Competent is the Enemy of the Brilliant

For all he has achieved or survived, says Anupam Kher, this is only the intermission of his life.


It is said real life happens to you while you are busy making plans. The only thing Anupam Kher planned was to be different. No mean feat for a small town boy, from a non affluent, joint family.

A mediocre student, cruising aimlessly through the first 19 years of life, Anupam Kher began a journey, on Rs 100, stolen from his mother’s temple, that took him to the prestigious National School of Drama, discovering the most enduring passion of his life, acting.


That passion netted him the gold medal at NSD, and fueled dreams of becoming an outstanding actor.

Today with 300 films, 8 Filmfare awards, a Padmashri in 2004 and many theatre and television laurels under his belt, Kher who was in the country to showcase his autobiographical play Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai (Anything can happen), talks exclusively to Little India about his failures, the fantasy world of the silver screen, which came crashing down around him when his emotional capacity fell far short of dealing with his stupendous fame, and why in spite of all that he has achieved or survived, this is only the intermission of his life.

You come from a non filmi middle class Kashmiri family from Simla. What are the early memories of growing up?

In a small town, and even more so in a hill station, the pace of life is very slow and since nothing much happens, everything gets registered in the mind of a child growing up there. I have very powerful visual memories of my family, and the people of Simla. It was a town full of distinct characters, the typical pan wala, the typical sweetmeat seller, the typical barber. My grandfather was an intellectual genius but his sons weren’t. But what they lacked in terms of intellectual and material achievements was more than compensated by their generosity, kindness and ability to love. My father would always be losing something in the morning. Being not so wealthy and living in a joint family he would painstakingly hide the Rs. 5 or Rs. 10 note he had at the end of the day and promptly forget where he had kept it. So in the morning he would jump over sleeping bodies and scurry around looking for it.

Once he got into his head that the bread seller was very lucky for him, that he got a promotion because he set his eyes on him. So for weeks, he would get out of bed with eyes shut, stumble over sleeping relatives till he made his way out and would open his eyes only when the bread seller came by and asked “Where are you headed?” Of course the moment the bread seller found out why my father was outside every day, the price of bread was hiked up considerably!

Then I had an uncle who would always start his first sentence with “doosri baat kya hai na..”(and the second thing is) and as kids we would always wonder what was the first thing he had said. He married a village girl much younger than him. My uncle’s eyes used to shut when he got angry and when he would yell at my aunt for something, she would disappear just to tease him. He would open his eyes, and on not finding her there, would look for her and then start all over again, meticulously yelling with the same intensity with eyes shut. The transition from opening his eyes looking for her, shutting them again and yelling again was hilarious.

I had another uncle who wanted to be different from his bunch of mediocre relatives and would ritualistically read the newspaper and would take himself so seriously that he became even more comical. He got some book akin to the ones that claim to teach you English in five weeks and as soon as he came across a seemingly impressive English word he would use it extensively. He learnt the word “torrential” one day and said “the rain in this country always falls in the town in torrential types.” Our teachers were very funny, but they taught us more about life than anything else and of course in a small town romances progressed at a snail’s pace: it took six months even to get a glance from your love interest. I loved films and had to see them on the first day of release. I was crazy about Dev Anand and would roll up my hair in the front just like him, and rattle off his dialogue from the famous film Guide. Those are memories I cherish to this day. 
So did your parents have the usual expectations do well academically and find a good job?

Never. My parents never cribbed about my failures but rejoiced at every little milestone I achieved. I still remember an incident that stands out on my mind and really formed my character. Once every six months my father would take my brother and me to the only five star hotel in Simla and treat us to mutton patties. That was all he could afford.


There was a weird system in high school in my days. You would be automatically promoted to 11th grade and your 10th grade results came out two months into 11th grade. If you failed, you were sent back to 10th grade and it was pretty humiliating. One day my father came over in the afternoon, checked me out early from school and treated me to a very sumptuous lunch at the same five star hotel. After lunch I asked him what is the good news. Did you get a raise? He said No, you failed your tenth grade exam. I said then why did you bring me here and treat me to this grand lunch? He replied, “Because I never want you to be afraid of failure. Since then, I have gone through a lot in life but I remain optimistic and I never give up.”

