As veteran actor Anupam Kher completes 500 films, he opens up about his journey in filmdom, his struggles, his learning, working in Hollywood and his plans of a political innings. He says it’s unfair to compare the achievements of Bollywood with Hollywood, and that when he works abroad, he does so with a sense of responsibility about representing India.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q. Five hundred films is a staggering number?

And I am proud of every one of them — good, bad, indifferent, they are all my films. You may criticize me for doing ‘Kyaa Kool Hain Hum’. But every experience has enriched my life. Every film has mattered to me because I know what a workless existence means to an actor.

Q. Your 500th film is a Hollywood film?

Yes, it is a film called “Big Sick”. I got to work with phenomenal talent like Ray Romano (of “Everybody Loves Raymond”), Holly Hunter, Zoe Kazan (Elia Kazan’s granddaughter). It was an enriching experience. And my 501st film ‘Mumbai Hotel’ is one of the most important films in my career. It is about the 26/11 terror attack on Mumbai.

Q. Tell me about it

The kind of research the makers have done gives the film a unique insight into what really happened at the Taj hotel in Mumbai during the terror attack. It’s sad but terror attacks are all about statistics that we read in the newspaper. They happen so frequently that we have have stopped reacting to them on a humane level. It’s about how many people died, and we move on. This film changes that sense of detachment we have developed about terror attacks. ‘Mumbai Hotel’ is about what happened to the people inside the Taj that evening.

Anupam Kher at Buddha in traffic premiere on 12th May 2016
Anupam Kher at Buddha in traffic premiere on 12th May 2016

Q. So all the characters are real?

Some are real. Some are based on real-life characters. I play a character inspired by Taj chef Hemant Oberoi.

Q. Do you plan to meet him?

No, so far I haven’t met him. I intend to interpret the character my own way. Some of the biggest talent from Hollywood and America is involved with the project. I can easily say this is one of the best roles for an Indian actor in a foreign film. I call it my first film after the interval in my career.

Q. You went through your period of struggle?

When I came to Mumbai from Shimla, I had no work, no home, no goals, no dignity, no one to call my own. I lived on the streets, faced humiliation and taunt. But I was obstinate and relentless. I had no choice but to keep trying. Because the only other alternative was to go back home aand do what’ There was nothing I could do except act. So when I finally got work, I grabbed everything that came my way.

Q. Everything?

Yes. I didn’t want to let go of a single opportunity. You have to understand I had gone through hell. I was a hungry man. To me there was no difference between biryani and khichdi. I am reminded of what the great Manmohan Desai once said to me during my days of struggle when I had gone to meet him.

Anupam Kher at Loreal Paris Women Awards in Mumbai on 27th March 2014
Anupam Kher at Loreal Paris Women Awards in Mumbai on 27th March 2014

Q. What did he say?

He advised me to keep my ‘date diary'(recording the work schedules for various films) full. As long as your date diary is full, you will be respected and valued in the film industry. So keep working. So I kept doing everything that came my way. Now that has changed. In recent years my work speaks for me.

Thirty years have passed since I began my journey into Bollywood. The hunger to excel remains. As far as doing not-so-great work is concerned, every stage or a film artiste does work that isn’t quite up to the mark.

Wisdom comes with experience. I just got tired of doing films out of a sense of insecurity. I no longer have any reason to feel insecure. That phase of grappling with my insecurities is over. However, let me reiterate. I’ve enjoyed shooting even for my bad films.

Q. Apparently you received congratulatory messages from your Hollywood friends for completing 500 films?

Yes, Robert de Niro, William Defoe and David O’Russell, among others. When I am shooting with these people, I carry with myself a sense of responsibility about representing India.

Q. Do you feel Indian cinema needs to mature when compared with its American counterpart?

Come on, be fair. Our cinema is only 70 years old. In these seven decades, we have made phenomenal headway. Let’s not make Hollywood our benchmark. We have Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Rajkumar Hirani. Nothing can take away their genius.

Anupam Kher at FICCI FRAMES 2014 in Mumbai on 14th March 2014
Anupam Kher at FICCI FRAMES 2014 in Mumbai on 14th March 2014

Q. Indian actors who shot abroad become conscious of the chaos on Indian film sets?

I don’t feel our cinema to be inadequate when I am shooting abroad. It’s like when I have a meal at the Taj, I don’t compare it with my mother’s cooking. Home food is home food. To sit on the floor and have my mother serve me my meal is the greatest joy on earth. To come home and shoot in India gives me the same joy.

Q. Tell me about your new television show?

“Bharatvarsh” is about the greatness of our country, about the people who made a difference to the shape of modern India. I am learning about the rich heritage of our country. Come to think of it, I’ve been learning on the job all through my career.

Q. What would you say in the way of advice to coming generations?

Work hard. Optimism and honesty are the key to success.

Q. Do we get to see you in active politics?

Not in the next five to six years for sure.