Actor Anupam Kher talks about his new role as FTII chairman, asserts there is nothing wrong with the national anthem directive, denies any political ties, urges artistes to leave their comfort zones and speak out, backs abolition of Article 370 in J&K, and says Indian films are ready to make a difference in the West.
Why Anupam Kher?
In a career that spans over three decades and over 500 films, Anupam Kher has worn many hats. After holding the post of chairman of the Central Board of Film Certification and the National School of Drama, Kher has now been appointed chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India, which comes after the controversial tenure of his predecessor Gajendra Chauhan. Kher, who was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 2016 for his contribution to the cinema and arts, has been vocal about his views, including on the order to play the national anthem in cinema halls.
MANOJ MORE: Did your appointment to the post of chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) come as a surprise to you?
I was very happy being the chairman of my own acting school (Actor Prepares). I have raised it from scratch. It was certainly a surprise when I was informed: ‘We would want you to be chairman, FTII’. It was Mrs (Smriti) Irani (I&B Minister) who called me. She said she would be very happy if I took the job. I thought it was very important to make a contribution to change (at the institution), and take up the position. So I said okay, and that I’ll try my best.
AMITABH SINHA: Your predecessor Gajendra Chauhan made the job look very difficult. What did you tell students when you visited the campus for the first time?
I did not go there with the baggage of being Anupam Kher, who had done a lot of work. I went there as a student who is revisiting school. I have always believed that there is so much that one can learn from youngsters. I’m not scared of failures. That is how I have treated my career. I was 28 when I played a 65-year-old man. I was the first actor who broke the myth of typecasting. When I was doing comedy in Aakhree Raasta (1986), I was also playing Dr Dang (Karma, 1986). I have also done Khosla Ka Ghosla and A Wednesday.
I had spoken out against the appointment of the person before me very openly. I did not think then that two or three years later, I would be considered for the same post. I spoke out because I felt that the FTII deserved a person with a better qualification.
I wanted to let the students know that I am on their side. Every student goes to school to learn the craft. So, I went there (the FTII), took an acting class, ate lunch with the students and interacted with them. That is all I needed to do.
ANURADHA MASCARENHAS: Some say that you were picked because of your proximity to the BJP.
I never listen to criticism. I have done 508 films in 33 years. If I had spent my time listening and reacting to criticism, I would have never been able to do that. I have no time for nonsense.
There are plenty of things that can be done at the FTII. For example, getting the best teachers through exchange programmes, getting people from the field to the campus etc. I don’t just have the experience of being an actor, I also have the experience of living on the streets for three years. It is not easy being an actor, a gold medalist from drama school, sleeping on the streets and remaining optimistic through it all. Sometimes, even this experience helps students.
People need to know that the FTII is not about strikes and unhappiness. The FTII is about knowledge and legacy. It’s a place where people learn. This is the message that needs to go out. These students are the future of our country. The state of affairs of any country is represented by its arts.
ATIKH RASHID: Politically, what is Anupam Kher’s baggage?
Politically, there is no baggage. I’m an Indian. When I talk about India, people think I’m talking about politics. That’s the problem. When an honest, patriotic Indian speaks out, why do you want to make him defensive by accusing him of being affiliated to a political party?
My wife is a BJP MP, but she has won with a thumping majority. She has been chosen. If I want to join politics, I would make the announcement through a press conference.
MANOJ MORE: Earlier, regarding the Padma awards, you said that ‘awards have become a mockery, there’s no authenticity left’. But when you got the award, you said that you felt ‘honoured, humbled to get it’.
I said that because, at the time, in 2010, the award was given to one gentleman — I don’t want to name him — who, according to me, had several cases against him, who was an NRI. I’m not getting defensive about that tweet. I said what I felt. I felt humbled when I got the award, it doesn’t mean that I’m not humbled when Sachin Tendulkar gets it. The year I got the award, Rahul Dravid also got the Padma Shri. I did not question it.
SUSHANT KULKARNI: Art, among other things, is also about criticism. But now, criticism is often viewed through an ideological point of view.
We live in such times. A producer spends crores of rupees, employs 150 people, spends months on a film and a person sitting in the third row of a theatre starts tweeting a review 10 minutes into the film. Can you stop him? Things have changed. But the best part is that in our country we have learnt to live with it.
Acting and films are not my life, they are a part my life. My personal philosophy has nothing to do with a role. If that was the case, I would not be able to work. Social media is a great tool. It gives me the opportunity to connect with people and talk about my performances.
AMITABH SINHA: Ever since the BJP-led NDA government took charge at the Centre, there have been polarised opinions and debates about everything. Unlike in the past, a lot of it has to do with the arts, literature and films. Artistes, including you, are getting very actively involved with the issues of the day. Do you think it is important? You were not this vocal till three years ago.
I was always vocal. I get noticed more now because of the power of social media. I was the first and one of the few actors to join the India Against Corruption platform. I didn’t have to do that, but I felt that it was important for me to stick my neck out and support it.
I think it is important for artistes and all individuals, as Indians, to leave our comfort zones, stick our necks out and speak up even if that makes one unpopular. Was it a cakewalk for the arts and artistes three years ago? There have been films which were banned earlier as well. Singers were banned. It has been going on for years. But because of social media, these things have a far bigger reach today.
I have followers on Twitter because I speak out. On Facebook, 93 per cent of my followers are between 18 and 24 years of age. Courage has its own attraction.
