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Anupam Kher, who is visiting Israel for the Indian Film Festival (currently playing at the Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Rosh Pina cinematheques), is the most famous actor you've never heard of.
But even if you're not a Bollywood devotee, you've probably seen Kher in his English-language films, most likely as the father with a heart of gold in Bend It Like Beckham, or in such recent movies as Bride and Prejudice and The Mistress of Spices. And if you're a Woody Allen fan, you're going to see him in the upcoming You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, in which Kher stars with his fellow countrywoman Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) as well as Anthony Hopkins, Antonio Banderas, Naomi Watts and French first lady Carla Bruni. But Kher is sworn to secrecy about the project, as are all Allen's actors until the film is released.
These English language films - although they brought Kher wide exposure throughout the world - are only a tiny fraction of his work. Asked how many of the 300 movies listed in the Internet Movie Database he actually remembers filming, he smiles but makes a correction: "389 films - in 25 years."
Kher is speaking at a reception in Beit Agron in Jerusalem celebrating both the Indian Film Festival and two new features in the Time Elevator Jerusalem film experience series, one on Jerusalem starring Haim Topol, who sits alongside him at this event, and the other called India in Motion, with Kher as a cosmic tour guide to centuries of history. Amol Palekar, the director of Eternity, another film in the Indian Film Festival, was also present at this event.
INTRODUCED BEFORE the showing as the "Haim Topol of India," Kher speaks effusively of Israeli actor's work, saying, "One of the reasons to come at this time to this place was to shake hands with you."
But Kher is also here to promote A Wednesday, a serious film that focuses on the recent terrorism that devastated Mumbai. Kher plays the chief of police, who has to cope with a threat and a set of demands by the terrorists.
"This is the first movie to deal with these events," he explains. "It's done in the format of a thriller. You can't make a movie in the guise of an art film that is just depressing. And it looks at the resilience of ordinary Mumbai residents."
A Wednesday is one of the many new Indian films that bridge the gap between the art-house work of a small group of Indian directors (among them Satyajit Ray) and the musical extravaganzas associated with Bollywood.
"I think we're entering a golden period for Indian cinema," he says. "It's the death of the formula film, and I'm glad that happened."
Despite having already made nearly 400 films, Kher hopes to stick around to make another 400 in this new era. "I was the typical small-town boy who came to Mumbai to make good," recalls Kher. "But I was the rare Indian actor who was classically trained. I had studied at the National School of Drama. Still, I spent three years homeless, sleeping on train platforms. But I always got up and went to auditions every day. My grandfather told me if you work hard and are honest you will succeed, and I never wanted to prove him wrong."
In an attempt to pass his art on to a younger generation, Kher has opened acting schools in London and India, called Anupam Kher's An Actor Prepares.
"I'm an eternal optimist," he says. "I'm always ready to experiment and I want to bring that attitude to my students."
The Indian Film Festival takes place through December 26. For details and ticket information browse to http://www.indembassy.co.il/Film Festival.htm.
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