You don’t just get respect and honor like that. On June 18, he was chosen to illuminate the United Nations headquarters in New York, ahead of the International Day of Yoga, and the very same afternoon, Hollywood legend Robert De Niro invited him for lunch at his house. And it’s not often that De Niro opens the doors of his home to an Indian actor. But then, Anupam Kher is a rare talent.
The Padma Bhushan awardee is inarguably one of Bollywood’s finest actors, and one of the very few Indian actors to have left an indelible mark on American filmgoers. His latest cinematic outing comes in the form of “The Big Sick,” a romantic comedy, starring Pakistani American actor Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Ray Romano, English-Pakistani actor Adeel Akhtar and Aidy Bryan of “SNL” fame. This also happens to be his 500th film.
“I am excited about the film, life, about everything I do,” Kher told India-West. “The kind of buzz this film has created is fabulous. I am happy that I am an integral part of the film. It’s an important film from so many different points of views: it’s about cross-culture, about inspirational life, about believing in love, about parents.”
The film, which was s smash hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, follows the life of Pakistan-born aspiring comedian Kumail (Nanjiani), who connects with grad student Emily (Kazan) after one of his standup sets. However, what they thought would be just a one-night stand blossoms into the real thing, which complicates the life that is expected of Kumail by his traditional Muslim parents.
Kher plays Nanjiani’s father in the film, the screenwriting credits of which are shared between Nanjiani and his wife, Emily V. Gordon. The role of Kher’s wife and Nanjiani’s mother is played by Indian American actress Zenobia Shroff.
“The Big Sick” is modeled on Nanjiani’s personal experiences with Gordon, played by Zoe Kazan.
The film, with a cross-cultural theme, has opened to laudatory reviews. It is set to release June 23 in the U.S. and June 30 in India.
Kher shared that he took on the role because Nanjiani’s own father insisted Kher play him on screen. Explaining the interesting turn of events which led to his casting, Kher told India-West that Priyanka Mattoo, a mutual friend, a distant cousin, and Nanjiani’s ex-agent. informed him about the film and also conveyed Nanjiani’s father’s wish.
“She said, ‘shall I ask them to get in touch, send you the script, etc. I thought to myself that it is more an emotional appeal rather than a professional call, and it’s a wish that a son wants to fulfil of his father,” Kher recalled to India-West. “I told her to give me Kumail’s number. She told me, ‘let them approach you…When I called up Kumail in Chicago, and I said, I was Anupam Kher, he thought someone was playing a prank on him, and he said, ‘let me call you back.’”
Nanjiani, said Kher, was “surprised” to get a call from him. But when Kher told him he was doing the film, it surprised him even more.
“He said, ‘you don’t know anything about the film, you haven’t asked for the script. I told him, ‘I am doing the film, if I don’t like it I’ll want you to make some changes in my character, if you’re ready to do that we’ll continue. Otherwise, if you want me to read and then decide and if I don’t like it, it will become a different ball game.’”
“His father wanted me to play his role and I didn’t want to be a hindrance in that,” stated Kher.
Though that went smoothly, another problem reared its head and all that progress could have fallen apart at the last minute, owing to a technical glitch.
“My work permit did not come almost till they had to replace me,” Kher told India-West. “They had finished everything that was required to shoot except the father’s portions. They said, ‘Mr. Kher, if by tomorrow we don’t get it, we will have to get somebody else. They were very kind and I was very patient.”
But “God is kind,” said Kher, adding that he had even begun packing his bags to go back to India. “It was very frustrating, you waiting to work, you have come all the way from India to New York to shoot, didn’t want to tell too many people that this was happening,” he said.
The 62-year-old actor is always ready to take the challenges of the versatility of characters.
“My life’s career started with a highlight in ‘Saraansh,’” he said. “I never thought it would physically be possible to do 500 films. In one year, I have already done 8 films, so I am on my 509th film. God and the Hindi film industry has been kind to me. Whosoever I am today is because of cinema in India. I will always be called an Indian actor in a foreign film.”
While that may be true, also true is the fact that Kher has built an expansive career spanning across acting, directing, TV show hosting, to name a few. Along with appearing in many acclaimed international films, Kher’s glittering resume also features performing in some 100 plays. Whatever the medium, Kher brings a certain emotional depth to every character that he portrays. And even though he was playing a real-life person in “The Big Sick,” Kher said that the makers encouraged improvisations and were “very generous” in accepting his suggestions.
“To me, it was a modern man whose son wants to marry an American girl, but that does not take away the fact that he’s today’s man, so why should we make it into a cliché or stereotype it,” Kher told India-West. “So, I wanted to make it as believable and as natural. As it is, South Asian people are projected in a certain manner, so I requested that we will not do that. I will not change my accent and talk in a certain manner.”
Expressing his delight at the lunch meet with De Niro, his co-star of the 2012 Oscar-nominated comedy, “Silver Linings Playbook,” Kher emphasized that it’s a “personal relationship he has allowed me to have with him after ‘Silver Linings Playbook’ and that is his kindness and his generosity and the way I feel towards him; we have mutual respect for each other.”
Expanding upon his relationship with De Niro, Kher added, “I think he realizes that there is some kind of genuineness” and he always takes time out to meet him.
“For this time, the fact that he invited me for lunch at his house for Father’s Day, I was beautifully moved by it,” he said.
Confessing that he is a “great fan of the god of acting,” Kher shared that De Niro also visited ‘Actor Prepares,’ Kher’s esteemed acting school in Mumbai.
Kher said that he was “very happy and proud” to have illuminated the yoga sign at the UN headquarters.
“Yoga should have happened long time back. It’s so amazing to see people on Great Wall of China doing yoga, people in Amsterdam, France doing yoga…Anything Indian which becomes global gives me a proud feeling,” he told India-West.
Kher is also “looking forward” to the release of two more highly-anticipated Bollywood films, “Indu Sarkar,” set in the ‘70s when the emergency was imposed in India by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi; and the Akshay Kumar starrer “Toilet Ek Prem Katha,” which tackles the need to provide households across the nation with a functioning toilet to reduce open defecation in public.