MANOJ MORE: The debate around the ‘casting couch’ has been reignited. How rampant is the problem?
How would I know? How can I tell? Nobody has made a pass at me.
ANURADHA MASCARENHAS: But as a representative of the film industry, what do you feel about the issue? Can women who are being exploited speak up? Are there systems in place?
It happens in every industry, every profession. Doesn’t it happen in journalism? I think people who want to make it (big), don’t need to go through this.
I don’t know whether casting couch exists in the industry, but there are decent people here. Only a small section of people may be getting into it.
Why are women in other professions not speaking out? What about the hotel industry, IT industry, journalism? They won’t speak out because you want them to, they will of their own volition.
ANJALI MARAR: You took a few acting classes at the FTII. How have things changed there in the past four decades?
Today’s generation is much smarter than my generation. We didn’t have this kind of confidence and understanding. Today, even three-year-olds can use the Internet, watch YouTube and play games on the phone.
There is no syllabus in acting. If your faculties are fine and you can physically do things, then you can act. I conduct classes in my school because I want to remain a contemporary actor. I don’t want people to call me a thespian or a legend. It’s a subtle way of telling you that it’s retirement time.
Today’s generation may come across as irreverent but they are fantastic. That is why the future of India is great. They are straight-talkers but that does not mean they are disrespecting you.
I came from a generation which had pre-Independence and post-Indepen-dence blues. The present generation was born in a free, independent India. There is so much to learn from them.
RAJENDRA YEOLEKER: What is the situation of Kashmiri Pandits today?
It’s the same, I feel very sad about it. Nobody has done anything to change the situation. It’s a reality that three lakh people were thrown out of the Valley. They are living as refugees in their own country. It’s a different thing that they don’t pick up guns, they don’t become violent, they find jobs and lead their lives peacefully. Nobody has done anything concrete for the rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits. Personally, I feel that abolition of Article 370 will be the best thing. The moment everyone can go there, buy property and get employment, things will start to change.
I don’t just feel sad for the Kashmiri Pandits, but the others as well. Why should the Kashmiri Muslim not reap benefits of the developments of modern India? The youth there should also feel a part of modern India. What is happening now is that they are being controlled by only four-five people who have sent their own kids to foreign countries. They tell the local youth to go and stand in the line of fire.
I am an optimist. I feel things will change. It is the responsibility of the government to look into the matter.
AMITABH SINHA: Did you expect anything different — apart from what it is doing — from the Modi government?
I expect different things from every government. Hope is something that you should not let go of. I don’t want to be a bitter person… it took us many years to get Independence from the British, and today we are reaping benefits of a free country. As you grow older, you want to return to your roots. I feel Kashmir’s soul is wounded. It is sad.
ATIKH RASHID: What is your assessment of the FTII in terms of academics and infrastructure?
We need to create an atmosphere of work. It is the best substitute to everything. We need to create an atmosphere that brings everyone together. Filmmaking is not an individual’s profession.
ATIKH RASHID: There has been a long debate at the FTII about subsidising the fees. What do you think?
Why should life be easy for anybody? You can’t be served a job on a platter. Sometimes I feel that when you get things very easily, you have no respect for it. Why should the education be subsidised?
AMITABH SINHA: Regarding the national anthem, I don’t think it is anyone’s argument that one should not stand up for the national anthem, but there have been questions over why it should be played in a movie hall.
What would you tell your son when the national anthem plays? You will want him to stand up. Topic closed. That is it. I do not interpret certain basic things in my life. If I go to a place of worship, whether it is a masjid, a gurdwara or a church, I will take off my shoes. That is what I have been taught. Now, some people can argue that one doesn’t need to do that. But that is just for the sake of argument.
If you are in a stadium in America and their national anthem is played during a football match, you will stand up. You can’t say this is a sports event and it is my decision whether to stand up or not. So when you can go to another country and sing their national anthem, why can’t you do the same for 52 seconds here? There are no arguments about certain things in life.
People in the services stand and protect us on the border. There is no argument or debate here.
AMITABH SINHA: But why play it in a movie theatre?
It is not important, but if it is being played, then why not stand up? It is a rule, let’s follow it. It is not a pathetic or frightening thing. Yes, if a person cannot stand up, people around him will understand.
ATIKH RASHID: Why did you not direct a film after Om Jai Jagadish?
It didn’t do well. I want to make a film, but I am doing so many other things. I am travelling all over the place, I love teaching, I am acting abroad, I am in the process of writing my next book. It is kind of an autobiography. It’s called ‘Lessons Life Taught Me Unknowingly’.
ANURADHA MASCARENHAS: Why has India missed the bus when it comes to the Oscars?
I think the story of today’s India is very exciting. Earlier, arts and entertainment was the last thing on people’s minds. Today, we are comfortable with ourselves, and now we will make a difference.
I acted in Silver Linings Playbook, which I think is an achievement in itself. There is Anil Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra is doing brilliantly. She has got phenomenal success. She is a successful commercial actress in America. It is unbelievable.
We are making inroads. The problem with us is that we remain dissatisfied. Depression and sadness is a luxury enjoyed by a thinking person. You will never hear a man on the street say that ‘I am depressed’. It is a luxury. I have consciously not used two words in the past 28 years — ‘I am bored’ and ‘I am not in the mood’. These are just ways of giving yourself false importance.