Life is A Love Story
Kiron Kher unplugged.
She is known as much for her beauty, her knee length long tresses and dimples as she is for her prowess at badminton, and her sari collection. A celebrated theater actress, who took a 15 year hiatus to raise her son, Kiron Kher returned to acting both in theater and films with a bang, sweeping top national and international awards in every film she has acted in since. A woman of substance, who once told her equally gifted husband and best friend the actor Anupam Kher, “life is not a success story, it’s a love story,” Kiron Kher was recently honored in Los Angeles at a retrospective of her films. She will also be acting in the prime time series ER along with husband Anupam.
In an exclusive interview with Little India, Kiron talks about her journey and why she believes in living life on her own terms.
I hear you are an army brat and that it was your mother who inculcated the love of cinema in you.
My mother is a great film aesthete and loves good cinema. I remember every Sunday there would be different English films in the defense services theaters that she enjoyed watching. She was the one who introduced me to the films of Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and Satyajit Ray. I was also exposed to the films of Japanese director Kurosawa and European cinema as well. I think because she had the opportunity to read about and view cinema of high quality she became more and more immersed in it.
She also loved seeing Hindi movies and she and the maid who brought us up used to go to see these matinees shows exclusively for women. We would see the evening shows over the weekends and I still remember the hot samosas and tea they would serve and the booklets with the film songs that were available. I used to buy those booklets and we used to sing the songs and play Antakshri. I was the eternal romantic, so much so that my mom and my sister would say, “Let’s not take her to the movies; every time she sees a film she becomes obsessed with it for days. I used to start living the film. If the hero and heroine died I would ask questions like “Woh Marne ke baad toh mil gaye honge na? (They must have united after death, right?) They must have gone to heaven together.” The romances would affect me deeply. The maid used to sing very well and I would borrow her veil and while she played drums on the table and the almirah, and sang popular film songs I used to dance to them. I used to love jewelry and there are pictures of me with pieces of heavy jewelry dangling from different parts of my head, as I danced on a table.
I would visit my grandparents in the village, during winter vacations. They didn’t even have electricity and winter was very cold. We would snuggle in these huge and heavy quilts, which today are considered priceless antiques! I remember the lanterns being lit at dusk, eating hot black lentils, corn tortillas with home made white butter and spinach. Those were such special memories and you never quite let go of those. In some ways I’m still that same small town girl at heart.
So when did you decide to wield the badminton racket?
There were always great opportunities for sports for army kids, and automatic memberships to all the army clubs. So we were into riding and swimming as well. Mom was a very good badminton player and so was my sister. When my sister was only 11 they won the Punjab women’s doubles championships. Then I started playing with her, but I was more interested in the clothes than the rackets! My sister captained the Indian team and won many prestigious awards, including the nationals. I too played for many years for the university, the State, the country winning consistently, but hated getting up in the morning at 7 a.m. to train, and the butterflies I felt before the matches.
When did you realize you liked acting?
I think the first play that I acted in and which stands out in my earliest memories was My Fair Lady and since it was an all girls’ school I did the role of Professor Higgins. Being so fond of dressing up, I just yearned to be Lisa Doolittle, but I guess who ever had the loudest voice and strongest personality got the male roles! It was when I joined Punjab University’s English Department to do my Masters in English literature, that my acting career truly began. I was in first year of the Masters program when the late Mr. Balwant Gargi, the famed Punjabi playwright and short story writer, came from America to set up the department of Indian theater in Punjab University. He was a very well known and celebrated literary figure. He wanted to do the theatre production of Desire under the Elms by Eugene O’Neil before the department started functioning and he got busy. He came to the English department to audition the girls for the lead role. The role of Abby is considered the topmost role in American theater for any actress. It is a role of a woman of 35 and I was all of 19. I went to audition and they asked me to read the section where 35 year old Abby is trying to seduce her 25 year old stepson. I got the role but was scandalized and went home and told mom I was not sure I want to do it with all those risqué dialogues. She insisted I do it since the play was an all time classic It was a full professional theater production, and world theater was so akin to the kind of world cinema I had seen or read about. I felt right at home and started doing theater full time.Then I joined the department of Indian theater and won a gold medal. After that I had two offers: to go to the National School of Drama or study at the Film Institute at Pune.
What did your parents say to that?
My father put his foot down and said no to both. He had heard people smoked pot at NSD and being in films was out of the question. Later he agreed, but around that time Nargis Dutt came to Chandigarh and Sunil Dutt was casting for a film. He signed me up for an exclusive one year contract but never could make the film.
What did you do then?
I just waited for a while and stayed with my aunt in Bombay. In the meantime I did meet some people from the film industry who turned out to be the kind of people a girl from a respectable background would never want to meet or encourage. I was somehow naturally drawn to alternate cinema, but Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil were dominant there.
Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani didn’t want to move away from them or Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri.. They were willing to offer me small roles, but having done all these major roles in theater, my soul wouldn’t agree to just do small itty bitty roles.
In the meantime I met Gautam Berry (a budding actor and wealthy businessman) and he fell in love with me, and wanted to marry me.
We divorced in 1985. Today though Anupam and I have brought up our son Sikander, Gautam shares a very good relationship with all of us and is like a member of the family.
I believe Anupam and you were friends for many years before tying the knot?
Yes, and he had also come to Bombay in the meantime. He knew me from my theater days. In fact we did Desire Under the Elm again, but this time we did it in Hindi. Anupam was really my best friend for years and he too had been through his own heart breaks. We started doing plays and it was so wonderful to be back in theater. One day the chemistry changed with one look. We still remember the day, the moment and the time. I remember my mother telling me when I said to her I wanted to marry Anupam, that he is very sweet, but how will you live? He won’t be able to even afford your shampoos. I said mom I’ d rather be with some one with whom I can sit and laugh every evening, feel connected with and be happy.
