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Sardar Udham to Kesari: At 45, This Teacher Left the US to Live His Bollywood Dream

Born and raised in California, Richard Klein moved to India in 2010. He started as a dubbing and junior artist and soon bagged roles with character names in Hindi, Punjabi and South Indian movies.

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“How dare you step in front of my carriage,” blurted an ‘evil British officer’ in a television series played by Richard Klein. He then whipped the poor street urchin and hauled endless curses.

But as soon as the director yelled “Cut”, Richard apologised to his co-actor. The American-born actor then easily brushed aside any hard feelings by joking about how he isn’t even British. 

“Even after 10 years in the industry, I dislike insulting my co-workers based on race, fully realising it is only acting,” Richard tells The Better India

The 45-year-old is from the league of ‘firangi’ actors who are often seen in Indian movies with typical roles such as that of an officer, businessmen or the mafia. Usually decked up in black suits, they may not always get meaty roles and yet their presence leaves an imprint, albeit in a comical way such as Bob Cristo and Tom Alter from the 70s and 80s. More recently, Kim Bodnia, a Danish actor, in Delhi Belly (2011).

You may have seen Richard in movies such as Dear Zindagi (2016), Karwan (2018), Thugs of Hindustan (2018), Kesari (2019), and more recently, Sardar Uddham (2021) and Sardar ka Grandson (2021). 

Born and raised in California, Richard moved to India in 2010. He started as a dubbing and junior artist and soon bagged roles of officer, businessmen, scientist, doctor, chef and spy.  

He shares what it’s like to move continents to feel at home, adapt a new culture and find work as an outsider.

50 Films, 3 Decades, 2 Continents

Richard Klien in an ad
Richard Klein in an ad

 Richard’s curiosity for India, a country 8,000 miles away from his home, began during graduation. His course in philosophy and spiritualism had a chapter on India’s yoga and meditation culture.  

“I was drawn to the Indian customs and traditions while studying but never got a chance to visit India. After completing my studies I started teaching maths and science in middle school in San Francisco and it went on for nearly 18 years,” says Richard. 

He was a teacher by day and a performing artist at night. From being part of local singing groups to representing the US at international dance meets, Richard’s inclination towards art escalated over the years. 

Acting, however, was never on the cards. It was his desire to live in India at some point that drew him to Indian cinema. 

In 1991, he visited India for the first time as a tourist and it was instant love. 

“My trip was stretched to over three months. Now you can imagine the warmth and love that I must have experienced. Like every foreigner, I went on a meditation retreat to Dharamshala, explored the capital and visited the city that houses one of the seven wonders of the world. I just couldn’t get enough of it, so I kept returning as a tourist. It is a country with inner peace and outer chaos,” says Richard. 

While he certainly enjoyed teaching and performance gigs, he did not want to continue with this lifestyle. Part of the reason Richard wanted to shift continents was to live differently.

So why not quit teaching and do performances full time? 

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“It was extraordinarily difficult to make money through art in America. Back then our government did not fund the artists. On international meets, our team would be the only one with day time jobs. So, I opted for private tutoring and taught for six months to save enough for a trip to India for the other six months of the year. I followed that for a couple of years till I found the right opportunities,” says Richard. 

Once in India, Richard took up various jobs like teaching music and doing voice dubbing to sustain himself. He also signed up with an acting agency to score auditions. 

A nervous Richard even overcame the daunting task of moving cities in India with ease.

“Initially I did live in cheap apartments and it took me a while to get an AC or a geyser at home. I was even uncomfortable at times but it was like an adventure. I was finally living in the city of my dreams. Every day was different and exciting,” he adds. 

In the first couple of years, Richard was a background artist. He was made to stand in the sun for hours, paid very less and treated with disrespect. 

Richard Klien in a Punjabi movie
Richard Klein in a Punjabi movie

He bagged his first character in a South Indian film Nannaku Prematho (2015), as the head of the Spanish inspection team. In the same year, he was a part of a television series ‘Ek Nayi Umeed: Roshni’ as an eye patient. He did commercials and radio programmes in American and British accents too. 

Two years later, he played ‘George William’ in a Punjabi movie Bhalwan Singh (2017), which was the turning point of his career. In this movie, he had multiple dialogues which helped him bag future projects. 

Working With The Khans 

If there were any brownie points for being a junior artist or sidekick it would definitely be the chance to be a part of several movies and act alongside the who’s who of the industry. 

Richard certainly has pocketed quite a few of those roles. 

Richard Klien in Kesari
Richard Klein in Kesari

He worked with Shah Rukh Khan, the late Irrfan Khan, Salman Khan, and most recently, Aamir Khan in an upcoming movie — ‘Lal Singh Chadda’. 

Dishing out what it’s like to work with these actors, he says, “Irrfan Khan was an incredible actor. It is unbelievable how he would turn into his character at a lightning speed. Just watching his body language and improvisation techniques was such an honour. Likewise, Shah Rukh Khan is a creative genius. A charming personality, he was running around the set to make sure everyone was giving their best. I wouldn’t be surprised if he decides to direct a movie in future.” 

“Aamir is called a perfectionist for a reason and I witnessed that during filming the movie. I am excited to be doing a brief appearance alongside him. Salman Khan knows exactly what is expected from him. We did an ad together and he gave such an effortless shot,” adds Richard. 

But he hopes that filmmakers would cast him in different roles other than cameos, villains or the comical sidekick. His “dream role”, he says, is to play a scientist or a musician playing sinatra. And he would also like to sing! 

“So far, I have done over 50 films and series and every project has been an amusing experience. Sometimes I get the script right before the camera is rolled. In one movie, I remember the writer running towards me after the shot and asking me what I said to include it into the script. There’s a lot of improvisation for the characters I have essayed but that has helped improve my craft immensely,” says Richard. 

(Edited by Yoshita Rao)

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