Sikandar Kher has come a long way since his debut in 2008 in Woodstock Villa. It’s been a bumpy ride for the second-generation actor, who hit his stride only in 2020 with Ram Madhvani’s Aarya. In the web series, Kher plays Daulat, a loyal lieutenant to the titular heroine. Kher followed up Aarya with acclaimed turns in Vasan Bala’s film Monica, O My Darling and Pratim D Gupta’s comedy series Tooth Pari.

The tide has turned only recently for the 40-year-old son of actors Kirron Kher and Anupam Kher. Sikandar Kher is looking forward to a host of interesting projects, including Aarya’s third season, the Indian chapter of Citadel, Dev Patel’s movie Monkey Man, the surrogacy-themed film Dukaan and another web series.

The journey has been challenging. Somewhere along the way, Sikandar Kher accepted that it was better to be a performer than an actor whose credentials and gratification depended on playing the leading man. The six foot two inch-tall Kher, who can often be spotted on a golf course or jogging on the streets of Mumbai, is committed to being busy. His motivation includes this advice from Anupam Kher: “Work, because work will get you more work.” There are others whose guidance has stood him in good stead, Sikandar Kher revealed in an interview.

How would you summarise your experiences from when you decided you wanted to be an actor?
I wanted to be Tom Cruise. Initially, after watching Top Gun, I wanted to be a fighter pilot. But I soon realised that I actually wanted to be Tom Cruise. I wanted to be a leading man. Things don’t always pan out like that.

But it’s such a great time right now. At no point have I been disheartened that I didn’t become a hero. I am grateful to have been born in comfort. I think that makes a difference. I have a comfortable life and the way I have been brought up and the way I am, I’ve never been bitter. I have always had great family support. I’ve had a home. I had a long period of sitting around too.

Now OTT has generated a lot of work. But there was a time when I was just waiting for work. Films would come in a span of a year or two. I did things like Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, Players, Aurangzeb, Tere Bin Laden 2. I could have gotten off my ass and gone around and met people, which I didn’t do for a long time.

Then one day, something happened. We are always going through ups and downs, lows and highs. I remember one time I auditioned for something and they said I got the part. But I didn’t get it eventually. And that might have been a catalyst. Because I did start reaching out to people and sought meetings.

How did that help?
I’ve grown up in this industry. I’ve met most people. So I just started messaging all the people that I knew, and some that I didn’t know, and asked them to meet me for just 10 minutes. These are busy people, so if I didn’t get a reply, I would send a follow-up message the next day. My message time was 10.30 in the morning, because if it’s earlier then it’s too early, and if it was 11 am. they might think I wake up late. If they still didn’t reply, I’d give it a week, and then try again after a month, then probably after three months.

I did get to meet a lot of people. If I asked for 10 minutes, I would make sure I left in nine, unless they asked me to sit longer. My pitch was to say hello, show my showreel, let them know that I want to work and thank them for their time. I’m so lucky that at least I got those meetings.

It was during one of those meetings that I got some good advice. This filmmaker said, you need to get on the train. You are not on the train, you are on the platform. Get on the train, even if it’s in the last bogie. Just get on whether you ever get to first class or not. Just get on a set. And that’s what it was.

I guess there’s timing. And then, yes, things did start happening.

Aarya season 2 (2022).

I recently re-watched the song Sawan Mein Lag Gayi Aag from Woodstock Villa. How do you feel about your older work now?
Oh my god, I hear the song sometimes here and there. I wonder which version it is because there was a newer version too. I love the song but I think I could have done better, though admittedly it was my first film. I watch it and wonder what I am doing dancing that way with that long hair.

Sometimes I wonder if I am embarrassed or not. I know I sound nothing like Mika Singh and Mika sounds nothing like me. I haven’t seen the film in a while though. I cut my hair for Aurangzeb, in which I played a cop. I grew a moustache for that film too.

After Woodstock Villa, what would you say was your next inflection point?
I would say my graph has been steady, but flowing at a lower level. And that’s fine, because we never know what’s going to work and what’s not. Failure is an insane teacher. It’s the greatest teacher. It makes you value things so much more.

Like, when the first thing that I did worked, which I think was Aarya – that felt very different. But you can’t dwell on it. You have to keep moving on to the next, and then next, because I just want to keep busy. Ensembles have given me the opportunity to work with so many cool people.