God was kind and Anupam did go on to do very well. I remember he gave me my wedding ring after one year of marriage, because he couldn’t afford it before then. I think love is the only truth. He has done some very romantic things for me. Once it was raining very hard in Bombay – the city was flooded and the traffic had come to a halt -he was supposed to go out of town for a shooting and I was living in the city. Suddenly the doorbell rang and there was Anupam standing outside all drenched. Instead of going out of town he had braved the weather, the halted traffic, perhaps walked half the way to get to me. I saw the look of love on his face and I can never ever forget that wonderful gesture. He used to call up in the middle of the night and I would sleepily pick up and say hello and he would whisper “I love you” and put the phone down. There were no cell phones in those days and he didn’t have a phone and perhaps went to some booth or shop late at night to make the call. He even proposed in the cutest way by saying would you and Sikander like to live with me?
Anupam said you took almost 15 years off to raise your son Sikander, which was very brave of you. How did you see the industry change in that period?
I felt it was very important to raise my son well. Sikander and I traveled a lot with Anupam during that time enjoying each moment of being there with him. The industry was so hypocritical. I was with Anupam as his girlfriend for a little while and then as his wife and of course I became bhabhiji (revered sister in law) overnight for the film industry! The film industry has changed so much though. It is really more professional now, and the newer, younger breed of film makers are so passionately involved with their work, and nothing else. We are finally seeing bound scripts being given to us.
When did you think of making a come back?
When Sikander was about 13 or 14, director Feroz Khan wanted to do a play called Saalgirah and wanted Anupam in it. Anupam and I had been toying with the idea of doing a play for some time since the artist in me had been feeling that vacuum. In between I did a small cameo in the film Pestonjee, where I played Anupam’s mistress, which was fun and a TV serial called Isi Bahane, which was a very haphazard production, but it was successful. But then Anupam and I did the play Saalgirah together.
It is the story of a dysfunctional marriage where a couple that has separated after 15 years of marriage, realizes how they had wasted a lifetime and many years. Most people have dysfunctional marriages, because it’s not a very normal thing to be living together 24 hours a day. It takes many years to smoothen out the rough edges and sometimes it never happens. Most people do opt to stay in the marriage, especially people from the subcontinent, so I think this is what they related to. The play is written with the intention to bring about a reconciliation, and the message that the years do soften you.
I was very nervous when we started rehearsing. I thought I had forgotten how to act and Anupam in the meantime had become a major star. People in the film industry who didn’t know my theater background didn’t realize I was an accomplished and trained actress. It was very important to come up with a really good performance. The most gratifying thing was when people said I outshone Anupam in the play and he still jopkes about it. Of course he is too confident and grounded to let it bother him but its funny how everyone teases us about it.
You then did a stint on television.
Yes I got a chat show called Purushkshetra. I loved doing that show.It dealt with how men react to situations and they had a woman host not embarrassed to talk about sex and other taboo topics openly. I realized men are far more vulnerable than women. I find the male vulnerability far more painful to see. The vulnerability of a woman has an inherent strength in it, while the vulnerability of a man has an inherent weakness in it.
Then you did the movie Darmiyaan based on the life of Tikku a Hijra (transgender) and his mother a famous actress.
Darmiyaan was an extremely painful film to do. It was a very dark film without any possibility of any kind of light, joy or hope. We worked on the scenes, the look, and the psyche of the person. The script was written, changed, rewritten many times with all of our input . It was based on Tikku’s life story and we also talked to other Hijras. The film was very well received, but the subject is so controversial that the film was deliberately sidelined when it came to nominations for the National Award. My dream was always to win the national award, which I did for my next film Sardari Begum.
And then again for the Bengali film Bariwali which Anupam produced under great duress from what I heard. It also won the Netpac award in Berlin.
I worked very hard on Bariwali. About eight months before the film started, the script was given to me and a Bengali teacher came every day to teach me Bengali. Bengali is one of the easy languages, but the important thing was to get the enunciation and the persona of the woman right. I can’t even boil an egg, but I started sitting on the floor and learnt to slice fish. Everybody identified me with dramatic roles and Bariwali was a subdued role. Winning the National Award for the film was truly the icing on the cake, especially after the controversy to sabotage the film by saying someone else had dubbed for me.
The film was indeed made under a lot of duress. Anupam had invested heavily in his entertainment company and lost a lot of money. The financier for the film backed out at the last minute. Anupam sold a brand new car to start the first day’s shooting and then borrowed money from everywhere. Even our watchman contributed Rs. 10,000 toward the film.
The other day we were having lunch and Anupam teased us the food that you are eating came out of the tyres of my dear departed car. I said good! Tomorrow we will eat a meal sponsored by the steering wheel of the car! We can laugh about it today, but those were frightening times.
After the stunning performance in Bariwali, and as Paro’s colorful mother in Devdas, you are again making waves and collecting accolades and awards with Khamosh Pani. The film won the top Golden Leopard prize at the 2003 Locarno International Film Festival, and you won the award for best actress.
I’m Sikh and I have aunts who migrated to India and I grew up hearing all those stories of pain and loss. It was as if I was playing a woman I had already met. Ultimately she does jump into a well, because she is ostracized by the entire village and her son became a fundamentalist.
What is in the works now?
I have done Main Hoon Na with Shahrukh Khan. It’s a fun film though mine is a small emotional role, but an impactful one. I’m also looking forward to Kunal Kohli’s film and one with Yash Chopra. I think Anupam and I have switched places. I’m currently doing masala movies and he has crossed over to doing crossover films!