Did you ever think of being an actor from an early age?

Well I was a ham, but that was more to attract attention and stand out than having any lofty dreams of being a star. I started acting in plays in elementary school and started a drama club as early as in 6th grade, calling it Anupam Kala Sangam, and promptly forgetting about it soon after. After finishing school, I joined the government college in Simla, and in between focusing on the “important” topic of how to walk behind the best looking girl around campus to be noticed, I did a play called “Balidan” in an inter college competition and was so sure I would win the Best Actor award that when I didn’t I hrefused the runner up prize and fainted in a restroom. I think I fainted for some other reason, but it created great dramatic effect! So no at that point, it was just to attract attention.

I decided to do my masters in economics when a friend of mine showed me an ad showcasing the department of Indian theater at Punjab university. I got in after acting as the famous courtesan Vatsayana, a role played later by the lovely actress Rekha in the film Utsav. I think the faculty was more impressed by my adventurous spirit and audacity than my celestial beauty in that performance! From there I went to the prestigious National school of Drama and found my true calling. I didn’t know there were so many books on acting and on cinema and when I saw the library I was thrilled. There was so much to read, about distinguished actors, the theory of acting, about cinema. I must have spent at least 10 hours in the library every day, sometimes sleeping only two hours each day and graduated with the gold medal.

Then I went to Lucknow and taught for some time, but I think my friends and I knew we were all headed for Bollywood eventually.

So how was the journey to filmdom?

I am glad I was an optimist. It ran the gamut of all the lows one could think of. At one point, I was in Delhi when Dolly Thakore, the media and TV personality, told me Richard Attenborough was auditioning for the film Gandhi. I said promptly, “Oh I will do Gandhi’s role.” She said no they have already taken Ben Kingsley for that role and I said well then I will make a super Nehru and so I got a long coat and a rose and rehearsed Nehru’s speech on Gandhi’s death over and over again.

In my optimistic mind I had already won the Oscar for that role!. A tall skinny man escorted the casting director and us up the elevator to the room where Richard Attenborough was staying. As I entered I heard him saying on the phone “Thanks Roshan I am so glad you have accepted Nehru’s role. You will be perfect in it.” I saw red and started arguing with Richard-“How can you give the role away without out auditioning me?” Finally he said, “Okay go ahead, audition,” and I completely blanked out. Then I said sheepishly “Fine, I will play Abdul Ghaffar Khan.” The casting director said sorry I have already hired the tall elevator man to play that role! I vowed never to see Gandhi. Some time later I was struggling to make ends meet and received a phone call telling me there is one single line to be dubbed in Hindi in the film Gandhi, they will pay you a thousand bucks…that was my Oscar winning contribution to the film!

I decided to come to Bombay in 1981 and dragged my brother with me. I told him to work in a factory to support us while I started doing the rounds of producers’ offices. It was tough but when you are from a less than affluent family and earn Rs. 10 then at the most, you dream of making Rs. 15. That seems like a huge jump!


When I was struggling to get into films, one thing I avoided was becoming part of a clique. I struggled on my own, and while it was a tough and lonely journey, it taught me to be self reliant. I shifted in with one of my students and our land lady was a dhoban (washer woman). Ironically my address was Anupam Kher, Kherwadi, Khernagar, Kher Road, Bandra East. I took it as a sign that I was meant to stay. I was hardly hero material, my hair was falling out from different directions.

I was not even symmetrically bald as I am today and I was so thin, I used to apply this Russian phrase to myself, “I’m so thin that I can see through a key hole with both my eyes..”

There were days when I felt humiliated, dejected, unappreciated, both as an actor and as a human being and once wrote to my grandfather saying I want to give up, I’m so tired of facing constant rejection. Maybe I should go back to teaching and he said “Bheega hua admi baarish se nahin darta” (a drenched man does not fear the rain). You have worked so hard, come this far, you are almost there, why do you want to leave midway? I realized then that if I didn’t fight failure I will ensure it.

And then Saraansh happened and catapulted you to stardom.

