When The Big Sick opened to American audiences in late June, it unleashed a tidal wave on its viewers–people of all colors gathered in cinemas across the country to watch a hapless Pakistani immigrant fall in love. For many it was a brand new concept: a brown man placed centerstage telling the story of his own life. It spawned essays and articles about what it means to be a South Asian in the diaspora. And it gave non-South Asians an insight into life for the rest of us. But for its box office-breaking revolution, it still bore the trusty anchor of so many favorite diaspora films–Anupam Kher. Here he was playing comedian Kumail Nanjiani’s affable dad, a role he is no stranger to.
For brown kids growing up in the West, Kher was our father. Not every Bollywood hit made it across the ocean or appealed to our hybrid upbringings, but the ones that did, like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, and Rang De Basanti, usually featured Kher in some capacity. He was the bumbling dad with the shiny forehead and big glasses. He was harmless, goofy, and loving. His characters rained affection and advice on their children (often daughters). He has always found power in playing out the deep parental relationships between his characters and the wayward children who drove the plot.
“People did not imagine that the soul of a 65-year-old was performed at the end of it by a 28-year-old boy.”
“For these kind of roles you need actors,” he tells me over the phone as he tours New Delhi promoting a new film he’s producing, Ranchi Diaries. “And my background is in theatre. So I never really differentiated between any character I was doing.” He talks briefly about one of his first films, Saaransh, in which he played an elderly father in mourning despite in reality being only in his 20s, “And this was a lead role. They needed someone powerful, even if I’m saying it myself, to represent the father’s side. People did not imagine that the soul of a 65-year-old was performed at the end of it by a 28-year-old boy.”
Kher would eventually build a career on this chameleon-like skill to play much older men before he even had wrinkles. He used to tell interviewers the reason he was cast so often in paternal roles from such an early age was because he had begun balding before he turned 30. Sometimes he showed up in films to play father to actors only a decade or so younger than him.
There is truly no role too small for Kher, who has played a range of fathers–from thoughtful to maladroit, with sobering monologues and drunk rambles–and whose expansive career saw him act in over 500 movies in the space of 35 years (The Big Sick reportedly being his 500th release). But it would be a mistake to say Kher plays just fathers.
“Every character of the father in a different film is a different persona,” he told me. “You wouldn’t ask this question to people, whether it’s Harrison Ford or Robert De Niro or Al Pacino. You wouldn’t say that they’re ‘dads’ in these films; they’re actors in these films. You wouldn’t say that Jack Nicholson is playing a professor in this film or father in this film or an uncle, you’d say ‘Oh! He’s the leading man of the film.’”
Kher’s origins are well-known within India: born into a Kashmiri Pandit family, Kher witnessed untold atrocities perpetrated against his people as Pakistan and India wrestled over control of Kashmir. Kher eventually traveled to Bombay in 1981 with only Rs. 37 (about $3 at the time) in his pocket to pursue dreams of becoming an actor. There, he slept on a railway platform for a month. The following year he made his acting debut in the film Aagman. This experience has fostered in him an instinct towards humility always. Whenever he lauds his own massive film career or his iconic roles, he is quick to pull back and brush the titles off. He is relentlessly optimistic, almost verging on the characteristic take-no-prisoners attitude of a viral inspirational speaker.
“I have never said in the last 25 years two things: one is that ‘I am bored’ and the other is that ‘I am not in the mood,’” he told me during our conversation. With all the success he has had, he says, there’s no room to be anything less than content.
Bend It Like Beckham, the momentous sports drama-cum-culture clash film that remains an objective audience favorite even today, was Kher’s first English-language film. While Kher remained a mostly quiet figure in Bend It, glowering from underneath his turban while the women talked in the foreground, he acted as the moral compass of the movie. He spoke succinctly about the pain of racism and underrepresentation: “Young man, when I was a teenager in Nairobi, I was the best fast bowler in our school. Our team even won the East African Cup. But when I came to this country, nothing. I was not allowed to play in any of the teams, and the bloody goras in their clubhouses made fun of my turban and sent me off packing!” Kher explains, growing louder with every sentence. “Now what? Our boys aren’t in the football leagues. You think they will let our girls? I don’t want you to build up Jesminder’s hopes. She will only end up disappointed, like me.” It was in this scene Kher cracked open the film and exposed it for what it was.
As he took on roles in more American films, he would often have to confront the West’s racism and xenophobia through his characters. He did so as a football-loving psychologist opposite Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook and as Nanjiani’s father in The Big Sick. Kher’s ability to reach his hand into the core of the diaspora’s experience and pull out a still beating heart solidified him as an emotional touchstone for the global community of far-flung South Asians.
