If you were to go back 37 years, what memories would ‘Saaransh’ stir up?
I had gone to Bhatt saab’s house as any regular struggling actor, the only thing is that the previous day I had told him my name and when he opened the door and said “Anupam”, I was very impressed because when you are on the streets of Bombay looking for work, what you are basically looking for is that somebody remembers you. So then he told me “I heard that you are good”, I was too tired with the goody-goody conversations so I said, “You have heard wrong, I’m not good. I’m brilliant.” I called him for a play that he didn’t come for, so then I sent him my Doordarshan play ‘Vaapsi’. It is all known how 10 days before the shoot I was thrown out of the film, I packed my luggage and decided to leave. But then I felt I must tell Bhatt saab what I thought, I fought with him and I told him that I’m leaving the city. And then he called up Rajshri and said that he will make this film only with me. When the film released, the Bhiwandi riots started. So it was unfortunate. I used to stand outside Metro cinema but because I was playing an old man, nobody would recognize me. I would wait for people to say “oh, this was the guy”.
Coming out from NSD, did you have any apprehensions of essaying a man double your age?
I did not think about it in those terms at all. I thought it was one of the best roles in the history of cinema anywhere in the world. Who in the world can get the role of a 60 plus year old man at the age of 29 and such a powerful character at that. So that was stupid for people to think that why would I do that? I have survived all these years only because my foundation was ‘Saaransh’.
After all these years in front of the camera, what is it that keeps you going?
It’s a new day, every day! I don’t carry the burden of being Anupam Kher on my shoulders even if I have 518 films, I keep myself light. I don’t take myself seriously, neither as a person nor as an actor. There are many people who have come before, many who will come after me, for me, the journey is much more important than the destination. And I always believe that when you reach a destination and you look back at your journey, if it did not have the ups and downs, speed breakers and ditches, then what was the idea of walking on that journey? If it was a smooth run, it would be so boring. I love life! I am a son of a clerk from Shimla and God has been so amazing that I’m talking about a journey of 37 years and 518 films. What else does one want? I don’t believe in critics. I don’t believe in what God has not given me. I believe in thanking everybody for what I have achieved and what I’ve gotten, and I know there’s no end to complaining. I’m a doer and not necessarily a thinker. I just want to do things.
How did you deal with the ups and downs in your cinematic journey?
My father taught me a very important lesson, that failure is an event and never a person. Failure is a part of life. I had never scored more that 38% marks in my life. And yet I have spoken as a motivational speaker at Oxford, at Kellogg Business School, at Harvard, at Cambridge and my subject is always about the power of failure.
Was there ever a point when you had to turn down movies?
Work brings in more work. When you are homeless after being a Gold medalist from drama school and you have to sleep on the railway platform, you don’t turn down work, you just accept everything. Of course, there are certain things that I did not agree to, principally, because I did not do that kind of a thing. But for me, any film that came my way, it was work. My job was to be good in it. I did not have the luxury of choosing. Also, because of the tough three years I had looking for work, the hardships that I endured, I promised God that once I get work, I will never stop working and I never stopped. I’ve never taken an off.
You have faced a tough path to get that first break, but has the scenario changed now? How difficult or easy is it to get a break into Bollywood now?
We have so many students who come here and I see them in TV series, web shows and advertisements. So certainly things are different, there are casting directors, different platforms and reality shows. Today, if you’re talented and ready to do hard work, no power can stop you. I was a bald, thin man. Nothing like what you see now, the very dignified man, I was so thin when I came to Bombay and I was already balding. During the early 80s, to come to Bombay to be an actor needed guts. But then that is what happens when you’re a trained actor, you get a certain amount of confidence. Now the situation has changed. In fact, the more different you look, more the chances of you getting cast in a series or a film.
You have been a versatile actor and delivered a spectrum of performances. Would you describe yourself as a director’s actor or an artist who crafts his art according to the film?
Usually cinema is a director’s medium, but that depends on whether the director knows his job. Not all directors know their job, but if a director does, then certain actors give their best performance with a certain director. But theatre is not, theatre is an actor’s medium. I’ve studied on the forms of acting but you just need to be convincing in whatever you’re doing. Indian cinema for a long time was a very exaggerated version, it was so difficult to do that for a trained actor. But that is what the magic of Indian cinema is, that you do the most unconvincing thing, convincingly. It is very easy to do realistic acting, you just have to mumble your lines. But to be able to do ‘Saaransh’ at that time, or ‘Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin’ or ‘Wednesday’, they are all completely different films, all character driven. And there are mad comedies like ‘Chaalbaaz’. Sometimes I feel that when you don’t intellectualize your performances, people take it for granted. Some people say that they got drunk for a scene, but I feel acting is acting! Don’t try acting for a change. Just like Laurence Olivier told Dustin Hoffman during ‘Marathon Man’, “try acting for the change”. So there are certain rules, which did not need me to do so much of internalizing but my enjoyment will always be evident in all the things that I’ve done, because I’ve always had a good time doing it. It’s only when I started getting monotonous with myself that I cut down on my work, then it was just a routine. There has to be a sense of excitement.
What inspires you to sign a film, what is that convincing factor for you?
Work! To get out every day in the morning and put on makeup and do your lines is important. Work is the important factor. Today we are dealing with this pandemic, but what are people wanting to do? People miss their offices, they miss walking down. And then of course there is a factor that the director should be good, story should be good, money should be good, depending on who you’re working with.
If you had to sum up your journey up until now, what would you say?
I have just reached the interval of my film journey and my life. It has been an exciting, rewarding, humbling and beautiful journey. There have been heartbreaks, ups and downs. But if it was not like this, it would not have been a worthwhile journey.
How important is box office success for you, or audience validation is all that matters?
Success or failure is not important. It has been written in Gita, “Karm kar, phal ki ichcha mat kar”. I’m sure it must be a stress point for leading actors, but I have never thought about it. If I would have thought about it, I would have been very careful about my moves. 90% people exist in life, only 10% live life. I live life.
If ‘Saaransh’ would be remade, who do you think should play your part?
Myself! This is the right time and I am thinking of doing it. I still look young for that part.