27/01/2016 9:25 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

The Tolerance Debate Might Be Real Or Not, Its Rewards For Anupam Kher Have Been Very Real

Bollywood actor Anupam Kher gestures to the audience during a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival at Jaipur, Rajasthan state, India, Monday, Jan.25, 2016. (AP Photo/ Deepak Sharma)

Anupam Kher is a damn fine actor and that was evident from one of his earliest films, Saaransh. There the 28-year-old Kher stunned audiences by playing a bereaved retired Maharashtra man. He’s made over the top comic roles his stock-in-trade these days but the man fully deserves his Padma award for his contributions to acting. Alas, now he’ll forever wonder if he got it for the one role where he was not supposed to be acting - as the BJP’s dogged defender on the airwaves.

The BJP, just like the Congress, has honoured its own loyalists with Padma largesse. No surprises there. And Kher who sprang to full-throated defence of the government on the intolerance debate kicked off by Nayantara Sahgal has proved his loyalties many times over. He’s a brave man too sometimes venturing into the liberal den proving he has a skin thicker than pancake makeup.

At the Tata Literature Live! Festival in Mumbai, during a debate on freedom of speech in India, Kher decided to get personal and hit out at Shobhaa De as the one-time editor of a film magazine “which printed gossip about which film star slept with whom”. He alleged his freedom of expression was being curtailed because the debate was in English and chaired by a British journalist though no one had held a gun to his head and forced him to participate. And when the audience booed him, he turned on it and called it a “paid audience.”

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“I am waiting, my money hasn’t arrived yet,” retorted one irate blogger in the audience that night. Incidentally the other speaker on his side of the debate, Nalin Kohli was not booed by the same “paid” audience perhaps because he actually made arguments, instead of tossing out wild allegations.

Some in that audience would probably think this is a “paid Padma Bhushan” for Kher, paid not through money but by proving his unswerving indefatigable loyalty to the government, sometimes in defiance of logic and reason. He could not see the irony of claiming Modi’s foes could not stomach a “chaiwala” becoming PM even as he himself could not stomach Shobhaa De, a former Bollywood magazine editor getting to debate freedom of expression on stage with him.

Since then he’s been a sort of Twitter commander-in-chief in the government’s attack on the intolerance debate. He’s taken on Aamir Khan for his comments about growing intolerance in India. He led a protest “March for India” to Rashtrapati Bhavan to counter what he called the manufactured controversy over intolerance. He told the media he does not believe in “selective outrage or selective patriotism” even though he routinely and selectively uses the “what about the Kashmiri pandits” to try and squelch any protest he does not like. Kher has certainly done his bit to earn his Padma over and beyond his roles in films like Khosla ka Ghosla, Hum Aapke Hain Koun and Daddy. Some would say this latest incarnation of Anupam Kher has been his most convincing performance yet.

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But in his defence, let us at least say this. The man is not afraid to swallow his words, or at least his tweets. If in 2010, the awards were a “mockery of our system” and with “NO authenticity left in any one of them”, now the man is “happy, humbled and honoured” by the “greatest news” of his life. Selective outrage, anyone?

The man has not been afraid to stick his neck out in service to his nation, wife, and prime minister. Bollywood stars are known usually for preferring to mouth soothing uncontroversial pabulum which can sound wise especially in a Bachchan baritone. Karan Johar has piped up about intolerance and freedom of expression at the Jaipur Literature Festival but only after enough people had climbed onto that bandwagon and there was safety in numbers. Literature festivals have also turned themselves into a national referendum on tolerance and freedom of expression. Long after she has said what she had to say, Sahgal has been doing the rounds from one festival to another on a sort of tolerance circuit of lit fests. Tolerance is the flavour of the season and every celebrity has been preparing their finely calibrated comments on the same. Margaret Atwood came to the Jaipur Literature Festival but the headlines were about what Kajol, KJo and Kher had to say about tolerance. Meanwhile the murdered rationalist Dr. Kalburgi, in whose name much of this has happened, is nowhere in the news.

The debate itself has become like flogging a dead horse, with the usual suspects on either side of the issue but it’s become the must-have on a lit fest checklist. Kher and his supporters bristle and complain that this politically motivated. That’s assuming Kher’s own robust defence has no political motivation. But he should not complain too much. His standard-waving has earned him an invite to the venerable Jaipur Literature Festival, the favourite haunt of many of the same people he sees as manufacturing this controversy. And now a Padma Bhushan to top it off.

The tolerance debate might be real or not, but its rewards for Kher have certainly been very real. I hope Anupam Kher picked up the phone and called Nayantara Sahgal to thank her.

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