Yes. One day in 1983 I called director Mahesh Bhatt and he said where have you been? I am directing a film for Rajshri Production and you are doing the lead role in it. It was the role of a 65 year old man.

I said God, here I am dreaming of becoming the next Sunny Deol, Mithun Chakravarty and at 27 Mahesh Bhatt gives me the role of a 65 year old man.
But when he narrated the role of B.B. Pradhan a retired elderly school principal whose only son has died in the USA, the dilemma that faces an elderly couple suddenly rendered childless, overwhelmed with hopelessness as they struggle to retrieve the ashes of their child, hrefusing to bribe a corrupt system, I knew this was the role of a lifetime. I was like a man possessed.

I would wake up early in the morning at the crack of dawn, go to Shivaji Park and watch the children play for hours. I would then take out the picture of my imaginary dead son, wipe it with the edge of my shirt look at it longingly and put it back in my pocket.

This went on for 6 months and then one of my friends showed up at my place and said “I just heard the role is being given to Sanjiv Kumar.” I called Mahesh Bhatt and he said, “Uh well I am sorry Anupam, Rajshri Productions decided they didn’t want to risk their money on a new comer and would prefer a star.. Anyway you can have the second lead, an equally good role of the other old man.” I packed all my meager belongings, took a cab and climbed all the way to the 6th floor where Mahesh Bhatt lived since even the elevators decided to give up on me. As I entered his apartment he said “Hello Anupam. I am glad you are taking it so sportingly. Sanjiv Kumar is a star and both of you have theater backgrounds, you will create magic together.”

I said “Stop it. I am leaving because you are a fraud and a cheat. You sit here giving me lectures on integrity, and for the past six months you have promised this role to me. Now you have the audacity to say I should do the other so called ‘equally good role,’ because you don’t have the guts to tell Rajshri productions only Anupam will do this role. And let me tell you something, even Sanjiv Kumar cannot do this role better than me.” I paused dramatically, and then said, “I’m leaving this town for good, but I’m cursing you, the curse of a Brahmin!” And as I stormed down with theatrical gusto, he yelled from the top, “Come back you duffer, you will play the lead.” Mahesh Bhatt means the world to me. He taught me to be myself, because in a world of hypocrisy, he is truly a man who has the courage to take home truths in his stride. I never looked back after that. That film netted me the best actor award from Filmfare along with several others. Sanjiv Kumar saw that film and with tears in his eyes said “I couldn’t have done this role better, Anupam”.

Did it go to your head?

Yes it did. Suddenly I was the happening star, signing film after film, shooting hour after hour. It became a running joke that you cannot make a film without two things these day, raw stock and Anupam Kher. Once I was shooting for a film down south and arrived fashionably late at 10 a.m. when shooting was to start at 9, to find that the air conditioning in my make up room wasn’t working. I threw a starry tantrum and hrefused to work until that was fixed. I was told the hero had been waiting in full make-up for me for an hour and I asked “Who is the hero?.” “Amitabh Bachchan” was the answer.

I went out to find the legendary super star seated on a chair, wearing a wig, a beard, and a blanket wrapped around him reading a book. Sheepishly and totally in awe, I approached him, introduced myself and said “Sir, aren’t you feeling hot? The air-conditioning isn’t working”. He looked up from his book and said “Anupam when I think about heat I feel hot, if I don’t, then I don’t.”

The other humbling experience came when the National Awards were announced. They are the Indian Oscars. You win one and it means you are the best of the best. I was extremely confident I would get it for Saraansh and had even invited Mr. Bachchan to join me for a celebratory dinner after the announcements. I lay in my room, a glass of Johnny Walker black label whisky, raised in the air to toast my triumph, the news reader smiled her dimpled smile and said “This year’s national award goes to…” I said thank you darling, and she went on ” Naseeruddin Shah for Paar. The raised celebratory glass took 20 minutes to come down!

How easy was it to do roles like Saraansh at 27 when you were not an old man, the role of Daddy where you played Pooja Bhatt’s alcoholic father when you didn’t have a child? Was it tough starting at the top with such an amazing role like Saaransh and then working your way through so many movies that were not of that level.

