Manmohan Will Be Loved After This Film As It Shows Weakness: Kher
The Accidental Prime Minister shows Dr Manmohan Singh’s weakness and vulnerability, so, people will fall in love with him after watching the film – Anupam Kher said to The Quint in an interview about his film.
I spoke to him about the challenges of playing the “expressionless” former prime minister, if there is a political agenda behind its release in the election year, and the double standards of the Censor Board when it comes to films about real people and real events. Listen in.
Hello Mr Kher and welcome to The Quint, you’ve gone out and called your performance as Dr Manmohan Singh in The Accidental Prime Minister as the best performance of your life. Now that’s quite a loaded statement to make considering that you’ve done over 500 films, you’ve been around for over 3 decades, you’ve done plays, TV shows. What made you make that statement with such conviction?
Because, I think I found it really difficult to do it well thats why my first reaction when the producers came to me and offered me this film, I said, no. I think its a knee jerk reaction, you suddenly feel you don’t want to do it, even though at that time I felt that it will be controversial, why should I get into something like this and I was also making a transition to work abroad. So my first reaction was let me not get into this. I had previously also criticised Dr Manmohan Singh and I thought now they will say, why is he doing this, all those thoughts. Then I was sitting at home and watching news and I saw Dr Manmohan Singh on news and he was going from one place to another place and I said, let me see how he walks. And I tried in my sitting room and I was a disaster. I could not get anything right. Then I tried for another half an hour and it did not happen so it intrigued me as an actor, so I said this is going to be interesting if I get to do it. So I asked them for the script and then I read the script and I saw some YouTube footage and I asked them that I need at least 6 to 7 months, you cannot start the shooting before that. I have never worked so hard for any character. The maximum that I worked was for Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara because I was portraying an Alzheimers patient, so I really had to do research, practice, do hard work but this took about 6 to 7 months to get into the character. Because, Dr Manmohan Singh is not somebody who happened in the black and white era, whose pictures we see, he is current, yesterday he was at a book launch. He’s on television, he’s on everybody’s psyche, you can’t go wrong and there’s a very thin line between caricature and a person being portrayed well. It took me about 2 to3 months to get his voice correct, because Dr Manmohan Singh is not expressive at all. You have never seen any of his stills where he is... laughing, or he is like this, you will see everybody’s picture, whether it is Gandhi, Nehru, Mr Modi, Indira Gandhi. You will see all the politicians, actors worldwide who will have some still or the other, but Dr Manmohan Singh will be - one expression.
You were aware that people will be scrutinising you, because you were playing somebody who is still very much there in the public eye.
Exactly, and also he has the same expression for anger, hurt, for pleasure, for happiness, you name an emotion, that was the most difficult and yet he has to convey everything. Even in the trailer, there are five different emotions, it does get across. I had to go through the drama school training all over again. I don’t believe in method acting much, but I had to internalise the whole thing, I had to create an atmosphere around me, I had told everybody please address me as Mr Prime Minister, my sign outside my make-up room was “Prime Minister of India” not Anupam Kher, it’s a great exercise.
What’s really significant about a film like The Accidental Prime Minister is that - for the first time you are seeing political leaders who are still alive, who are being portrayed in a story, in a political drama and it’s not like a biopic that’s lauding a certain person, there are grey shades to it. We are in a country where even a film like Padmavati can cause a controversy for months to end, what is your take when it comes to making films based on real people and real events, be it political figures or religious figures.
I think art and cinema cannot function the way politically correct things need to happen. It’s not the first time that there’s an agitation that has happened, whether it’s Padmavat or whether it is this film or it’s any other film. People have killed people because what they thought was not the interpretation of art, cinema theatre. But that should not stop anybody and I think that is the biggest achievement of this film that people have been named, it’s not like you are looking at a Dr Manmohan Singh lookalike kind of a person and you are calling him Rammohan Singh and audience is pretending that actually yeh Manmohan Singh hai, par naam picture walon ne Rammohan Singh rakha hai. So I think in 70 years we have moved on in so many departments, in so many areas, it’s important to move on in cinema also.
As an actor and a filmmaker and a former chairperson of the CBFC - shouldn’t the CBFC also have a uniform rule for films which are depicting real people, political parties, because you had an earlier chairperson who said that you cannot show anybody who is real, you will have to bring their signature, you will have to have an NOC from them, there were films which were banned because they were showing a certain political party or BJP or a documentary which showed Mr Modi in a certain light, but then a certain kind of film gets greenlit. So shouldn’t we also have a system where films are viewed objectively without any kind of discrimination whether it is coming from this wing or that wing.
Of course it should be. I think the whole book about censor board has to be revisited. I don’t know what has happened about the Shyam Benegal committee whether that has got implemented or not. I was CBFC chief in 2004, in my tenure the two films that were the most controversial which I thought was very important - Black Friday needed to be passed because it had got stuck. Also in today’s time on digital you can see everything, you can’t be careful about it. But we are also a very vast country, we are of various religions, various classes, various food habits, anybody can sort of say that “It does not agree with me”. It’s not only the political parties which object to it. It can be any religious sect, it can be anybody who can sort of react to it and sort of say that. But I think we are making progress, this film is a prime example of that we have made a progress.
