He is a great actor and in his 30-odd years since blazing cinema screens across India with a memorable performance as the 60-year-old Maharashtrian Brahmin in Mahesh Bhatt&’s Saransh, Anupam Kher has built a tremendous reputation in the Indian film industry for his versatility in playing different characters with conviction and credibility. In roles ranging from comedy to villainy, from the main protagonist to a cameo, from the old, middle-aged across sexual orientations — from gay, straight and in drag — in ethnicities varying from Kashmiri, Sikh, Bengali, Tamil, Gujarati and Maharashtrian to playing a Hindu, Sikh, Christian or Muslim, he&’s left himself almost no new frontiers to conquer, no challenges to overcome, no more heights to scale.
Besides earning name, fame and awards, accomplished actors among whom he fits in, Kher also has the ability to transcend a persona that involves getting under the skin assigned. But more than technique and hard work, it&’s that rare gift that makes it possible. And that rare gift is empathy.
Even when playing the villain or the perpetrator of a crime, an actor does not only have to get into the soul of the role, feel things, flesh out that character believable, and here&’s why. Kher is exceptional; he makes Dr Dang in Karma, BV Pradhan in Saransh, the alcoholic father in Daddy, the police chief in On a Wednesday, the arms dealer in Rang de Basanti and Shahrukh Khan&’s father in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge seem real just by empathising completely with the imagination of the writers and directors of these characters. He performs so well that the distinction between the actor and the character becomes invisible.
In fact, there are hardly any bad Kher performances I can recall, including a recent blockbuster in which he recasts himself as a suffering Kashmiri Pandit in the leading role. But this is not a Bollywood, Hollywood or crossover Indie film, just a six-minute short video that was aired at prime time on a leading English language Indian news channel on the occasion of recording a Kashmiri Pandit annual commemoration of what has come to be called Holocaust Day.
In this, he makes an emotionally charged soliloquy — “I am a Kashmiri Pandit”. He begins, gazing directly at you, and in his eyes you see the hurt pride of a Pandit who has been grievously wronged. “I believe in the idea of Bhartiyata with pure faith in my heart. I am a peaceful, non-violent, secular, law-abiding and nationalistic citizen of India, and on this day (19 January) in 1990 I was shunted out from my homeland. This is my story.”
In the story he narrates, Kher talks about the events as happened to the Pandits of Kashmir — the killings, abductions, rapes, the slogans from the mosques, the murderous intent of the Kalashnikov-wielding militants and various other deprivations his community had to go through. Sticking to bare facts, he not only articulates the “truth”, the pain and the agony of being a long-exiled Kashmiri Pandit, but also dramatically embellishes, with the support of appropriate music in the background, the oft-repeated painful story of the Pandits’ banishment from “paradise”. With a teary-eyed, grimly-lit face, fervently charged articulation and a resounding, reproachful punch intended to ring a stinging slap to all our holocaust deniers in India and the UN, he delivers a real stunner of a performance.
Towards the end of his moving performance, Kher, as a sad, distraught, victimised and angry Kashmiri, concludes his well-scripted soliloquy with an appeal, “After recounting all this, I am still hopeful today that justice will be done to us.”
I must confess that though this story, in many forms, has been doing the rounds of all the human rights organisations over all of the last 26 years, I have never heard my suffering so better expressed than this. Till today, I do not know of many leaders, barring a few international icons of peace, that could have concluded the narration of their meek torment with an appeal to justice rather than an appeal to a resistance of arms. Here it is, for all to see, but why are peaceful, non-violent, secular, law abiding and nationalistic citizens of India still laughing and ridiculing Kher? Why are we still ignoring the story?
I do not have any clear answers, but I am sad to say that though I may, in private, have wanted to commend him for his articulation of Pandit pain, I will not do so. Because I cannot suspend my disbelief from a misgiving that Kher is, indeed, not only just playing a character here but somehow a more a sinister game.
In the 50-minute TV discussion that followed the airing of this short clip, it became evidently clear that the story he so ably tells is, in his hands, just ammunition, a live grenade he will not ever hesitate to detonate so as to browbeat, shout down, humiliate and shame anyone who as much as dares to fit in certain other nuances or contradictions in the seemingly inviolate construct of the tragedy.
