Anupam Kher-Tagore
Anupam Kher (left) as Rabindranath Tagore.

Outrage over Anupam Kher playing Tagore, critics say it’s an ‘insult’ to Gurudev

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The recent announcement by actor Anupam Kher that he would play Rabindranath Tagore in an upcoming film — the details of the film are not known as yet — has ignited a fiery debate among Gurudev’s admirers. On Friday (July 8), Kher shared a photo, with long grey beard and hair, in which he is donning a robe, on his Instagram handle, with a short note: “Delighted to portray #Gurudev #RabindranathTagore in my 538th project. Will reveal the details in due course….”

In response to the announcement, social media was flooded with opinions, with a sizable section of users expressing their dissatisfaction, concern, and anger. One user on Facebook went as far as stating, “Though Anupam ji is a great actor, I cannot imagine a worse insult to Tagore than this pseudo-nationalist right wing scum playing him.” Many felt that Kher’s political affiliations and public persona run counter to the progressive values and ideals that Tagore embodied. “How could he even dream of portraying such a towering personality is a wonder,” another user wrote.

‘Tagore light years away from Hindutva’

While he is acknowledged for his talent, many have questioned the suitability of Kher essaying Tagore. “Kher won acclaim for his early role in the film Saaransh (The Gist, 1984). Owing to his premature baldness, he played the role of an elderly man. I wished he had played Robi Thakur (Tagore) after that. The film would have been eagerly awaited, and Kher would surely have done his best to do justice to the role,” writer and translator V. Ramaswamy told The Federal.

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He further added: “Sadly, much water has flown down the Howrah Bridge since then, and he has come to be seen as a craven bigot. And so one no longer reacts to this as a matter of an actor playing a role. Following his roles in films like The Accidental Prime Minister (2019) and The Kashmir Files (2022), I wonder whether Tagore’s life too has been subject to a modi-fication (sic), to lend another feather to the cap of the Hindutva camp.”

According to Ramaswamy, Tagore stood ‘light years away’ from what the current regime is. “I recall that before the 2021 Assembly elections in West Bengal, the great leader had done a ‘Tagore’-look photo-shoot. I’m disappointed he is not playing Tagore,” he said, in a lighter vein.

Some argued that while Kher’s alignment with exclusionary right-wing politics is well-documented, Tagore celebrated diversity. “Such a stark ideological dissonance between the actor and the character being portrayed is not only jarring but also disrespectful to Tagore’s memory. Artists have a responsibility to uphold the authenticity of the characters they portray. Casting choices should prioritise actors who align with the values and beliefs of the characters they represent. Kher’s casting as Tagore not only disregards this responsibility, but also undermines the trust and respect that audiences place in the artistic process,” said a casting director, who was ‘taken by surprise’ after the announcement.

‘A disservice to the poet and philosopher’

The dissenting voices argue that casting Kher (68) in the role of Tagore is a disservice to the revered poet and philosopher. “Tagore was a visionary, a humanitarian, and a symbol of India’s rich cultural heritage. He contributed immensely to literature, music, and art, using his work as a means of promoting universal harmony. By casting Kher, an actor known for his divisive political stance, the essence of Tagore’s legacy risks being diluted and tarnished,” said an author on condition of anonymity.

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In these charged times, when narratives are being weaponised, Kher’s decision to align himself with projects that seem to serve a specific party is seen by some as a desperate attempt to stay relevant. Gone are the days when he was known for his ‘nuanced portrayals and ability to bring characters to life’. Instead, he appears to have ‘sacrificed artistic integrity at the altar of political expediency’.

“In the times we live in, we yearn for artists who can rise above murky politics, especially the kind we are a witness to today, and stay true to their craft. We crave voices that can challenge the status quo and inspire us to imagine a better world. Kher, however, has chosen to abandon this noble pursuit in favour of narrow dividends. In a way, he has betrayed the very essence of art and the responsibility that comes with wielding its power,” said an actor, who wants to remain anonymous.

Driven by an agenda?

Kher’s choice to take on roles in films like The Accidental Prime Minister and The Kashmir Files has only reinforced the perception that he is driven by a larger political agenda. These films, which many argue present a biased and one-sided view of historical events, only serve to further polarise audiences and deepen existing divisions. “For an actor who once commanded respect for his acting prowess, this shift is nothing short of a fall from grace,” the actor added.

