A couple of days back I was watching Ang Lee’s spy thriller, Lust, Caution. Practically two hours into a film set during the Second Sino-Japanese War with Chinese actors and in Chinese, who should pop up? Anupam Kher. Playing Hali Salahuddin, an Indian jewellery shop owner – the jewellery shop was called Chandni Chowk – who speaks perfect Hindi and plays an important, though tiny, cameo. Lust, Caution is no small film to be in. It is one of Ang Lee’s finest films. (Ironically, the film is about a group of students coming together to overthrow the puppet government!)
But this is the wonder of Kher, who has just been named chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India. Unlike other Indian actors who keep dipping their feet into international cinema waters, Kher has actually made a mark in national and international cinema and not blown his trumpet about it. He is the man who went where Priyanka Chopra would follow.
Kher was named as FTII chairman today, an appointment that has been in the offing for long. That is ever since Gajendra Chauhan, whose claim to fame is that he played a character from Mahabharat on television, was made chairman and the FTII students revolted and refused to attend classes. Understandable, going by the fact that Chauhan wouldn’t develop even a passing acquaintance with cinema even if Ang Lee fell from the sky on him. You can’t blame students of what is considered one of India’s most prestigious film schools to not want to listen to a man as far removed from cinema or television as Chauhan was. I still haven’t figured out what Chauhan’s credentials were other than that he played Yudhishtir in 1988 and acted in films including Jungle Love, Jungle Ka Beta and Sone Ka Sita.
When it comes to Kher though, I frankly cannot think of a more qualified actor for the job. Kher is an alumnus of National School of Drama, no mean feat in itself. He’s acted in a spectrum of cinema from serious (Saaransh) to frivolous comedies (Khel/ Chaalbaaz) to romantic dramas (Lamhe). In each of his films, including some of the more inane ones, Kher’s acting talent has always leapt out. He is also one of the few Indian actors to have actually made a mark internationally, cast not as a stereotype but as pivotal characters in Bend It Like Beckham, Silver Linings Playbook and Lust, Caution amongst others. To Kher’s credit, unlike his contemporaries and juniors, Kher rarely mentions his international filmography – which frankly is quite luminous. He has hosted numerous TV shows, none of which are as puerile as Bigg Boss – unlike Amitabh Bachchan.
As is obvious, I come to praise Kher and not bury him. If I were a film student or a student of acting, I couldn’t think of someone more qualified than Kher to head my institute.
Kher’s political leanings, though, are far from non-partisan. He is as close to being a Sanghi as someone of his intellect and demeanour could be. So, this is not an appointment based purely on Kher’s qualifications. By that yardstick, Naseeruddin Shah could have made the cut as well. Kher is a vocal supporter of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the colour saffron. When various artistes, including writers, returned their national awards in 2015 claiming that there was “rising intolerance” in the country, Kher led a march to Rashtrapati Bhavan and said the “award-wapsi” campaign was to defame the country by projecting a “wrong” picture of the situation. He was accompanied by other BJP acolytes such as Madhur Bhandarkar, Ashoke Pandit, Abhijeet Bhattacharya and writer Madhu Kishwar. They handed over a memorandum signed by over 40 artistes including actress Raveena Tandon to President Pranab Mukherjee.
One can view this in two ways. Either this was Kher standing up for his beliefs, even if it meant going against his fraternity. Or this was Kher’s McCarthy moment. Kher has made multiple statements denouncing the “award-wapsi” brigade. And today, as a final saffron nail in the lotus-shaped coffin, he hosts a show on the decidedly nationalistic “news” channel, Republic.
This is a man who wears his politics on his sleeve.
Yet, to give the devil his due, it’s not like other actors or filmmakers don’t do so. It’s just that, whether or not he’s a Right-winger, Kher at least befits the position he is taking. Following more than ably in the footsteps of earlier chairmen of FTII such as Shyam Benegal, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Saeed Mirza, Mahesh Bhatt, Mrinal Sen, Girish Karnad.
Will Kher push an agenda at FTII? I hope his love for the art outweighs his love for the BJP, and till date you can’t compromise his commitment to film or television. Also, name me an artiste who doesn’t hold a political view. Where I have to give credit, is to Smriti Irani, the new Information and Broadcasting Minister who has made a master move. Because if you must have a chamcha or a lackey in a high place, make sure his credentials are so stellar no one can question his appointment.
Vivek Agnihotri may have made it to the Central Board of Film Certification after pretty much dipping himself in saffron paint and rolling around the country. Madhur Bhandarkar may have been awarded the Padma Shri and been nominated as society member of the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute (SRFTI). But neither of them can pass muster the way Kher can.
Kher is the government appointee-cum-Caesar’s wife that the BJP needs. So, congratulations to Kher and to Irani for rendering the critics a little speechless.