It is important to tell our stories, to keep on telling them. It becomes even more important to do so as long as the other, the addressee of these stories in the valley of Kashmir, fails to respond in a way that provides a closure or a semblance of a respectful hearing. But more than the telling of your own story, it is also important to hear and to address the suffering of the other, if the desire is to solve, reduce and overcome the conflict that has ripped our two communities apart. This is where Kher so profoundly lets the Pandits down.
He fails to realise that for all our talk of being victims or fighters of a cause, neither the entire Muslim nor the Pandit community were really the ones who got to make the choices. We were all so unlucky that we lost our humanity then and that the separate histories of continued Pandit and Kashmiri Muslim sufferings over all these years makes us lose hold of basic kindness and the ability to empathise. Kher only comes across as caring for the ones he loves (fellow Hindus), not knowing that some of our old neighbours in Kashmir could also love us. As a self-professed leader of the Pandit community, he has lost his precious gift of empathy for the other.
In that discussion on TV, it became clear to me that the people he thinks of and wishes to project as the enemies of the Pandits or of India are not my enemies, at least not all. I am sure Kher has more Kashmiri Muslim fans and friends than I can hope to have in this life, but the few I have do not ever behave anywhere as shamelessly and cold-heartedly to the trauma of Pandits as the three Muslim gentlemen did on that TV discussion. One wonders why the anchor of the show always found these types ever ready to display and demonise as communal, anti-India and anti-Pandit!
The fact is that the gentlemen from Kashmir do not speak for the entire Muslim community, just as the representatives of my community that the channel often brings on its shows for a “pre-fixed” boxing row do not speak for me or for the entire Kashmiri Pandit community. We cannot reduce our collective traumas to a show of debating (more appropriately, shouting) skills because there is certainly more to the intractable conflict in Kashmir than a one-sided Pandit story. The story of Kashmir is not only the story of Pandit exile but also of 26 years of a continued presence of India&’s soldiers in every street of Kashmir.
There can never be any equitability about describing trauma — one side of the story is always heavier than many others, but in the absence, or near impossibility of finding an impartial judge who could decide which story deserves more weightage in terms of justice and redress, there is no other way for mere mortals but to provide an equal attention. This may sound unfair to those who may have lost an only son to a cruel torturer in an army interrogation camp, but it is equally unfair to a Pandit family that one of their children was killed in an extra-judicial account in someone else&’s fight for azadi. Whether committed by a mujahid or a soldier, a rape, cold-blooded killing of a Pandit or an encounter killing of a presumed militant, torture, looting and burning are what they are — crimes of war that should shame us all.
The need to assert the exclusivity of their own suffering while negating and downplaying the pain of others has come to be a special narcissistic trait of Pandit and Muslim Kashmiris. We think as though the grave suffering imposed on our own is somehow some kind of a special affliction in opposition to what afflicts the other community in the same way, and as though these are not the same issues affecting people elsewhere in India, Pakistan and the rest of the world. It should have been obvious that among the people of Kashmir, this is not a war that can be fought fact for fact, emotion for emotion or bullet for bullet but only by finding a common ground for peace and resolution that enables the people of Kashmir and of India and Pakistan — not as Hindus and Muslims only but as humans first and then as respectful citizens of the world — to decide so as to pave the way for governments to follow.
The more disturbing aspect of Kashmir&’s collective trauma is not that it has made us immune and indifferent to the tragedy of the other but that it has divided the people of Kashmir and the narratives of their recent history along communal lines. While for the Muslims, the raison d’ê•tre may compel them to cast India in terms of a predatory and wily Hindu nation and the Kashmiri Pandits as a perfect Hindu enemy, the Pandits, in seeing their sufferings entirely as an outcome of Muslim belligerence, complement and strengthen them in that perception. If for Muslims, their present day sufferings are a consequence of a long reign of Indian subjugation going as far back as the conquest of Kashmir by the Mughals, the Pandits see their exodus as part of a long historical process starting with their emasculation as a dominant community in Kashmir from the time when Sultan Sikandar (Butshikan) converted Kashmiris en masse and destroyed their temples.
Speaking specifically about the Pandits, after their exodus in 1990, this self-professed learned and intelligent community had two choices to make. They could either cast themselves, in communal terms, as the eternal victims of ancient hatred from the days of a mythologised past and see their present predicament as part of the continuous processes of persecutions, resulting from an aggressive Islamisation process of Kashmir initiated by its first Muslim rulers that culminated in their eighth exodus from the valley. Or, they could see their present predicament, in secularly equalising terms, as victims of the after-life of Partition that affected and continues to affect Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Bengalis in diverse ways across India and Pakistan, as in 1947. The choice they made, as demonstrated by their narratives of various exoduses since the Islamisation of Kashmir, et al, and the gifting away of their story to the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party makes them stand irrevocably on the communal path.