In The Accidental Prime Minister, based on the book by Manmohan Singh’s former media advisor Sanjaya Baru, Kher’s clumsiness as a performer is on full display. “Kher’s version of Singh speaks like a freshly bitten squeaky-toy, slides inconsistently in and out of a Punjabi accent, and, every now and then, remembers to move his hands jerkily, as if urgently (yet discreetly) trying to dry nail-paint. It is a profoundly, disappointingly silly caricature from a veteran surely capable of better. Accidental? In an attempt to laugh at the subject, Kher portrays him as a slightly mental Prime Minister,” wrote critic Raja Sen in his review of the film.

Some underlined that, in the pursuit of ‘please his political masters’, Kher seems to have ‘lost sight of the essence of his craft’. The actor added: “The true power of cinema lies in its ability to transcend boundaries and connect people through shared experiences and emotions. Yet, Kher’s recent choices betray a calculated move to cater to a particular section of the audience.”

Questions are being raised about the nature of Kher’s forthcoming projects, especially Emergency and The Vaccine War, a film based on the pandemic, as they seem “likely to lean towards propaganda”.  In Emergency, Kher is set to portray Jayaprakash Narayan during the tumultuous period from 1975 to 1977. This historical context inherently carries political weight, and with Kangana Ranaut at the helm of the directorial venture, it becomes apparent that the film may have a specific political tilt.

Vivek Agnihotori’s The Vaccine War is no different. A film centered around India’s contributions to the race for a COVID-19 vaccine, it is being seen as an attempt to shape public opinion in favour of the current dispensation for its ‘deft handling’ of the pandemic, ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

“Artistic endeavours often serve as vehicles for cultural understanding, allowing audiences to immerse themselves in different perspectives and experiences. Casting decisions play a pivotal role in bringing these narratives to life, as they can either enhance the depth of a character or undermine the very essence of the story being told. Casting Kher, known for his rabid right-wing views, as Tagore is not only deeply problematic, but also an outright betrayal of artistic integrity,” said the casting director.

Tagore rebelled against extreme forms of nationalism

Tagore and Kher could not be further apart. Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his poetry collection Gitanjali in 1913, swore by universalism, humanism and cosmopolitanism. He held strong anti-imperialist views and supported Indian nationalists, but criticised the Swadeshi movement, as seen in his essay ‘The Cult of the Charkha,’ published in 1925. According to Amartya Sen, Tagore rebelled against extreme forms of nationalism, emphasised India’s right to independence, and acknowledged the importance of learning from other cultures.

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He advocated for self-help, education, and a nuanced approach to addressing social issues. Tagore believed that civilisation should be judged by its ability to express and institutionalise love for humanity, rather than the extent of its power. These views drew both support and criticism, with Tagore even narrowly escaping an assassination attempt by Indian expatriates during his stay in San Francisco.

He wrote songs that celebrated the Indian independence movement, with Chitto jetha bhayshunyo (Where the Mind is Without Fear) and Ekla Chalo Re (Jodi tor dak shune keu na ase tobe ekla cholo re/ If no one responds to your call, then go your own way, alone) gaining popularity; the latter was Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite. Although Tagore had some reservations about Gandhi’s activism, he played a key role in resolving a dispute between Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar over the issue of separate electorates for the untouchables.

Kher’s supporters stressed on his vast experience and his track record of delivering memorable performances across a wide range of roles in films like Karma (1986), Khosla Ka Ghosla (2006) and A Wednesday (2008). “An actor’s political affiliations should not overshadow his artistic talent and ability to portray diverse characters,” said an admirer.

Many argued that while the concerns surrounding Kher’s casting as Tagore may sound valid, it is essential to exercise caution and reserve judgment until the film is released. “It would be premature to jump to conclusions without seeing how the film portrays Tagore. Criticising the casting decision solely based on ideological differences may overlook the potential for artistic interpretation and storytelling,” said a writer, not willing to be named.

He added that it is important to acknowledge that individuals from any cultural background can distort or misinterpret Tagore, including Bengalis themselves. “Instead of making assumptions, it would be wise to withhold opinions until one has seen the film and can assess how it handles Tagore,” he added.

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