There is talk that there is a political agenda behind this film. At any other of time, this could be seen as a neutral film based on Mr Sanjaya Baru’s book, but since this is the election year and also because BJP’s official Twitter handle tweeted the video of the trailer with some glowing remarks - it’s now being seen as to whether there is a political agenda behind this film. Do you think the tweeting of the trailer helped or harmed the film?
I think it was a political masterstroke from them. What else do you expect from politicians? All politicians and all political parties will thrive on something like this. I’m nobody to comment on this, because people will perceive what they need to perceive in any case. They say that Anupam Kher is Mr Modi’s admirer, his wife is a BJP MP, Akshaye Khanna’s father was Vinod Khanna who was with BJP, there was some money which came from this thing, so we cannot stop all those people. But it’s not the first time that has happened. I remember when Udta Punjab was into problem and Akali Dal and BJP was in Punjab, every political party, every political leader including top leaders of today of Congress and other parties, did say that. So to suddenly say that political parties ko aisa nahin karna chahiye, we are expecting too much. They will do that and I think maybe they did it because that’s how this whole question will come up. But aisa nahin hai ki hum ne, makers ne kaha ki BJP ko phone karke ki aap hamara retweet kardo. Why is everyone surprised that this film is coming before the elections, when else should it come? This is the best time for a film like this to come. Every producer makes a film for a certain point, we make patriotic films to be released on 15 August, 26 January, we make holiday films for Christmas, we make Diwali, Eid films. We need to get out of it, like we have gotten out of this whole syndrome of pretending to sort of see a political film without the real names, we also need to get out of this thing that we need to make films which are made with a political background should be released in election times.
Intially the Congress reacted to the trailer and said that they would demand for a ban on the film, they would want to watch the film before it is released, and now they’ve come to an approach where they say they have no problem and that they will not ban the screening of the film or demand an early screening. How do you react to this change?
Again a political farsightedness. I think they are very smart. I think they discovered that if they are going to create problems for this film they will come across as people who are sort of scared of a film. Similarly, just the way BJP tweeted this film, say this thing I think after an initial reaction that humein picture dikhao, they sort of suddenly said that - no no, we should not see it. So these are the games that politicians play. In the process I think that our film is getting noticed. It’s a smart thing on their part, I think because Mr Rahul Gandhi had said during Sacred Games that, we should not use that and it’s a smart move. It is going to upset them further when the film comes out. Hope they continue to sort of be the champions of freedom of expression.
How do you think Dr Manmohan Singh will react to the film, or if you want to give him a message before the release of the film, what would it be?
I can only give this message to Dr Manmohan Singh that, if he genuinely watches and in his heart of hearts even if he acknowledges to himself that this is the best portrayal of him, it will not be an exaggeration. Dr Manmohan Singh is already known, but he will be loved after this film because cinema has that magic that when you show a vulnerability of a person, when you show the weakness also in a person, your heart goes out to the person like that. In cinema that is the joy of it. When you read it in a book, that in the corridor Dr Manmohan Singh walked with a little tiredness, in a book you don’t see that, but in a long frame when you see Dr Manmohan Singh walking alone in the night in his residence, and there is a chord of piano going on, your heart will go out to him. You will want - inko ghar le aate hain, inka dhyan rakhte hain. I get worried sometimes because I am talking before the film has released, but I would like him to see the film and invite me for a cup of tea. He should do that.
You had a certain perception of Dr Manmohan Singh before you began the film or probably read the book, and then you went through this journey where you enacted him, were him, what was the change that you found in your perception of the former Prime Minister during this period of a few months?
That he became a victim of his surroundings. He was incorruptible individually, he was very vulnerable, he was very real, stubborn also. There is a certain amount of stubbornness in his characterisation. I think growing up also means that you change your perception of people. When I went through this whole rigmarole of living his persona for almost a year, I felt he is lonely but he did his best to make things work. That’s why there is a lot of love that will come across in my performance not necessarily for him but in portraying him. I think that’s the change that has happened. A lot of people said when I initially tweeted about it that I felt there is a change in my perception about him and history will not judge him wrongly because that’s what he said in the last press conference. A lot of people said, ab picture release hone wali hai, now he is changing his thing, that’s what growing up is all about. I still feel that what happened between 2004 and 2014 was frightening. All the scams came out - 2G, 3G, 4G, CWG, all those things were happening, I was a part of India Against Corruption. So it’s not like suddenly we are waking up and we are showing something which did not happen. We lived that era, like we are living a certain era, people are talking about certain things. Similarly, if someone wants to make a film about today’s present situation, they are most welcome to make it. But, that happened, he was called a remote controlled Prime Minister, he was called a silent man, so it’s not come across as a surprise. But I still want to tell through you and through Quint that he will invite me for a cup of tea after this film is released.
Camera: Sanjoy Deb
Editor: Ashish Maccune