MUMBAI, Maharashtra—Anupam Kher looks woefully under-slept. His eyes have thick bags under them and an air of exhaustion engulfs him. He’s been spending a lot of time in New York, where he’s currently shooting for NBC’s medical drama, New Amsterdam. The actor isn’t new to working in the US, having appeared in major Hollywood films such as Silver Linings Playbook and The Big Sick, where he played the father to a Pakistani American.
Over the years, Kher has acted in so many films that it feels that every 90s movie had Anupam Kher in it. More recently, the actor has been vocal about his endorsement of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government and often shares incendiary tweets comparing the arrests of JNU students Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid to ‘pest control.’
As we settled for our interview in a Juhu five-star (I was given 10 minutes, the interview went on for about 19), Kher remained calm throughout our conversation, slightly raising his voice when I broached the topic of toxic nationalism.
You play the role of chef Hemant Oberoi in the upcoming Hotel Mumbai, inspired by the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai. What did playing such a part mean to you?
Yes. Hemant showed commendable bravery. More than just 26/11 the film is also about the extraordinary courage of ordinary people. They (the staff of the Taj hotel) could’ve just run away. They got people safely out and came back to get more. So in some ways, the film is a tribute to the culture and people of Taj. This wasn’t their job. They didn’t have to do it. And yet they did. It speaks about their humanity, the kind that sometimes comes at the cost of your own life.
You’ve done over 500 films, which is objectively a mind-boggling number of movies. Today, what motivates you to go on a film set considering you’ve played all sorts of parts already?
I have a great sense of wonder. I’m excited about life. I’m most eager to learn. I’m terrified of being called veteran, legend or a thespian. One of the reasons I decided to work in New York is because I don’t want to carry the burden of being Anupam Kher. I’m a newcomer there. Otherwise it can get boring.
“Maine 500 film kari,” yes, that’s all very good, but I’ve to ask myself, “Aagey kya kar rahe ho? (What are you doing next?). So that makes me feel lighter and then I can fly higher without the fear of falling down. I believe in communication, in listening, in talking to people and not at people. I’m excited about this conversation we’re having. Millions come to Bombay to become actors but a tiny percent of them make it here, so everyday I’m excited about living up to what life has given me.
Big actors often become a victim of their own stardom. But can you tell specifically, how revealing it is for you the experience of working in a US TV show (Kher appears in the NBC drama New Amsterdam)?
I wake up at 5 in the morning to do my lines. I’m a Hindi medium student so I don’t think in English. I think in Hindi. I play a doctor, a neurologist, so I gotta get the lines right, the terminology right. It’s a lot of hard work and I haven’t done this kind of prep since drama school (Kher is an alumni of the National School of Drama, Delhi). I recently started learning the piano. I started swimming. These are all tools to keep reinventing the artist in you.
There’s that artistic side of Anupam Kher and then there’s the political side. Have you ever felt that the two have been in conflict with each other?
Well, I speak my mind, yes. About the nation. And you make a lot of enemies as a result. People who don’t think the way you do start getting wary of you. But you need to be popular with yourself and not popular with people. Nobody in the world is popular with everybody. If you give an opinion, not everybody will agree with you but you’ve to agree with yourself.
Under the current establishment, it seems like a safe bet to align one’s views with that of the government. Those who hold a critical view against the BJP are cornered and massively trolled by what appears to be BJP’s own IT cell.
That’s not true. You wouldn’t believe how badly I get trolled online. I’d say everybody gets trolled, irrespective of their political position. When I praise Narendra Modi, millions of people spew hate on and call me his chamcha but I’m a self-made person. These things make you angry and upset but as I said, I have to be popular with myself. At the end of the day, I’ve done over 500 films, I’m sitting in a 5-star hotel with Huffington Post talking about my Hollywood movie, how can I let some loser whose only job is to hate-tweet and get noticed affect my mental health?
On August 6, when the BJP govt announced the scrapping of Article 370, which would bifurcate the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories, you tweeted, ‘The Kashmir Solution’ begins.
Now, that sounded like a reference to ‘The Final Solution’, a Nazi code word for the genocide and the ethnic cleansing of Jews during World War 2. What made you say that?
I didn’t know that was the reference. For me that wasn’t the connection but that’s what many people pointed out. I think in Hindi so for me it’s just ...(trails off). Even if I wanted to say that, I won’t say because I’m not that stupid. You think I’m that stupid?
You are saying you didn’t know the term at all and the context that it was used in the past?
How will I know it?
It’s part of World War 2 history and widely understood as a derogatory term.
Well, let me ask you, do you know what is Stanislavski’s Method acting? Will you be able to explain? If you write, oh he didn’t do method acting in that role, it doesn’t mean you have to know what method acting is. I have nothing to apologise for. And apologise to who? For the families of people who were thrown out of their homes, their women raped, their men butchered? It’s almost 30 years since the (mass displacement of Kashmiri Pandits)...
What happens when we have blind devotion towards the establishment is that you fail...
Why do you call it blind devotion?
Because a lot of those who follow the government are blind towards its shortcomings and its many failings...any criticism against the govt gets you branded as ‘anti-national’.
