Anupam Kher As Dr. Manmohan Singh: Nothing Accidental About It

 

His role as India’s former prime minister is one of the most important late-career moves.

By Gautam Chintamani 

The news of Anupam Kher portraying former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the film based on Sanjaya Baru’s book, The Accidental Prime Minster, has evoked a vast array of emotions in the hearts and minds of fans, followers, and observers of Hindi cinema. Considering that Kher is a fine actor, the thought of him playing a real life character and that too someone from the recent past, is enticing, but a few have also expressed shock, where Kher, as “a thinly disguised Manmohan Singh”, reeks of opportunism to them. Yet, Kher as Dr. Manmohan Singh, is perhaps, one of the most important late-career roles for the actor, who has almost 500 films to his credit. More than anything else, this inspired casting, in a manner of speaking, is also an ode to a generation of actors who took popular Hindi cinema to a place where it could be seen beyond the prism of heroes and heroines.

For most Indians between the ages of 30 and 50, there can be no Hindi cinema without someone like Anupam Kher. In the 1980s and the 1990s, Kher was to Hindi films what the humble potato would be to cooking — you could use them in any conceivable way and in any combination with just about anything. Kher could play a retired 60-something man coming to terms with the death of his son in a mugging incident in New York (Saaransh [1984]), or a spineless politician using his squeaky clean image to get away with murder (Arjun [1985]), a well-read intellectual terrorist who wants to take over India (Karma [1986]), the good guy who would do bad things to hold on to the woman he loves (Kaash [1987]), the father who could ‘market’ his talented daughter (Tezaab [1988]), an emasculated “ghar-jamai” suffering it silently (Chandni [1989]), a washed-out singer, now too drunk to look his daughter in the eye (Daddy [1989]), and much more, with equal gusto. What’s more, he could play some of the some of the stupidest characters in typical masala Hindi films and balance it with art-house outings, such as Rao Saheb (1985) or Pestonjee (1988), without much fuss.

The thing that puts Kher in a different league was the manner in which he came to personify the image of the ‘actor-star.’ Although he was never directly a part of the Parallel Cinema movement that ushered in the age of the said ‘actor-star’ (read Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil and Om Puri, among others), Kher was the only one who could continue to be cast in popular films as the villain or the strong supporting variety, at the same time do the odd art-house film and continued to be acknowledged as a towering personality when it came to talent. He holds the record for eight consecutive Filmfare awards across different categories. In many ways, Kher, for the want of a better expression, ‘sold out’ (how else do you explain almost 500 films just over three decades!), but never lost respectability. There is hardly any filmmaker in Hindi cinema of the 1980s, 1990s and even the 2000s who might not have worked with Kher. Today, his filmography even includes Ang Lee (Lust, Caution [2007]) and a David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook [2012]).

 

 

Is this truly what makes Kher different from some of his contemporaries, who might have managed the same or much even more? The one thing that makes Kher nearly peerless is the tenacity that he displays as an actor. It is not easy for any actor to be relegated to the sidelines by the same filmmaker after they have created cinematic magic, but Kher is a master at bouncing back from the worst. Two films that could best illustrate just how Kher managed to only stay afloat but also move on to greater roles are Beta (1992) and Mohabbatein (1995). Watching Kher in Dil (1990) and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) gives you a sense of the implicit faith that the two greenhorn directors, Indra Kumar and Aditya Chopra respectively, would have had in Kher, who is essentially the fulcrum in both the films. The next time he worked with them (Beta with Indra Kumar and Mohabbatein with Aditya Chopra), they gave him utterly pointless roles and even though Kher could have easily refused the parts, he nonetheless played along.

For someone who practically began his career at a point from where it ideally would have been mostly a downhill journey, Anupam Kher’s filmography is peppered with performances that outdo Saaransh. Unlike an Amjad Khan after Sholay (1975), or in more recent times, a Boman Irani post-Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003), who similarly began their careers at the pinnacle, Kher might have got more shots at playing interesting characters, but, truth be told, he has also taken more risks and delivered beyond the expectations. The tragedy of the group of actors — Kher, Naseeruddin Shah, Kay Kay Menon, Boman Irani, Deepti Naval, Shabana Azmi or the late Om Puri was that by the time Hindi films scripts began to look beyond the typical hero or heroine, the regular heroes and heroines began playing the roles that these guys were good at. It is not like there are not great opportunities out there for this lot, and rest assured, when they come along, such as playing a former Prime Minister who is still very active, actors such as Kher would be more than ready.

 

– Gautam Chintamani is a film historian and the author of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna (2014) and The Film That Revived Hindi Cinema (2016).  Tweet him – @gchintamani

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