His biodata bulges... 320 films, stage and TV shows, film direction-production and more. Now, he has just returned from Shanghai after shooting for Ang Lee -the Oscar-winning creator of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. Anupam Kher on the turning point of his career, in conversation with Khalid Mohamed.
How did you snag a role in Ang Lee’s Conquest, Lust?
Farah Khan, who had choreographed a Chinese film, knows Rosanna An Chee, a casting director who sent her an email. Farah’s husband Shirish Kunder followed this up.
I then sent Rosanna a five-minute show reel of excerpts from Bend it like Beckham, my Channel 4 film The Second Generation and the TV series Spooks, plus stills of my get-ups in Daddy, Shola aur Shabnam, Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara and Khosla ka Ghosla.
It isn’t a blink and you’ll miss it role. Is it?
I was there for 10 days. Since I’m a key component in the pre-climax scenes, I was told by the unit that my role couldn’t be edited or shortened. I’m playing a jewellery shop owner in Shanghai. I was offered a handsome amount of money but once I was finalised, I said, “I would do it for free.”
There was no audition, I was sent my portion of the script with the film’s synopsis. Actually, I would have even accepted a walk-on role. I felt honoured, deeply honoured.
Were any other Asians considered for the part?
Not that I know of. Before leaving for Shanghai, I was told that the lead was being played by Tony Leung (In the Mood for Love, 2046). Tang Vei, the female lead, was selected after auditioning a thousand stage actresses. I’m playing an Indian Muslim. Oh by the way, his name is Khalid.
Oh oh, hope he’s a nice guy.
(Ha ha ha) I’m bound by contract not to reveal any details.
What was your exposure to Shanghai like?
It was my first trip to Shanghai. It’s like a combination of Bombay and New York. It’s even bigger than Bombay, jazzier. But I don’t think Bombay can ever become another Shanghai which has retained the characteristics of the original city.
After landing, I was at the studio. Ang Lee was there, with his cameraman Rodrigo Prieto, outside the jewellery shop. Ang Lee hugged me. He’s small built, incredibly polite. I was extra-enthu. I told him that I’d worked out the look of my character, complete with a beard. He said, he wanted me to be the way I am.. the fake beard was out.
He rehearses a scene with the actors, then he divides the shots. There was a thriller element to my first shot. I had to get up and greet the girl, it went off smoothly. There weren’t any problems ever, he knows all his characters and situations completely.
Does Ang Lee still carry the baggage of Brokeback Mountain?
Only he can answer that. But yes he did say after Brokeback Mountain, he didn’t want to make an American but a Chinese film. So as to return to his roots. By the way, he has a tremendous sense of humour, he would always crack up if some reference was made to the attraction between two men in Brokeback Mountain.
Of Indian cinema, he knows Satyajit Ray and the fact that we use the musical format, towards which he doesn’t have a chi-chi attitude at all.
And he’s a terrific cook. After Chinese food, he loves Indian cuisine most, especially lamb vindaloo. I rang up the Bukhara there to get tandoori chicken and kurma for the unit. The owner didn’t believe I was Anupam Kher till I recited lines of dialogue from Karma for him (cracks up).
Was he disappointed that Brokeback Mountain lost out on the Best Film Oscar to Crash?
Not at all. Earlier he’d won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. He wasn’t expecting to win the Best Director Award for Brokeback Mountain. He’ so chilled out, I think he wanted to become an actor. When he went over to America, he became a director.
Did you talk to him at length about Brokeback Mountain?
He did tell me that Brokeback Mountain is not about homosexuality. It’s about “missing”, you meet someone but never know when and with what intensity you’re going to miss that person. He told me that the kiss between the two guys was no big deal, it was shot, and then they moved on immediately to the next scene.
I’ve read that Ang Lee can be quite superstitious.
I believe so..like he told me about a baseball cap he’d worn through four films, and there hadn’t been a day’s cancelled shoot. Then during Brokeback Mountain, he was praying with the cap on. It rained so heavily that he’s stopped wearing a cap since then.
Really, he’s so simple unlike some of our directors. I told him about Raj Kumar Kohli who tears his assistant’s shirts on the sets. And he was in splits.
Yeah finally, the shoot was over. He gave me two very complimentary letters about my work and a Chinese tea set..and I gave him copies of the Bhagvad Gita and the Ramayan.