Anupam Kher on playing a doctor in New Amsterdam, navigating Hollywood, and merits of TV over Netflix
Anupam Kher is currently in the US, shooting for NBC medical drama New Amsterdam, in which he plays Dr Vijay Kapoor. This is not the first time the veteran actor is playing a doctor, as he notably appeared as one in David O Russell's romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook and Brett Rattner's 2000 film The Family Man. But he believes the coincidence has got nothing to do with how Hollywood perceives Indian actors.
"I rarely wore the white coat in Silver Linings Playbook. Yes, Dr Cliff Patel was a psychiatrist but he wasn't always tending to a patient. He was completely a mad character and was himself dysfunctional. He even goes to watch an Eagles match with Bradley Cooper. And as far as The Family Man is concerned, it was about a Sikh doctor explaining the idea of sacrifice," says Kher.
When observed superficially, doctors and actors have the virtue empathy in common. While an actor needs to feel for an everyman, for them to enact a diverse range of people, a doctor must be compassionate towards their patients. But to play a doctor with nuance comes with decades of experience, according to Kher. "I've played a father in millions of Hindi films. If you see Dil, Beta, Dil Hai Ke Manta Nahin, Daddy, Saaransh and Khosla Ka Ghosla, all the fathers are very different. Similarly, I always approached all these roles as a character, not as a doctor. There was no cliche attached to them."
New Amsterdam explores compassion inherent to a medical drama in a whole new light. It maintains that compassion must be shown not only to patients but also to doctors themselves. "Doctors have a life of their own. Max (Ryan Eggold) faces an issue right in the first episode. His relationship with his wife isn't pleasant. By the end of the episode, we discover he has cancer. My character has a problem too. Somewhere along the narrative, you discover he has a son with whom he doesn't share a great equation. Later, my character deals with a personal tragedy as well," says Kher, claiming that the show focuses on the toll that running a hospital efficiently takes on the personal lives of its doctors.
Kher points out that owing to the unpredictable graph of the show, the amount of investment the audience has in the characters is also high. "I've worked in Netflix shows like Sense8 and The Indian Detective. It also gives work to amazing technicians and writers. You discover so many things about an actor. Also, you're seen at one go all over the world. But television, at least in the US, has its own charm. It's a ritual of people to wait for a week and watch the next episode to discover what happens next. I meet Americans on the streets, who ask me what happens to Max, what happens to Dr Kapoor next. So you linger in the audience memory for a long time," explains Kher.
He believes that Priyanka Chopra's rise in the West could be attributed to the fact that she was the lead character of an American TV show.
"Apart from her being the lead actor in Quantico, she also brought her glamour, intelligence and charm. She also became a household name with her style, fashion and statements. She adapted herself to the Western understanding so she has played a crucial role in making the US sit up and take notice of Indian actors," he says. However, he does point out that much before Chopra began her streak of global domination, there was another actor who broke the glass ceiling. "Not so much in American cinema, but Om Puri established himself as a familiar face in the UK. Of course, Priyanka being a lead actress, only helped. The West is recognising that India's talent is not limited to the Silicon Valley. Kumail Nanjiani is also a good example."
Kher's journey in the West has not been short of as many milestones either. He has not only worked with directors with Indian roots, like Gurinder Chadha (Bend It Like Beckham) and Deepa Mehta (Midnight's Children) but also acclaimed Hollywood directors like Ang Lee and David O Russell. A review of New Amsterdam in Variety refers to Kher as the "ever reliable". He is flattered by the compliment but also claims it has taken him dozens of films or shows to earn the reputation. "When I did Bend It Like Beckham, I did realise that a certain kind of cinema needs subtlety, and need not be played with exaggeration like I did in Hindi cinema. Also, many of my films have been not only critically acclaimed but also commercially successful, like Bend It Like Beckham, Silver Linings Playbook and The Big Sick. To align yourself with Oscar and BAFTA-nominated films gives you both confidence and visibility," says Kher.
He attributes his ability to mould his style as per the sensibilities of a global audience to his training in both the National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, where he currently serves as the Chairman. He hopes to go back to India with fresh work experience in Hollywood and guide those who aspire a similar trajectory. "I want to share my experience with not only FTII students but also my Actor Prepares students, or students across institutions, or just people who want to work here. The idea is to be fiercely individual but at the same time ensure that your preparation is top-notch. There is no scope for being half prepared," says Kher.
He admits the demands of Hollywood have not been easy on a seasoned actor like him either. "To deliver in no time has been challenging for me since I think in Hindi. But I work doubly hard to ensure I keep up. Today, you can do just one show on a streaming platform and be known across the world. Look at Claire Foy. She is starring in the top Hollywood films only because of The Crown. The typicality of being an Indian actor has to be merged with international standards. I think that's the trick."
Having played over 500 characters over 40 years, any actor would lose their individuality. But Kher persists, with the clinical patience of a doctor.
New Amsterdam airs in India on Colors Infinity.
All images from Twitter.
Updated Date: Oct 26, 2018 12:06 PM