For two-and-a-half hours, Anupam Kher opens up his life warts, humiliations, ego trips, triumphs in the play Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai.
Having performed in over a dozen cities in North America, he is ready for a few more performances.
"Audiences abroad are not only crazy about star-studded shows but also something like what I offer them," Kher told Arthur J Pais, referring to his solo show. "It just shows there is a serious audience for something like Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai that examines the life of an ordinary person who did a few extraordinary things."
Excerpts from an exclusive interview:
Weren't you apprehensive about writing this candid play and acting in it?
No. Writing this play was just another effort to show I am not afraid to try something new and utterly frank at this stage in my life.
Several years ago, I started working on my autobiography that got stalled. Then the idea for this play came along. I started on it when everything around me looked bleak.
Why was that?
Some businesses I started failed. The first film I directed, Om Jai Jagadish, did not do well. I felt many newspapers and magazines did not even recognise that it was out there, though it had quite a few good things in it.
Then I began writing the play. I also got an offer to act in Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham.
Do you find acting in this play therapeutic?
Absolutely! At the end of each show, I feel I am the tallest person in the world because I have once again faced the truth about myself. I wanted to act in the play because I wanted to save my career and my self-dignity.
Save your career?
I have worked in over 200 films. As I tell my audiences in the play, [poet-lyricist] Javed Akhtar used to say not long ago that Hindi films couldn't be made without two things raw stock and Anupam Kher.
When I faced many adversities a few years ago, I was afraid I might take up all kinds of films. At this stage in my life, when I am in my mid-40s, I did not want to do films indiscriminately. I wanted to have something I could copyright and perform, even if it meant producing the show at a street corner.
Were you also trying to make a statement through your decision to produce this play about the movie industry?
I don't think any celebrity in the movie industry has the guts to open up like me before a live audience in show after show. Many hide behind their dark glasses.
I am tired of dealing with pretentious people. They put on an act because they don't like themselves. But I like myself. And I can risk being candid.
You also talk about hope in the show.
It looks at the up- and downside of my career, but in the final reckoning it is full of optimism. And it celebrates people. Like my school friend Vijay Sehgal, who is by no means a rich person, but who has given me immense wisdom and moral support. He has never, never taken anything from me.
I approached this project as well as Bend It Like Beckham like a newcomer.
Like a newcomer?
It was like wiping my slate clean, with a low-key performance in Bend It Like Beckham. Writing this play was a radical decision too and I was spilling my guts in it.
When did you perform it first?
Last year in Mumbai. I invited my friends and well-wishers to a private preview.
Who were some of the guests?
Dilip Kumar and Mahesh Bhatt, who gave me my first break [Saraansh, 1984]. Bhatt told me that Kumar had said that though he [Kumar] was bored with acting in recent years, he felt the urge to work in a film or two after seeing my play.
I then got the courage to open it to the public. I also took the show to New Delhi and several other cities, and then to Muscat and Canada. Now, we are in America.
When did you sense that it would be a hit?
I told Feroze Khan [who directed the play] during the interval that it was going to be a hit. I could feel the audiences had really loved it.
I believe theatre audiences are much more generous [compared to movie audiences] and show their appreciation more visibly. For one, they pay much more than they would for a movie ticket, and they expect something very good.
Over 2,000 people have seen the play in Toronto and New York, right?
In Toronto, there were 2,600 people. I could not believe so many people would turn up for a show like this.
But you knew it would be a hit.
Yes, but I was not prepared for such a big reception.
Some time last year, I had wondered whether we should have just about 500 people for each show because, after all, this is an intimate, one-person show. But then I felt it would not work out in practical terms.
At each performance, you slowly walk into the auditorium and meet the audiences. Why?
I want to connect with them. Usually, before the curtain goes up, actors concentrate heavily on what they are going to do. I do a bit of yoga, pray to Lord Ganesha, break a coconut, and then go into the audiences. I shake hands with them and chat with them. I feel I have become one with them. And as I slowly walk to the stage, I feel I am taking them with me.
You have obviously lived a very rich, eventful, and colourful life. Was it difficult to choose the anecdotes and life stories for the play?
It was, but not overwhelming, because I knew there would be the autobiography. I have completed it and am now revising it. It will be published by HarperCollins in India in a few months.
Could you tell us about something you had longed to include?
A life lesson my father gave me when I was in the 11th grade in Shimla. In our school, you went to the next class automatically after the annual holidays. But if you had failing grades, you were sent back to the previous class.
One day, my father came to the school and took me off the class to a posh restaurant. He used to take us there maybe once a year when something terrific happened, like getting a promotion or a raise. He gave me a terrific treat.
I was wondering whether he had gone nuts. Throughout the meal he would not tell me what the good news was. Only after we had paid for the food did he tell me the reason.
And that must have been something terrific.
[Chuckles] He told me he had received my grades that morning in the mail and that I had failed. And that I would have to go to the 10th grade.
And yet he treated you to an expensive lunch?
He did it because he did not want me to be overtaken by failure. He said, "Don't fail again," but he also added that he did not think anyone should be ashamed of failure. He wanted me to study harder.
It is a lesson I will never forget. I have failed many times in my professional life, but I am not a quitter.
