In one of his most acclaimed films Saaransh, Anupam Kher had portrayed an aged man devastated by the loss of his son yet with enough courage and conviction remaining to take on the systemic rot and injustice.
60-year-old Kher, one of India’s most prolific and respected actors, has taken upon himself to stand up against what he sees as discrimination and injustice in real life as well.
Last year, when writers, film-makers and intellectuals gave up their government awards to protest what they said was rising intolerance, Kher and his supporters took out a march to Rashtrapati Bhavan from India Gate in a counter-protest to what was mockingly dubbed as ‘award wapsi’.
“It is very important for all of us to feel patriotic,” Kher had said then.
Two days ago, the ‘patriotic’ Kher -- whose wife Kirron is a sitting Lok Sabha MP from Chandigarh – kicked up another row by slamming fellow-actor Nandita Das as an “agent of Pakistan” in a TV show for raising questions over his claims that he was denied a Pakistan visa to attend a literary fest in the neighbouring country.
After the controversy broke about Islamabad’s alleged denial of visa, Pakistan high commissioner in New Delhi Abdul Basit called Kher the next day and offered a visa. But it was, apparently, too late. The actor tweeted that he had “given away those dates now”.
His critics quickly raised the question: was Kher really keen to go to Pakistan?
Many film personalities, time and again had taken a position for larger social and political causes. Earlier, film stars like Raj Kapoor and Sunil Dutt would go to forward border areas to reach out to the soldiers at the behest of the government.
During the Emergency, legendary singer Kishore Kumar had refused to participate in a Congress function and was promptly ostracised by the government of the day.
More recently, film stars like Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan had been at the receiving end of the wrath of supporters of the ruling establishment for speaking their mind.
Against the backdrop, Kher’s protests and show of patriotism are not without precedent though he has often ended up without generating a larger social debate.
In 2010, he had slammed the process to select Padma awardees as a mockery of the system. But he gladly accepted the same award when he was selected for the honour recently.
In October, Kher was booed by an audience at a Mumbai literature festival as he started debating on India’s tolerance. He also invoked sharp comments after posting on Twitter that he, a self-proclaimed supporter of the NDA government, was afraid of openly saying he is a Hindu.
When Congress MP Shashi Tharoor quipped: “Come on, Anupam. I am a proud Hindu. Just not the Sangh’s kind of Hindu,” Kher termed him a “Congi chamcha”.
Kher’s wide body of work certainly deserves appreciation and applause from the people and the government for the simple fact that as an actor he is a master of his craft -- a man who can straddle both cinema and theatre with equal aplomb and also give convincing performances in both commercial films and the more serious ones.
But for many fans of Kher the actor, the overtly pro-establishment campaigns by Kher the activist has only weakened his Padma award’s weight. And also given rise to the most obvious question: Did he get it for speaking in favour of the government?
(Views express are personal. The writer tweets @rossogolla2k)