Small town boy with big dreams, Anupam Kher says the city made me who I am
Anupam Kher, 63
An actor, producer, director and teacher, I am presently in New York to shoot for the NBC medical drama, New Amsterdam, which premieres this month. I am also the chairman of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII).
Though Shimla is my hometown, my professional life started in Chandigarh. My dream journey began here.
I did my schooling from DAV Higher Secondary School at Lakkar Bazar. I was a very bad student and never scored more than 38 marks. I was also quite mediocre at sports; the only field in which I shone was dramatics. I was studying in Government College, Shimla, when I was declared the best actor of Himachal Pradesh University. I had taken admission in the Department of Economics at Himachal Pradesh University when I saw an ad by the Department of Indian Theatre, Panjab University, Chandigarh, inviting students for a walk-in audition, and promising a scholarship of Rs 200 to the selected students.
I didn’t have the guts to approach my parents for the fare, so I stole a sum of Rs 118 my mother had kept in her temple and landed at PU. I remember they had two pieces -- one for girls and the other for boys. Instinctively, I enacted the piece meant for girls. Balwant Gargi, who was in the interview panel, noticed it, and remarked, “Very bad but very daring.”
I returned home in the evening to find that my parents had called the police. My mother asked me whether I had taken the money but I flatly denied it. A week later, my father called me and asked, “Where had you gone that day?” I told him the entire truth after which my mother gave me a tight slap. My father told her, “Don’t worry he is getting a scholarship of Rs 200, he will return your 100.” That’s how I learnt about my admission.
My Chandigarh Connect
It was on 27 July, 1974 that I arrived in the city. I still remember feeling quite deflated when I encountered Harry Baweja speaking fluent English in front of the department. To make up for my lack of English, I blustered, “Main Shimla se hoon.” To date, he teases me about it. My first lesson was from Balwant Gargi, who taught us how to pour tea. I was stumped but soon I realised it was all about the importance of being patient as an actor. Later, he interviewed us in the department library, and that was the beginning of my lifelong love affair with books. I also had the privilege of learning from the likes of Amal Allana.
What I Owe to Chandigarh
Chandigarh made me who I am. It prepared me for the battle in Mumbai, it gave me the tools to deal with life. I was a small town boy, it plucked me out of my comfort zone and made me the man I am. It introduced me to sophistication. I learnt to converse in English, eat Chinese food. The city gave me amazing joy. It was here that I met Kirron (MP Kirron Kher). She was a star at that time, she still is.
Things I do When I Visit the City
I visit the department where my roots as an actor lie. I eat paronthas and omelette in front of the PGI, take a walk down Sector 17. I still remember I used to have an account at rehri number 3 outside the PU. Then when I ran out of money, I stopped going there. That man came to the department to get his money.
How Has the City Changed?
It has grown very, very big. Earlier it used to almost end at Sector 35, now it stretches up to Zirakpur. But the quality of life is still the same. It’s a city with the warm heart of a small town and infrastructure of a big city. Kirron had begun to long for the city much before she got the MP ticket. She used to tell me, ‘My city is calling me, let’s go back and settle there.’ The people who have settled here, be they rich farmers or armymen, have given it a unique culture.
The Change I Want to See
Nothing. I want the same city, the same charm, and the same MP.
My Secret Sauce
I am not scared of failure. I think a person never fails, it’s an event that fails. I am also an eternal optimist. Together, these two qualities inspire me to do more. I still have the sense of wonder of a small town boy. Today as I talk to you from my apartment on the 30th floor with the Hudson river flowing by, I am filled with an overwhelming feeling of humility and gratitude.
The Turning Point
My clandestine visit to Chandigarh with stolen money was definitely the first turning point of my life. Had I accepted life as it is, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. Osho says, “If you try, you risk failure, but if you don’t, you ensure it.” I believe in this. My role in Saaraansh was also a turning point. Best Advice
The Best Advice I Got
My grandfather told me that you will never fail if you work hard and be honest.
It’s the same. Work hard, work honestly. Don’t take shortcuts, they only lead to a short-lived success. Those school time stories, including the one about a rabbit and tortoise in which the tortoise wins the race, are true. It’s unfortunate that it take a lifetime to discover their truth.
(As told to Manraj Grewal Sharma)