Thanks to Kher&’s effective performances of their narrative, most Pandits of Kashmir today stand, in an incongruous alliance and on the same pedestal with their equally communalised Muslim brothers in Kashmir (though with their backs touching) who seek Pakistan or azadi because they are Muslims.
This is where our tormentors wish us to be, so that they can feel justified and point at us with glee — “So you, too, turned out to be like us!”
Anupam Kher, as the new, self-professed narrator and champion of the Pandit story in the national media and for the ruling party, is no ordinary actor and certainly not the first in history who has chosen to serve up his gift and talent to the powers intent on altering the very character of the country. Thinking of Kher&’s various recent acts and pronouncements regarding some of the contentious issues that have dominated our national discourse in the past few months – issues like intolerance towards the minorities, Dalits, killings of writers, intimidation of dissenters, returning of awards by intellectuals, writers and filmmakers and solutions to Kashmir issue that he has proposed – one need not anymore suspect that he is clearly edging himself into the circle of power at Delhi to make some personal gain. It&’s a known fact that his wife is already a BJP member of Parliament and that in the process he has also become a political buffoon and laughing stock in the social media, which may bring no discredit to him in the long run (professionally at least), but it certainly harms the causes he so ardently professes to champion.
Kher&’s phenomenal rise, in the political esteem of many Hindutavaadis and fascist elements following his dubious march against award-returners, and the corresponding decline in his stature and esteem as a respectable Kashmiri for many Kashmiris like me, reminds me of German actor Gustaf Grundgens, immortalised on screen by Klaus Maria Brandauer in Istavan Szabo&’s masterpiece Mephisto, who, in his quest for power and greater glory, abandoned his conscience and good judgment to serve Hitler&’s Nazi Party. In Kher&’s case, though, one cannot be certain whether charging him with abandoning his conscience and good judgment is even appropriate till one is certain that he had either of those to start with. I am certain, however, that he was a happy-go-lucky, jolly good fellow till something hit him hard about two years ago: It was Narendra Modi.
Modi is not only a political but also a social and cultural phenomenon. Since his coming to centrestage, it seems that not only have diehard Hinduvadis got a fresh lease of life, but even those who were lying quietly in the recesses of the rotting woodwork have found sunlight. The Modi phenomenon has emboldened many in our extended circles, many of our erstwhile pseudo-secular uncles, aunts, friends, retired professors, scientists, writers, historians and civil servants, to renounce their old avatars and suddenly rediscover a repressed Hindu past. Topics that had remained confined to closed drawing room discussions could now be articulated in the open. Suddenly, “appeasement of Muslims”, their “meat-eating habits”, “propensity to violence”, “love jehad”, “deliberate disrespect of Hindu rituals and national symbols”, and their “tendency to dominate when in majority anywhere” could be discussed even on television without inviting secular outrage, censure or charge of being communal.
And if you were to look at Kher&’s public pronouncements on many issues since Modi&’s first day in power and his propensity to hog the headlines (recently, championing free speech after the denial of a visa by Pakistan) it would be apparent that as a well-known actor with unlimited access to the top of the BJP leadership and the mainstream as well as social media, he is just the most popular public face of a farcical conversation about a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh version of nationalism and majoritarian privileges that Modi&’s ascension has unleashed in the country.
Like India before and after Modi, the Anupam Kher of today and of old is not the same person. Like many of our uncles, aunts and close relatives who had kept their disagreeable political views to themselves earlier, but do not seem to be able to resist articulating them now, Kher, too, has done or said nothing that is at any odds with present day mainstream Hindutva thinking and discourse. But that he has also taken upon himself the mantle to represent the Pandit story and thereby push it determinedly into the majoritarian Hindu camp should, however, be a cause for serious concern to every secular Kashmiri – Hindu or Muslim – even if the intellectually-stilted, so-called liberal, emasculated secular Indian has given up on them already as a people of no consequence.
The writer is a filmmaker, co-founder of www.kashmiroralhistory.org and co-curator of the Kashmir Before Our Eyes film festival.