Well, to answer the first part of the question, I guess it’s the job of an actor to deliver. I haven’t raped anyone in real life but I have done rape scenes in films. You either have an emotional treasure box of memories that you delve into or you have to have a rich imagination and astute skills of observation. I have both, plus I read a lot. Unless I have to portray a historical character or act as an alien, I really don’t have to do a lot of homework for my roles. This is a façade a lot of actors put up saying, oh I am working so hard to get my teeth into the role, the emotional graph of my character and it requires so much homework. But in truth, my job is no different from anyone else.

Just like there are good bad or mediocre carpenters, there are good bad or mediocre actors. As for not finding roles like Saaransh, for a long time, I felt the process of work was more important than the end result. I was never so presumptuous to think that I was going to be that one man to change the face of the Indian cinema and I never took myself seriously. I was happy to be working, and didn’t bemoan the fact that oh out of the 300 films I have done so far 250 films were rubbish.

I can spend my life wishing I was born in Bill Gates’ house or that I wish I was Jack Nicholson. Instead I think God has been very kind to me. How many people from all over the world come to Bollywood to make it in films and survive for over 20 years as I have done and I’m still here! But I have to admit that Daddy came to me at a time when I was beginning to feel a sense of degradation as an actor. The intial euphoria of making it, doing so many films, being wanted by all the producers and directors, working with all those big stars was dying, and I started evaluating my work and myself as an actor, feeling rather miserable at the poor quality of work I was doing. When Mahesh narrated the story of Daddy I was working almost round the clock, doing 25-30 films at the same time, but the need to do this film and reaffirm my faith in myself as an actor of substance was overwhelming. I told Bhatt sahib, I will give you two hours during every shooting. The film was made under ridiculous circumstances, but turned out so well because Bhatt sahib had my complete concentration for those two hours.

Not too many people know that you had a breakdown a few years later and suffered facial paralysis.

It was almost 10 years into being in films. I had made 200 films by then and was working at a break neck speed. One night while I was having dinner at Anil Kapoor’s house, his wife said “Anupam you are not blinking from one eye.” I went to the hospital and was told I had facial paralysis and needed life saving drugs and it would take months to recover. I was shooting for Hum Apke Hain Kaun. That day as I was returning from the hospital, people looking at my face, laughed thinking I was perhaps making that face in preparation for a role. It took several months of electric currents therapy to get back to normal. In spite of being so optimistic, I was not happy. I was beginning to feel I was rusting as an actor and a human being, but then in India you are not a happening actor if you don’t have movies. That episode made me realize, there is much more to life than cinema and acting. I started teaching at Dilkhush School, an institution for mentally challenged kids every Wednesday and traveled from all over the world to be there each week for one year. and I have been working now with down trodden children for the last 7-8 years.

Your first directorial venture Om Jai Jagdish flopped.

I honestly feel I did a good job, but I didn’t have a fully bound script in my hands when we started and so we shot as we went along and that is obvious when you view it. The producer Vashu Bhagnani was in a hurry to start the film because we had managed to get the dates of all the stars, which is hard to come by these days. Also all the three heroes, Anil Kapoor, Abhishek Bachchan and Fardeen Khan had had major flops just before the film started, plus that year nobody went to see films in theatres. People liked it tremendously when they saw it on television. But on the flip side, I am very excited about the fact that the film Bariwali which I produced and which netted my wife Kiran her second national award as Best Actress, has received so much national and international acclaim. It was made under great financial constraints. I’m also directing my next film, which took me one year to write. It’s in English and called The Return. It is to be shot in New York and is a story about a father and son.

How has the film industry changed in the past two decades that you have been there?

I think this is the most exciting phase of Indian film industry because the audience is so educated today. With the onslaught of satellite channels and globalization people know that you don’t have to make films only for a lower middle class audience. In the last two years 90 percent films flopped because it’s a transition period.

The advent of the multiplexes has also been a boon.

