“Take two” is how actor Anupam Kher describes the current phase of his acting career. Kher’s recent innings can also be termed his globe-trotting phase – the 63-year-old actor has been a part of a host of international projects over the last few years, including David O Russel’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012), Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick (2017), the American science fiction series Sense8 and 2017 BBC2 film The Boy With The Topknot, based on Sathnam Sangera’s novel of the same name.
Kher currently appears on American television every week as neurologist Vijay Kapoor in David Schulner’s New Amsterdam, which was premiered in the United States of America on September 25 and in India on October 13 on Colors Infinity.
Next up is the theatrical release of the Australian-American production Hotel Mumbai, co-starring Dev Patel and Armie Hammer, which was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The actor will also be seen in BBC One’s mini-series Mrs Wilson, which is scheduled to be released next year.
But the upcoming project that Kher is most proud of is Vijay Ratnakar Gutte’s political drama The Accidental Prime Minister. Kher plays former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the December 21 release, which is based on Sanjaya Baru’s memoir of the same name.
In an interview to Scroll.in over the phone from New York, where the actor is shooting for New Amsterdam, Kher spoke about temporarily “shutting shop” in India, his slate of international projects and the importance of going out of his comfort zone. Excerpts.
Some of the early responses to ‘New Amsterdam’ have been positive. What can you tell us about your character Vijay Kapoor?
Yes, the response to the two episodes that have been screened so far has been fantastic. The show has got a great rating – something like 9.7 million views on the day it was telecast. The response to my character has also been phenomenal. This is not only from Indian audiences – on social media, you get responses from all over the world.
Vijay Kapoor is a neurologist who has been in the New Amsterdam hospital for the longest time – about 25 years. He not only brings his medical expertise but is an advocate of the philosophy of slowing down as a doctor to enable better diagnosis. He also has a distinct sense of humour.
How did you prepare for the role?
Around four months back, the makers of the show had asked me to give them a back story of Dr Vijay Kapoor. They had expected me to write a page on him. But I sent them a 11-page back story about where Kapoor was born, when he decided to shift to a new country, what his early years were like, why he became interested in medical sciences, what were the jobs that he took up when he first came to America, and how he managed to reach his current position. I drew a detailed sketch of the character after studying him and using my imagination. I also consulted a number of successful doctors from India in America.
I haven’t approached this from the point of a view of an actor who, in 34 years, has done 515 films. I’ve looked at this role as a newcomer and the work I’ve put in is also in keeping with that. The role demanded that I be acquainted with medical terms, that I constantly speak in English. It demanded composure.
‘New Amsterdam’ is just one among a host of your many international projects.
I’ve been lucky, and some of the best assignments have come to me by the grace of god. Somehow, the work that I have done on the international stage has got both critical and commercial acceptance – whether it was Bend It Like Beckham, Silver Linings Playbook, The Big Sick or Sense8 or The Boy With A Top Knot, which got me a BAFTA nomination.
But yes, I was a little nervous before the telecast of this series because I’ve shut shop in India right now and come here. You want your show to be successful, you want people to like it. And here, a lot of such series are made, a lot of pilot episodes are released and only 10% to 12% of them manage to go on air. For it to be on top of the trends, it has to be great, fantastic.
God has been kind, yes, but I also feel that he is kind to people who are ready to take risks. If you want good rewards, you must first show that you have the courage to step out of your comfort zone. I was 28 when I played the role of a 65-year-old man in Saraansh. And that had paid off.
What do you mean when you say you’ve shut shop in India?
I feel that when one is complacent, one can never be brilliant. I had reached a similar stage in my career. I needed to be mentally prepared to make a switch in order to broaden my horizon.
I also felt that this break [from Indian projects] will help people look at me from a different point of view. A project like The Accidental Prime Minister, I believe, is among my finest work. And I’ve put in a lot of hard work into it. I wanted work that was of that calibre.
I felt I needed something completely different such that it makes me feel alive as an actor. That can only happen when you’re put into a challenging situation.
Even in today’s times, I feel that people can write a leading role for an actor like me. I’ve always found such work, whether it is Khosla Ka Ghosla, A Wednesday or Special 26. I believe I can get work for another 25 years in India. At the end of the day, I will always die to work in India, but I need something stimulating.
How has ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’ shaped up? And will it be released on schedule on December 21?
There is little work left. I’m coming at the end of October to finish that. I’ve seen some clips from the film, and I can tell you it is phenomenal. I don’t want to brag, but this film will be something that I will always be proud of for the rest of my life. Also, people in India will be proud of it too, simply because of the way the subject has been dealt with.
It is a political film that will take you behind the scenes. It tells you about the workings of the government. The script is fantastic, and the team is very good. The intention of the makers is not sensationalism.
You’ve said that you were sceptical about taking up the role.
I was sceptical initially because I realised that it was going to be very difficult to play Dr Manmohan Singh. He is a current political leader and everybody knows how he walks and talks. It was a challenge for me as an actor.
My competition today is with my own self. I felt that I had been given a script with which one can make a world-class film and give a world-class performance. So, then I thought why not do this, if all it needs is just a lot of hard work? For four months, I worked on my body language and watched hours and hours of Dr Manmohan Singh on YouTube and other media platforms. I then worked on his voice. He has a very distinct voice and I could not have done this voice if I didn’t crack that.
Now that I’ve done 95% of the film, I can proudly say I think we have achieved what we set out to.
Did your preparation involve speaking to Manmohan Singh or those who knew him? Or was the book enough?
More than the book, it was initially the script I wanted to concentrate on. I don’t know him and had only met him a couple of times on social occasions – one of which was when I was getting the Padma Shri . I also did not want to meet him because I didn’t want to bind myself by what I see. I could have met him and based my performance on how he lifts a chai cup or how he touches his turban. I didn’t want to do that. Also, that information is already available online. He was India’s prime minister for 10 years.
Having said that, I also wanted to take this up as a challenge. I felt it would be wonderful to get an invitation from him after the film is out, after everybody has seen my portrayal. That will be an achievement. In my heart, I know that if nothing else, he’d be very happy with my performance in this film because it is done with sincerity.
How will audiences respond to your performance, given that your political stance is diametrically opposite Singh’s?
It is very strange. We don’t ask this of other professions. Like doctors, for instance. No one asks them, are you performing as a Congress supporter or BJP supporter?
Of course, audiences will come to theatres bearing in mind the difference in political stances between me and the character I play. But that’s only until the film is released. Until then, there will be speculation, and that’s warranted. Mainly because I have been vocal about my political thoughts. I have been an admirer of the current prime minister. But that’s it. Once the audiences see the film, they will applaud not just the way Singh has been portrayed, but also the actor who has played him.
Your other upcoming film is ‘Hotel Mumbai’, based on the terrorist attacks of 2008.
It is again among the most brilliant films I’ve worked on. The experience of making that film was amazing. But to see the audience’s reaction to it at Toronto was spellbinding. I play chef Hemant Oberoi [formerly of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel], and he was present in the audience that day. The film is about a horrifying event. At the same time, the story is also about hope and endurance. It’s about the magnanimity of people – how innocent people saved the lives of so many people without any inhibitions.