That’s your point of view and not necessarily the truth.
Yes, it indeed is. My question to you is: Do you not believe that your fondness and commitment towards Modi has blinded you to the government’s shortcomings and failings?
That’s a hypothetical question. If it happens, I will probably do that.
No, but the way you shower love to the BJP, will you also be equally critical to its failings? Because I’ve never seen you do that.
If I feel like it, I will do that.
And so far you don’t think there have been any reasons to question the government?
If I feel like, I will say it. You’re making my social media into your Bible. I don’t need to give you any clarity. If I feel that the present Prime Minister is doing great work, is there anything wrong in that? I’ve not praised the government, I’ve only praised Modi. Do you find anything wrong with it?
Given the economic crisis, the rate of unemployment, the loss of jobs... you’ve conveniently not spoken ...
It seems you’re from a different establishment, constantly raising questions about the present.
Because that’s what journalists do.
In contrast, I feel there’s an amazing amount of development taking place in India. Things are happening. There’s not a single government that hasn’t felt the loss of GDP, loss of this thing or that thing. We’re living in a country where a great amount of goodwill is being created internationally. There’s swachata, women empowerment, all sorts of things.
Yes, like lynchings and minorities in the country feeling threatened, a culture of fear creeping in where people are afraid to speak freely.
Of course that should not happen. I think we should talk about lynchings of all people. We should talk about everything. Lynchings as well as the exodus of Kashmiris. Who’ll really talk in favour of lynchings?
But whenever people have called this out, they’ve been threatened and bullied. Recently, when a bunch of filmmakers wrote to the PM to look into the rising communal violence, there was a counter-letter by artists who support Modi. What does that say about us?
If for a second you forget the religion aspect of it, you cannot defend lynchings, like at all. It’s a brutal human rights violation which is against the very idea of India
Of course. I’d like to know, what is your idea of India?
The idea of India is rooted in its secularism and progressiveness where those inhabiting it do not feel threatened in their own country.
You don’t feel India is secular?
I feel that fabric of secularism is fast eroding
I don’t think like that. Do we have the right to think differently?
But when you read reports about Jai Shree Ram being weaponised and people are being forced to chant it ...
No, no. Not at all.
Well, that’s what the data suggests is happening
I don’t believe in data. I believe in what I get to know about it. What’s wrong in Jai Shree Ram? What is wrong in it? (raises voice)
Nothing wrong in it as long as I’m not forced to chant it.
I’m not forcing you to. You don’t need to chat it.
You aren’t but there are many instances where this is happening
There are instances of other nature too. What about them? You can’t take one or two instances and make it a national issue.
No, it seems to be a pattern. I won’t bring it up if it were an isolated issue although that too is problem.
I see nothing wrong in Jai Shree Ram. You were born a Hindu, what is wrong in wearing a tilak?
Again, as a liberal, I don’t have a problem with it as long as you don’t impose others to do it. The second part is doing it because I fear the repercussions as a result of not doing it. Like it happens with the National Anthem.
I think we should stand for the National Anthem.
Yes, but it shouldn’t be compulsory. Why should anybody have to prove their patriotism for others?
Those who don’t, it’s their issue. What can I say?
You obviously won’t say that those who don’t feel like standing up need to be heckled or beaten up right? That’s what happened recently to a bunch of cinema-goers in Bangalore.
You think I’m that uneducated. Of course, I do not defend or justify any kind of heckling. It’s your choice to not and it’s mine to stand. But I will teach my kids to stand for the National Anthem. If a Muslim can say Allahu Akbar, I will say Jai Shree Ram, I will say Bharat Mata Ki Jai. I will say Jai Shree Ram.
Chants shouldn’t come at the cost of other people’s humanity which...
Of course it shouldn’t. I agree with you completely. I may not be as highly educated as you are but I believe in the religion of humanity and togetherness. However, if you are born into a certain religion, you do grow up feeling closely about it. I’m a victim myself. 400,000 of Hindus were thrown out of Kashmir in the 90s because they were Hindus. Because of their religion. Nobody was chanting Jai Shree Ram at that time! How many questions did you ask then?
I wasn’t born at the time.
You were not there in World War 2 also? You were not there in 1984 also? But you still asked me those questions!
I asked you in context of your present tweets about the current situation in Kashmir
But I don’t follow you on Twitter! Why don’t you ask those questions also! You asked me about Jai Shree Ram but are you writing about the Kashmiri Pandit exodus?
But those questions were raised at the time and it was rep...
Show me an article that you’ve written! You must send me an article. I look forward to reading it. I will really respect you for that. You may not agree with the policies of the current establishment but your questions shouldn’t be about that. Please send me an article about Kashmir Pandit exodus published in the Huffington Post.
If our site existed then, we’d have definitely reported about it, the way we’re doing now about the current situation
If you can ask me about Jai Shree Ram, you have to ask me about everything else too.
I’m asking you about it because it’s an ongoing crisis in the country at the present moment
And what happened in the past was fine? That was okay? You please send me an article.
(The publicist who has arranged for the interview signals that the interview is over)