After being introduced as "the bible of acting," Anupam Kher shared chapter and verse with a rapt audience Thursday, many entering Tampa Theatre as aspiring stars and departing inspired.
With 483 performances to his credit — mostly in Hindi cinema — Kher is one of India's acting treasures, and his workshop on the craft highlights the International Indian Film Academy awards weekend.
But first Kher introduced the world premiere of his directing debut, a charming short titled I Went Shopping for Robert De Niro, inspired by his favorite actor and Silver Linings Playbook co-star.
After the show, Kher was asked what De Niro — who is notoriously uncomfortable with drawing attention — thought of being the movie's subject and how he responded after seeing it.
"I made him an offer he couldn't refuse," Kher, 59, deadpanned. "No, he's a very shy person. ... He can't stop us from paying tribute to him. He liked it. He's a man of few words and he said (it was) perfect."
Nearly 400 people including several Bollywood stars attended the screening, hosted by comedian Siddharth Kannan, joshing such luminaries as acclaimed director Rajkumar Hirani, IIFA supporting actor nominee Nawazuddin Siddiqui (The Lunchbox), and Bollywood "bad man" Gulshan Grover. Anil Kapoor (24, Slumdog Millionaire) slipped into the front row just before show time, sitting next to Kher.
After intermission, the crowd dwindled to nearly 100 people, curious for an example of Kher's famed Actor Prepares school in India, whose graduates include IIFA nominee Deepika Padukone and dance idol Hrithik Roshan. For 90 minutes they were led through deceptively simple acting exercises mining nuggets of thespian wisdom.
Questioning a young girl like a favorite uncle, he made the point that telling lies or withholding truth is itself an everyday form of acting. Setting up a sidewalk dialogue between passing strangers — "Have I seen you before?" "I've never seen you before." — Kher used the volunteers' stiff anticipation to address a neuro-reflex actors must overcome.
"The problem is (that) you're presuming that you are supposed to do this," Kher told his subjects. "In real life, our command center, our mind, sends us signals and whatever we say and do comes from there.
"But in acting the brain already knows what you are going to say, and how you are going to say it. There's no signal so you suddenly feel your body does not belong to you. The process to make it convincing is called acting, according to me."
One segment became less about acting and more like Kher's Silver Linings Playbook role as therapist to a patient with anger issues. Commercial truck driver Kamlesh Patel, 40, joined him, and within minutes Kehr sensed his longing to be something more, and the tension that brings to his personality.
"The best thing that has happened to Kamlesh is that he is on stage," Kher said. "Kamlesh has important issues. That's why he gets angry. He feels that he could have done something better with his life. But he has not done that. ... You're angry at yourself."
With remarkable candor, Patel agreed. He is sad. He is angry. "I didn't get the chance, the opportunity, to do what I wanted to do," he said. Kher advised Patel to stop talking about opportunity in past tense. Life is just beginning at 40, he proposed. Then he made Patel promise in one year he would be doing what he really wants to accomplish.
"Life is about changing," Kher said. "If we can change somebody's life, that is what acting does to you."
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.