick. But I don’t think there’s one specific kind of role. I’ve done so much work but I don’t go there as a veteran. I go there as a newcomer and then I surprise myself and them. I don’t carry the burden of Anupam Kher on my shoulders because if I did, I’d be an asshole working there.
The whole reason for going there in the first place is because they started calling me veteran and thespian and legend here. I don’t want to be any of that, I just want to enjoy my work. So I thought before they start giving me lifetime achievement awards and retire me, I’m better off finding new horizons.
Is it exciting for you as an actor to tackle a whole new industry? Does it feel like you’re starting again?
The whole reason for going there in the first place is because they started calling me veteran and thespian and legend here. I don’t want to be any of that, I just want to enjoy my work. So I thought before they start giving me lifetime achievement awards and retire me, I’m better off finding new horizons. It’s only when you put yourself in unknown territory do you discover your courage and your strength.
It’s your own fear that makes you do ordinary work. Because I personally fear the biggest enemy of brilliance is competence. You could easily just be on autopilot and say, ‘Okay, what’s today’s dialogue? I’ll do it’. But to make the ordinary extraordinary you have to do more. The best thing I’ve done is go to New York and started living like a newcomer, getting up at 5 AM and starting my day. This is what I used to do in drama school. It’s fantastic.
Is there one role you’re most proud of from your international work?
I’m very excited about the series that I’m currently doing New Amsterdam. I don’t think in English, I think in Hindi, so for me to do an American medical drama and play a neurologist with medical jargon was a horrifying feeling but that’s what kept me alive also. And the show is a big hit so it’s now great when I’m on the streets of New York and the Americans say, ‘Hey that’s Dr Kapoor’. It’s such a gratifying feeling.
And TV is a 24-hour job. In films, for a 30 days shoot, you’ll have 5-10 days of work, one scene at a time. With TV you have to churn out five scenes a day. When I return now I’ve been told I have to do 6 scenes and I’m already petrified. Aside from that, I think Silver Linings Playbook was a great experience.
What’s the reaction there when they hear you’ve done 500 films?
They freak out. And especially because I don’t behave like that. I’m proud I’ve done so many films, but they can’t even think like that. I think they get very enamoured by it. But they don’t know that when I was a struggling actor, I promised God that I wouldn’t say no to any work. Woody Allen once said to me ‘I believe you’ve done a lot of movies’ and I said ‘Yeah, I’ve done close to 500’. He took a pause and said, ‘in how many lives?’. So I got a typical Woody Allen moment in my life.
Is there a specific kind of role you’re still dying to do?
I’ll answer this question after thirty years after I think I’ve done enough. For me, it’s just the beginning.