Tahira Yaqoob talks to the Indian actor Anupam Kher about his recent Hollywood breakthrough in Robert de Niro's Silver Linings Playbook.
The audition that nearly stumped Bollywood veteran Anupam Kher
Anupam Kher’s audition for Robert de Niro’s latest film did not get off to an auspicious start.
When director David O Russell asked him to perform on Skype, Kher, baffled about the rudiments of the internet communication tool, was stumped. Stranded in a Rajasthani village where he was filming a Bollywood blockbuster, he finally found a hotel with an internet connection but was unable to work the microphone.
It took his Bangladeshi room-service attendant to come to the rescue, holding up his iPhone as Kher recited his lines – and against all probability, the veteran Bollywood actor was duly cast in Silver Linings Playbook alongside De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Julia Stiles and Jennifer Lawrence.
“It was a disaster,” he chuckles during an interview earlier this year at Raffles Hotel, Dubai, as part of a flying visit to perform his autobiographical play Kuch Bhi Ho Sakhta Hai (Anything Could Happen) at Ductac.
“I am not technically savvy and I had no idea how to use Skype. I was upset, so was the director as he could not hear me.
“Finally the Bangladeshi room service guy who overheard my conversation and knew my movies said: ‘I have an iPhone, I will do your audition. He held it up and said ‘action’ and ‘cut’. I sent it to my casting director complete with his lines saying: ‘This is my new director’ – but on the back of it, I was selected.” The film, due to be released in November, is already garnering interest with its star-studded cast.
Kher, 57, plays Cooper’s therapist in the movie about a teacher who spends four years in a mental institution, then returns to his mother’s home and tries to reunite with his ex-wife.
“It is a very interesting role in terms of importance in the film,” says Kher. “Usually when you do a Hollywood film, it involves one scene or you are typecast.”
Kher said he found it “stifling” at first working on Hollywood sets, where crews adhere to strict schedules and discipline.
He says: “In India, film sets are like a family atmosphere. Over there, it is very cut-throat because anyone could be fired from the set at any moment so everyone works with this fear of making mistakes.
“Initially I felt it more, now I’m used to it. Now I like the professionalism.”
But then Kher, whose career spans 30 years and an impressive 450 films, is a rare breed, one of the few Bollywood actors who have successfully made the transition to Hollywood, and playing stereotypical characters sometimes comes with the terrain.
He played the doting father in the surprise international hit Bend It Like Beckham a decade ago and took on a similar role in Gurinder Chadha’s subsequent Bride and Prejudice. Directors such as Woody Allen and Ang Lee have cast him in their films and Kher is now on the hunt for a Hollywood agent amid hopes Silver Linings Playbook, based on the Matthew Quick book of the same name, will open doors.
“I am hoping this film will get some interesting exposure as I am in the best role for an Asian actor,” he says. “I do see things changing. The fact I am part of the film means change is in process.”
But while Hollywood beckons, Kher’s most loyal devotees are the fans of his Bollywood films, the mainstay of his work.
He has five movies coming out this year, including Mr Bhatti on Chutti, where he plays an Indian super-sleuth – “a cross between Peter Sellers, Mr Bean and Hercule Poirot”.
And while the roles tend to fall into the same category of kindly father or dastardly villain – thanks to premature hair loss, his big break was playing a 65-year-old in Mahesh Bhatt’s Saaransh at the age of 28 – Kher denies he is typecast.
“I have played 50 different kinds of fathers and villains. Only mediocre actors play the part the same way,” he says.
Perhaps because he was not your average Bollywood hero with a rippling torso and poster-perfect good looks, his success was hard-won.
He was born into a lower middle-class family in Shimla. The son of a forestry department clerk, he grew up sharing a crowded room with 13 other family members, including grandparents, aunts and uncles.
An academic failure – he never averaged above 38 per cent in his school grades – he discovered an early passion for acting and trained at the National School of Drama in Delhi.
Kher performed in small theatre roles in Delhi, then went to teach at a drama school in Lucknow while still looking for acting jobs.
But Mumbai was calling: “In a small town, it is very easy to conquer. You are in a pond. Millions of people come to Bombay [Mumbai] to make it, though – it is the place to be for movies but it is difficult because there are sharks.”
Instead of offers of work, he found himself homeless for a month, penniless and sleeping on a train station platform in Bandra.
“Twenty-nine days on the street is like 29 years,” he says.
Finally, after his Bollywood debut in Aagman in 1982, Bhatt gave him his starring role two years later.
“I was at the peak of my frustration and drudgery and waiting for an opportunity to happen,” recalls Kher. “Five long months after I first called him, Mahesh called back and said: ‘I’ve heard you’re good.’ I told him: ‘You have heard absolutely wrong. I am brilliant.’ That answer fetched me my first major break.”
Meanwhile, the actor has been touring the world with his play Kuch Bhi Ho Sakhta Hai for the last seven years, in which he re-enacts key moments from his life.
Despite performing it 270 times to date, he still gets nervous before he goes on stage, but simply reminds himself of his own aphorisms to bolster his confidence: “It’s your own fear of failure that stops you from doing things.”
The Bollywood star also runs three acting schools in India, with a fourth to follow in Singapore by the end of the year. He hopes to open an orphanage in Mumbai under the umbrella of his eponymous charitable foundation.
Despite having honed his craft over the past three decades, he still had a pinch-yourself moment while standing alongside De Niro on-set in Philadelphia last September.
“I cannot take away the fact I am a small-town boy from India, from a lower-middle class family, and was actually standing in front of De Niro – not on an equal level but as an actor, on the same pedestal. I was very impressed with my own journey because your reference point is always where you start from.
“As I say to my theatre audience, for you it might be the end of the play but for me, it is the interval of my life.”
Tahira Yaqoob is a former senior features writer at The National.