How Saiyami Kher survived disappointment in films

In her latest screen outing, Kher plays a bowler


There were two bits of advice that Saiyami Kher received as she was starting her movie career. One: don’t be opinionated. Two: do not talk too much about sports. In a country where celebrities are routinely pilloried for their opinions, the first was understandable. The second, not so much, especially for someone who had always had sports as a way of life.

I was told too much talk of sports would go against the image of a typical heroine―who is supposed to be pretty and dainty.
I am not very expressive in real life. I keep things bottled up. Acting is therapeutic.

“I was told too much talk of sports would go against the image of a typical heroine―who is supposed to be pretty and dainty. I am alright with talking about beauty and fashion, but I don’t get why I should kill the voice in my heart,” said Kher.

In her latest screen outing with Abhishek Bachchan, Ghoomer, Kher plays a bowler. The unkindest of critics have said that there are no flaws in her cricketing technique―at least, not visible to non-cricketers.

That precision was achieved with months of discipline. Almost as soon as the film was locked, Kher started to use her left hand for everyday tasks such as brushing her teeth and combing her hair. “It became second nature to me,” said Kher, who once played against Saina Nehwal in the junior nationals in the middle of the 2000s. Kher was under 16, Nehwal under 19. She still laughs at the memory of the drubbing she got at Nehwal’s hands.

Before the filming for Ghoomer began, Murali Karthik―the left-arm slow, orthodox bowler―was brought in to check on Kher’s technique. He required barely a couple of days to give her the go-ahead.

Cricket was another option for Kher, and apparently so good was she at it that when Kiran More, who was once chairman of the selectors of the Indian cricket team, saw her play, he told her that she needed just a couple of months of practice to make it to the team. But by then, she was already shooting for Mirzya―a film where More’s daughter was an assistant director.

Kher began her career in the Hindi film industry with Mirzya (2016), which tanked at the box office. This came after she had seen moderate success in her first film, Rey (Telugu, 2015). It was the discipline she had learnt as a sportsperson that made her survive that disappointment.

“I have survived in the film industry, which can be a very brutal place, only because of sports. It teaches you to move on quicker and control the controllable. It gives you a backbone,” she said.

Kher channeled her distress through running, slowly graduating to half marathons and marathons. Next on her list is the Ironman Triathlon, which is one of world’s toughest one-day sporting events.

Despite its failure, Mirzya is dubbed by Kher as her ‘biggest lesson’. It reinforced what sports had taught her: “Be humble in victory and in failure. Put your head down and work.”

It also helped that Kher’s biggest sporting inspiration was Sachin Tendulkar, from whom she learnt grace under pressure. It was by watching Tendulkar on television that Kher got her first lessons in cricket. One year after the filming of Ghoomer was over, Tendulkar asked Kher to bowl in person. A nervous Kher thought she would fail, but she managed to impress Tendulkar.

Kher’s parents, both models at one time, had chosen to raise their family in a small town (Nashik), for a life beyond malls and movie-going. Her father, too, had been sporty. It was when Kher started doing theatre when studying at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, that she discovered how much she loved acting. “I am not very expressive in real life. I keep things bottled up. Acting is therapeutic,” she said.

However, when the transition to films began, she was dumbfounded. “No one told me to work on my Hindi or better my craft. It was all about wearing small clothes, being seen at parties,” she said.

Kher was saved by her teachers―Adil Hussain and Dilip Shankar―from her theatre days, who told her to ask herself the question―‘why do I want to act’.

Kher pondered and decided it was not just for money―she could well have chosen an alternate career for that. Instead, she was seeking joy in the creative process.

It helped that her career path brought her to directors like Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra who kept reminding her to drown out the noise of the outer world. It was on Mehra’s goading that she plunged into anchoring a show for the 16th edition of the Indian Premier League.

Kher’s love for sports always comes with a risk of injuring her face―in a career which places great emphasis on looks. In August, she was on a month-long bike trip in Italy and fell flat on her face. It required stitches, which she is thankful don’t show. “I cannot give up the high that sports give me for anything,” said Kher.

Her wish list, thus, includes trying a new sport every year―surfing and snowboarding are next as is scuba diving at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

And, yes, she will not stop talking about sports, her well-meaning advisers notwithstanding.