Do you have a strong part in Chadha's new film Bride And Prejudice?
Not really. It is not as important as the one I played in Bend It Like Beckham, but I took up the film because I enjoy working with Gurinder Chadha and producer Deepak Nayar.
What did you enjoy most working on Bride And Prejudice?
[Laughs] I did not have a beard or turban. Bend It Like Beckham was a huge hit [grossing about $80 million worldwide], but hardly anyone recognised me in the streets in London, New York, or any other city. I hope this time people will recognise me. In some ways, I began thinking of my first film when Bend It Like Beckham became a big hit.
Why was that?
I played an old man in my first film, Saraansh, about 20 years ago. Hardly anyone recognised me in the streets even though the film was a success.
You almost did not get the part in Saraansh, and you mention it at length in the play.
Mahesh Bhatt, who directed me in Saraansh, is someone I respect greatly. I always accept his advice, and he is like Krishna guiding me in Kurukshetra.
But soon after he assured me that I would play the lead in the film, I heard from a friend that Sanjeev Kumar was getting the part. I rushed to Bhatt's apartment with my little earthly possessions in a taxi downstairs that was to take me to the train station and asked him about the rumour.
He said the producers at Rajshri had decided on Sanjeev Kumar because they wanted a bankable name. I had decided to go back home [to Shimla], but I wanted to speak out my mind.
I called Bhatt names, I said he was a fraud and a coward because he could not fight for me with the producers.
I was about to get into the cab, when he called me up to his room and assured me that I would play the role.
He would remind you of your emotional outburst a few months later?
Yes, and it was important that he did so. That is why I mention it in the play.
There was an intensely moving sequence in Saraansh, but Mahesh Bhatt was not satisfied with the take. After several takes, he reminded me of my emotional state in his apartment when I confronted him with the news I wasn't going to be the hero in Saraansh.
That did it. The next take was okayed. If you see the film, you will notice that there is a scene when I am begging an official in Mumbai to expedite the release of my son's ashes that have come from America. That was the scene that hadn't been working earlier.
You mention several times in the play about ego tantrums you used to throw when you became a big name.
[Chuckles] I have learnt the hard way not to do it. I mention an episode in the show, which made me think deeply about humility and respecting others. I was in a studio in Chennai shooting for a Hindi film. I discovered there was no air-conditioning in the makeup room. I began yelling and complaining that I had thought the studios in Chennai were better equipped. Naturally, there was a delay.
When I walked on the sets, Amitabh Bachchan was sitting there I discovered he had been there for an hour with full makeup. He was covered by a blanket because the scene required him to be like that. I asked him if he was feeling hot.
He said if he thought it was hot, he would feel so. If he did not think about it, naturally he did not feel hot. He was trying to say that a lot of things were in our minds, and we could control how we felt.
One of the most poignant episodes in your play is about how you had been called for an audition for the part of Nehru in Richard Attenborough's film, Gandhi. How is that you did not get the part?
Dolly Thakore, who was involved in the casting, had seen me in a number of plays and thought I could play Nehru. I did a lot of practice and memorised Nehru's speech on the day Gandhi was assassinated. I also thought that being a Kashmiri Pandit [like Nehru] would help [chuckles].
Dolly and I were on the way to Attenborough's hotel suite when the door opened and we heard him telling Roshan Seth that he [Attenborough] was relieved he had finally found his Nehru.
Of course, I did not even get an opportunity to go through the audition. I asked to play any other part in the film, but I could not get anything. I was totally crushed.
But there was more humiliation to come later. Tell us about it.
A year or so later, I was still looking for movie roles. I wasn't getting any. Then I got an opportunity to do one line of dubbing, for the Hindi version of Gandhi. I got paid Rs 1,000. Here I was, who had hoped to play Nehru in the movie, and I was now dubbing just one line!
You also eloquently mention your fight against partial facial paralysis about 10 years ago.
That was a painful period, and the doctor told me that I had to take intense physical therapy, apart from medicine with names like characters of a Greek play.
But I had to attend a key shooting schedule for Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!, which was also produced by Rajshri Pictures. They had launched my career with Saraansh, and I just could not let them down. So I went for the shoot despite my doctor's order. I overcame my physical handicaps within a few months, but I also had the satisfaction that my health problem had not affected the movie.
Watch the film carefully and you will see I am hardly in any close-up. That was because one side of my face had been affected.
You also had something turned upside down in your heart when you had the paralysis, isn't it?
One thing in particular. There is a school opposite my house for mentally challenged students. For years, I have known of its existence. Every day, I would see the school there. But following the illness and beginning of recovery, I crossed the road and started chatting with the nuns there.
I told the principal of the school, Sister Dolores, that I wanted to visit the school at regular intervals and teach the students. When she took me to meet the students in one class, many students recognised me immediately. They called me Anupam Uncle.
The nun then asked me who I was, and when I said I am an actor she thought I had come there to do research for my next film. I assured her that was not my intention, and I also asked her not to let anyone know what I was doing. I just wanted to do some good work anonymously.
Are you still teaching there?
No. I taught there for a year. I still visit the school now and then, but I realised it was a well-funded school. I could help out schools with lesser funding. I continue doing so without publicity. I like it that way.
Photographs (solo): Paresh Gandhi