Exactly. It allows film makers to make small budget films with original themes and reach the kind of audience that enjoys these kind of films and Art House cinema is now a reality. Also I think it gives work and creative satisfaction to a certain kind of actor. Not everyone who does parallel cinema can act in commercial masala movies. The camera does not lie and exposes you easily. For any actor to portray things he or she doesn’t believe in is a much greater challenge than doing cinema you can empathize with. Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan are superstars, because they make the unrealistic look realistic. When you talk to either of them, you know their personal sensibilities are so different than what they portray on bollywood screens, but they make it all so believable. I always tell the drama students that graduate from NSD, if you wish to do well in commercial cinema please leave your intellectual sensibilities at home. You may have lived in the world of Tennessee William and Arthur Miller, but in Bollywood you will have to speak lines like array ja kuttey, kameeney, main tere jaise hazaron ko dekh loonga (go you cur, I have seen and handled thousands of scumbags like you) lines you have not learnt anywhere. Your own knowledge will then become a burden on you. So it’s great that today these people too, can carve a niche in parallel cinema if they need to.

Also in the last 20 years, if I was lucky, I got a fully bound script for may be five films. In the last two years I have got fully bound scripts for 300 films and while these may not be awesome films, at least people are understanding and appreciating the discipline of cinema and the fact that you cannot write dialogues on a piece of paper or an empty packet of cigarette and say here these are the dialogues for the next scene. So many times, I have ended up writing the dialogues for many of my roles.

You said that when you did Bend it Like Beckham it was like being in an acting workshop.

Bend it Like Beckham began the second phase of my life as an actor. I decided I must wipe the slate clean and start from scratch and do only meaningful films that give me creative satisfaction. For that I must unload my baggage of being Anupam Kher. Today whichever film I am acting in, whether it’s Chess or Bride and Prejudice I approach it as a new comer. It adds freshness to my work. Being competent is your biggest enemy. If you are competent you cannot be brilliant. If you tell yourself, I know nothing then you give yourself the potential to excel.

Life has come a full circle now that you have been appointed the Chairman of the National School of Drama. What have been the changes there and in theater since you were a student?

I think to be a student at this amazing institution and then to finally return many years later as the chairman, has been my greatest achievement. I personally feel a little disillusioned at what I see today at NSD. I don’t think we have teachers of the same caliber or the same enthusiasm among students. We need the gurukul system here. You cannot say we are serious committed students of drama but we must have time to play football also. I hope I can change that before my term gets over. Unfortunately there are no writers in Hindi theater which is rather sad. That is why this play Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai is an original play. After Mohan Rakesh and Surinder Verma, there has been a huge void because all the writers are writing for cinema as it is more lucrative and that will remain a struggle. I think nationally both English and Hindi theater can be in a much better situation than it is. Regional theater on the other hand is very rich..

Well looks like you have created some waves after being appointed Chairman of the Indian Censor Board. People didn’t like your insistence that only movies with a G certificate be shown on television.

My major problem has been with the music videos which have been very explicit and also the double standards where Doordarshan, the government run television channel cannot show R-rated movies, but privately owned satellite channels can show anything. Anyone going to the cinema theater knows what he will be watching since the films carry a certificate but a child of 10 or 11 can surf any TV channel he wants. India does not consist of just the big metropolitan cities. Ninety percent of India lives in the interiors and the women are subjected to a lot of humiliating experiences when the men see explicit stuff on television. Pardon my bluntness, but opinions are like an a..hole, everybody has one! I owe responsibility to the common man more than I do to the intellectuals. I would presume since they think they are well informed they would know right from wrong. As chairman, I believe I have to see the large picture. I’m not worried about getting popularity votes from the media and the so called critics. I have to do what I feel is morally right for the three years that I’m at the helm. I believe there is nothing like self censorship.

So what is in the works now?

Well I’m excited about directing my next film and I think the kind of work I am doing is very interesting. I have my autobiography called Anything Can Happen – A Life coming out in the fall. Gurinder Chaddha’s magnum opus Bride and Prejudice based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is ready for release, and I will be returning next year with two plays, Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai, my autobiographical journey and Saalgirah where I play husband to my wife Kiron. Both have had very successful runs in the U.S. and we are bringing them back on popular demand. Both deal with failures in life and how to overcome them. I think failure teaches you far more than success does. When I talked about mine, to cheers and empathy, I felt I was the tallest guy in the world. People try to frighten you by saying they might expose your shortcomings or your failures…but now what will they frighten me with?  

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