How are you choosing roles now?
It depends on what comes to me, of course. But I also know that you have to keep doing stuff, otherwise you could be forgotten.

I don’t go looking for just leads. I look for stuff I like, such as Tooth Pari. I need to be convinced about the work to get on set and really want to do something. It doesn’t matter what the role is. For example, my role in Monica, O My Darling is small, but I wanted to work with Vasan.That’s my kind of cinema – fun, quirky, entertaining.

Raj [Nidimoru] saw Monica and called me for a meeting, which led to Citadel. So that graph is always going to be up and down, because luck and kismet are such a big part of this profession.

Sikandar Kher in Monica, O My Darling (2022). Courtesy Matchbox Shots/Netflix.

When you come from privilege, when people can easily label you as a ‘nepo kid’ and you taste failure early on, what is that like, because there’s so much more attention and expectation?
At that time, there was no hard-core trolling. Luckily, I haven’t been hammered by trolls. But if you are from a film family, anyway they will say you are getting it too easy. And it’s true that I got meetings with people, and I can meet them, whereas many people will never even get a meeting.

So there are some perks. But I feel that no matter whose child you are, you have to be able to sustain your career and stardom. I didn’t feel really bad when the films didn’t click. I mean, I would love to be like Shah Rukh Khan, the biggest star ever. Not everyone can get that. But more than anything else, I just want to act. That is the greatest thing. I have parents who would have been honest and told me if I couldn’t act. They always had faith in my work.

So how did Aarya happen?
I booked Aarya through my audition. I auditioned for so many things, and I am incredibly nervous every time. You get some parts, you get some recognition, then more offers start coming in. You just have to keep at it.

[Casing director] Abhimanyu Ray really believed that I should be playing Daulat, and people liked the character. People see what you are capable of and you remain in their minds. The main thing is that it has to work, because you might give the greatest performance of your life, but it doesn’t work – if it’s not seen – then it won’t help. So for a film or show to click is extremely important. That again comes down to kismet.

The cop in Tooth Pari is such an interesting character.
It was a great role when I read it. There’s so much pain in Kartik. Director Pratim described him as the unluckiest person alive. Things are always going wrong for him. When people call him inspector, he corrects them and says, sub inspector. His father is suffering from dementia. He’s an alcoholic and then he falls for a pretty girl and that also doesn’t work out. He talks about vampires, but nobody believes him.

So there were a lot of layers to that guy and he was one of my favourite characters to play because it was a meaty role.

Are you open to criticism?
I’m self-critical. I don’t even believe it when people compliment me. I know things I could have done differently or better. Whatever little work I had done, luckily people didn’t say he doesn’t know what he is doing. I am constantly thinking about acting, looking at performances, wondering how you go there, how do you get lost completely.

I don’t have a process of attacking a scene. But I’ll read it and see what I can find out of it. With time, you see how you can make something different, give it some kind of flavour. It could be really bad too, but it’s our job as actors to share ideas and the director’s job is to give it shape and direction.

There’s only one person whose opinion I seek, and that’s my mother. My father is still a little encouraging, but mom is very honest. Once or twice she came out of a screening and said I had to sit through this film because of you.

Tooth Pari (2023).

Has she ever given you any advice?
When I started getting into this, she said, this is a profession where if you are very successful, it is one of the greatest places to be. But, if you fail, your failure will be public. So, you need to be strong. Your heart needs to be strong.

There are painful times. We all go through it. There will be things that are very disappointing. I have seen disappointment up close, with people around – big stars, actors – in my house. I know it’s a part and parcel, but disappointment is disappointment. And it does hurt, but life moves on and nothing is constant.

Do you see this as the best phase of your career?
Yes. I have not had people ever come up and say nice things really. I don’t think many people have seen a lot of my work. It’s really lovely when people talk about Aarya, which a lot of people have seen and where people liked my character.

That’s what it’s all about. We act and then we connect with a person and that’s just the love that a person is giving you for some work that you’ve done. There is no better feeling for me than somebody coming up and saying, I really loved what you did in that. Tomorrow I might do something that people hate, but I don’t fear that because it’s not in my hands. I just have to keep working and what has to do, will do well.