Kher has cultivated an identity as something of a bit actor, showing up for a few powerful scenes before letting the main characters take over the film again. In this way, he’s been able to be in multiple places at once, and always very much a part of the industry’s subconscious. Just weeks after the national release of The Big Sick, Kher appeared in the much less hyped A Family Man. While the film didn’t make waves in the box office, it marked a remarkable point in Kher’s Hollywood-Bollywood crossing career: it opened the same day another of his films premiered halfway around the world in India. While Americans could watch Kher playing a Sikh doctor, consoling Gerard Butler in this safe, saccharine drama, Indians watched him in the far more controversial Indu Sarkar, about the 1975-1977 Emergency. This film underwent major scrutiny by the India Censor Board and caused a national outrage as Indian National Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters came to blows over its depiction of historical events. Such is Kher’s range–an understanding, soft spoken paternal character in the morning and the eye of a national storm by evening.
He posted about the twin releases on Twitter, “Privileged to be perhaps the only Indian actor to have two releases on the same day on two sides of the world.” No other Indian actor has enjoyed as much crossover success as he has. Most Indian actors that rise in the West rarely make it into more than one movie every few years and most Bollywood actors content themselves with a prolific career firmly confined to India. In 2011 alone he appeared in 15 films. These movies criss-crossed back and forth across the Pacific Ocean. Kher’s film career is both massive and global. He is everywhere simultaneously. Even in India’s politics.
“You can criticize the world or you can do something about the world. By criticizing India you are basically criticizing yourself.”
Kher’s political presence in India dips and dives in the country’s headlines, though he has never chosen a specific allegiance. His wife, Kirron Kher, by contrast, is sitting parliamentary member for the BJP. In 2015, violence against India’s Muslims was on the rise. Various luminaries of Indian society spoke out against the public lynchings that were occurring, and Kher responded to their statements. When internationally-famed writer Arundhati Roy publicly discussed the outbreak of Islamophobic violence in India in 2015 while abroad, Kher accused Roy of “mudslinging” and bad-mouthing India. “Arundhati Roy has always insulted India whenever she has gone abroad,” Kher reportedly told the outlet ANI. “Whenever I listen to her speeches, I wonder if she even is an Indian in the first place.”
Hindi film actor Aamir Khan also went on the record that same year to talk about his growing despondency and alarm over the violence. Kher tweeted at him that India made him the star he is today, implying that he should be grateful and not criticize the country publicly. Kher went on to launch a “counter-protest” march against them and the others who spoke out about India’s “growing intolerance.” In his speech to the crowd, Kher denounced the trend of publicly insulting India. “Any brutal killing is condemnable. But if it is used by some people to attempt to defame India at the international platform, then we should be worried,” Kher read out from his letter. But his actions weren’t motivated by anything except love for his country, he told ANI, “My intentions are not political. I am just proud and thankful of the fact that this nation has given me so much. Sometimes you have to give back.”
In our conversation he reiterated his original point that Indian artists should not go abroad to criticize their country.
“I feel that any Indian, or any ethnic person, when they go to some other country and they criticize their own country we have to look at it differently,” he said. “That’s how I’ve been brought up. If there’s a feud in my own house, I will say ‘I will solve it.’ My father will say, my brother will say, I will say ‘I will solve it.’ Which country does not have problems? You can criticize the world or you can do something about the world. By criticizing India you are basically criticizing yourself.”
Kher’s allegiance is foremost to India. He makes that point clear, saying he will always “be called an Indian actor in a foreign film,” rather than an international film star. With over 500 films under his belt, a world-wide audience, global filmography, as well as a successful drama school and talk show in India, Kher should be walking this world like a giant. But his name is still barely registered among non-South Asian filmgoers. Perhaps as a result of this, or maybe because he truly believes in his craft, Kher approaches his work with overwhelming deference bordering on diffidence. He recounted the story of meeting Robert De Niro for the first time. He was teary-eyed, he told me, when he shook De Niro’s hand despite having a massive film career himself.
“It was my biggest dream to shake hands with Mr. Robert De Niro. I saw Mr. De Niro getting into his car and after doing almost 435 films I still chased after his car never knowing next year I’d be working with him,” he told me. De Niro, for his part, was a little awkward and asked if Kher was ok. “I was so moved that a small town boy [like me]finally got to meet Mr. Robert De Niro. I could have easily kept it in my heart and said ‘so what, I am also a so-called known actor from India.’”
“I would like to be part of that room which celebrates amazing talent from all over the world.”
Kher says he will take a role if it puts him on set with people he wants to work with, no matter the character or the script. Nanjiani’s father reportedly wanted Kher to play him in The Big Sick. When Nanjiani called Kher to ask if he could send the script over, Kher said he’d play the part regardless because that’s what Nanjiani’s father wanted. Kher wanted to work with the director Ang Lee, so he took a part in his multi-ethnic Chinese film Lust, Caution. Kher’s list of actors and directors he’d like to work with is incredibly long. In India he’s more or less worked with all the mainstays–Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Rekha, Naseeruddin Shah, etc.–so it’s mostly Western landmarks left.
“I would like to work with Meryl Streep. I would like to work with Jack Nicholson. I would love to work with every every single person. I would like to be part of that room which celebrates amazing talent from all over the world,” he said.
Given that he has had a film come out nearly every month this year as well as four announced for next, it won’t be long before he’s shaken the hand of every legend in Hollywood. And diaspora kids will get more chances to see their onscreen dad, still exposing their truth and ever present.
The Big Sick is now available on Amazon Prime.