He's made more than 450 movies, won numerous awards and is one of the most respected and recognised stars in Bollywood and Indian cinema. Anupam Kher, 57, can add chairperson of the Censor Board of India and the National School of Drama to his long and varied CV, but - as he tells Friday during an interview in Dubai - 29 years ago, he was sleeping rough and on the verge of giving up his dream of acting.
The year was 1983 and Anupam, a relatively unknown 28-year-old graduate, was struggling to get a foothold in the fiercely competitive Bollywood film industry. He had left the comforts of his home in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, northern India, determined to make it as an actor and now, after spending three years knocking on every door in Mumbai, the country's movie capital, was ready to accept defeat.
"I had spent many days hungry; had slept on railway stations at times because I did not have money to pay for a hotel room... there were moments when I felt I had compromised my dignity as a human being and as an actor,'' he recalls. Depressed and dejected, he wrote a long letter to his grandfather in Shimla telling him he was frustrated because he was unable to realise his dream of becoming an actor and was considering returning home.
"My grandfather's reply was truly motivating,'' he says. "He told me I could not let my parents down and reminded me that my parents have had to sell many pieces of family jewellery to pay for my fees at the acting school. ‘You have been trying hard for three years and you will surely get a breakthrough' he wrote, signing off with a popular Hindi saying which means ‘A drenched man no longer fears a rain shower!'
"It might sound unbelievable, but that line changed my life forever," Anupam smiles.
He persevered with renewed vigour and a year later, landed the role of a 60-year-old man in Saaransh, a movie about a man who struggles with bureaucratic red tape to get the ashes of his young son who had died in the US. Anupam was so convincing in the role, even though he was only 29, he won The National Award for best actor. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, he's still making movies, is in demand as a motivational speaker, especially in America, and jetted into Dubai early this month for the launch of his motivational book, The Best Thing About You is… You. The book is already earning rave reviews and had a special mention from none other than Oprah Winfrey at the January 2012 Jaipur Literary festival in India.
Married to Bollywood actress Kiron Kher, Anupam tells Friday how he clambered to the top and reflects on his dreams.
My grandfather always used to tell me, "If you are honest and willing to work hard, success will come to you." To this day I have tried my best never to prove him wrong.
That said, I have had my share of failures. The first time I failed was when I was in Grade 10, but my dad looked at it differently. He actually took me out to ‘celebrate' the failure. He told me to look at failures as a step closer to success and to never be afraid of failing. The important thing is you must try hard, he said.
One time I nearly experienced failure was when I was acting in Hum Aapke Hain Kaun in 1994. One day I woke up and found that part of my face was paralysed.
The doctor I consulted asked me to take complete bed rest for two months. It was my moment of truth - I could either go into hiding, or face my fears, finish shooting the movie and move on with my life. I chose the latter. This was one incident that helped me banish my inner fears. The movie incidentally went on to become one of the biggest blockbusters.
I was able to overcome my failures because I was always confident of my abilities and was sure I could achieve what I had set out for. As someone who has been trained in acting, I felt it is my duty to share my experiences with the younger generation of promising actors. So I started an acting academy in Mumbai called ‘Actor Prepares' in 2005.
The only thing that kept me going during the difficult days was my conviction in my acting skills and the knowledge that I had been trained in my art. I wanted to inculcate in aspiring actors the same kind of determination to succeed despite all odds and to be disciplined when it comes to pursuing a career in filmmaking. Besides that, opening a school like this is a great way of communicating with the younger generation.
I know people like me as an actor but I did not expect the kind of response I am getting as an author. I believe that there are more lessons to be learnt from failure than from success and dealing with failure successfully has been my way of overcoming problems in life.
I believe that the easiest way to ensure failure is to not try. Keen to share my thoughts on failure and success with more people, I took up speaking assignments, some of them at prestigious institutes in the US. In the process, I realised that I had unknowingly become a life-coach. Wanting to take my thoughts to a wider audience, I decided to pen this book.
I belonged to a lower middle class family. We - my parents, my younger brother Raju and I - lived in an extended joint family in Shimla, in Himachal Pradesh. My father Pushkar Nath was a clerk in the forest department who worked hard to make ends meet. He always helped me see the rosier side of life.
I was neither good in sports nor at studies but I always wanted to stand out and be noticed. How can one do that in a sea of students at school all wearing a similar uniform? So I began mimicking my teachers, uncles, grandfather, father and soon became popular as an expert mimic. I was often invited to perform on stage and at parties. I was afraid of failure, but I used to work hard to hone my skills and that helped me become successful.
Apart from hard work, professionalism is another important element required for success. I recently completed a film with Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper called The Silver Linings Playbook. It will be released in the last quarter of 2012. I was so impressed by Robert's professionalism. He would always be the first one to stand on his mark during our rehearsals.
I have many dreams and one of them I plan to fulfil soon is to open an orphanage. Another dream of mine is to write a book on my father who is now 83 and unwell. He is very proud of me. We share an amazing relationship and in all my films where I have portrayed the role of benevolent father, a part of him is there.
It was my dream to be able to act with Robert De Niro and Woody Allen and I got an opportunity to act with both (I worked with Woody in You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger). In fact the first time I met Robert on set, I was in tears with happiness. The poor man must have been so embarrassed.
I want to tell the world that if you have faith in your dreams, they will get fulfilled.