This month marks twelve years since Amrish Puri passed away. It offers cinema aficionados an opportunity to remember his career of four decades that continues to remain peerless when it comes to ‘non-hero’ actors in Hindi films.
In the mid 1990s, when the film Virasat (1997) was being planned, there were talks of Sunil Dutt playing the role of Raja Thakur, the elder patriarch, who wants his US-educated son Shakti (Anil Kapoor) to run as far away as possible from the cesspool of an ugly feud that had engulfed their family. The Hindi remake of the Tamil hit Thevar Magan (1992), Virasat was also a film about two generations of actors coming face to face. As the original pitted Kamal Haasan and the legendary Sivaji Ganesan, it was only natural for the Hindi version to also go for two powerhouses of performers from different eras. Ideally, Dilip Kumar would have been the go-to choice for Virasat. Perhaps, he was not too interested in donning the greasepaint again. In any case, Kumar had already played a somewhat similar role in the abysmal Dharam Adhikari (1986) and it only made Sunil Dutt the next obvious port of call.
In the end, Amrish Puri played the role. Up until then, Puri was largely seen as the ultimate Hindi film villain or a character-actor, who after Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), was settling into the Pran-post-Upkar (1967) mode, where he could play the role of the perfect accompaniment to any hero.
There are four phases in Amrish Puri’s life. Every single phase is peppered with not only great performances, but also being a part of films that have gone on to become a part of the collective consciousness of cinemagoers. The first phase begins from the early 1970s, where Puri marked his presence in films such as Prem Pujari (1970) and Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973), as well as being an integral part of the genesis of the Parallel Cinema movement with films like Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), and Bhumika (1977). This phase also includes Puri’s inspired presence in films such as Gandhi (1982), Ardh Satya (1983), Vijeta (1982) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).
The highpoint of this period, where Puri sowed the seeds of becoming the greatest nemesis of the Hindi film hero, are his performances in Meri Jung (1985) and Nagina (1986). The second phase came with Mr. India (1987), where he played Mogambo and become the ultimate villain for an entire generation. By now, Puri had become a kind of a legend in his own lifetime. When Subhash Ghai told Puri that he had no role for him in Karma (1986) and Puri asked him what role was Anupam Kher playing, Ghai is believed to have said ‘woh Amrish Puri ka role kar raha hai.’ (He is playing the role of Amrish Puri). Intriguingly, Anupam Kher was originally meant to be Mogambo, but director Shekhar Kapur had a change of heart at the eleventh hour and cast Puri instead.
The success of Mr. India and the villainous roles that followed — Inaam Dus Hazaar (1987), Shahenshah (1988), Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi (1988), Dayavan (1988), Yateem (1988), Tridev (1989), Ram Lakhan (1989), Aaj Ka Arjun (1990) and Ghayal (1990) almost brushed away the memories of Puri’s roles in the host of films that he done for filmmakers such as Shyam Benegal. He was seen as a brilliant actor who got immense popularity playing the bad guy in commercial Hindi films. For the generation that grew up watching Puri in such films, his post- Mr. India foray into the strong character roles in the 1990s came as a shock.
One of the first films that marked Puri’s decorous turn in commercial films was also the first time he teamed with Priyadarshan, one of the few directors besides Benegal and Raj Santoshi to truly explore Puri’s wide range. In an era, long before small or indie films became fashionable where a ‘character’ actor could be the face of a film or the ‘hero’, Priyadarshan’s Muskurahat (1992), a remake of his own Malayalam Kilukkam (1991), was marketed solely on Amrish Puri’s presence. Puri played Gopichand Verma, a retired judge whose life is turned upside down when a mentally challenged girl Nandini (Revathi) lands up at his place claiming to be his estranged daughter. Although the film was a resounding failure, it established Puri as a brand beyond Mogambo.
The next film that Priyadarshan and Puri did together, Gardish (1993) was also a remake of a Malayalam film, Kireedam (1989). This one was a critical and commercial success. This phase also laid the foundation of Puri becoming a great parallel lead. Puri was metamorphosing into a colossus who did not have to be second lead like Hindi films saw the second hero. Puri was not Shashi Kapoor or Rishi Kapoor in an Amitabh Bachchan film, or even Govinda in the 1980s, where he played the able second fiddle to everyone from Shatrughan Sinha, Dharmendra, Sanjay Dutt and Anil Kapoor. In Gardish, he played a police constable, Havaldar Purushottam Sathe, who nurtures dreams of his son, Shiva (Jackie Shroff) becoming a police officer, and keeps a hawk’s eye on his son, lest he made a mistake that would hamper his chances of joining the force. In a twist of fate, Shiva ends up being seen as a local dada when he takes on a known criminal Billa Jilani (Mukesh Rishi) to save his father. The film ends with Purushottam Sathe putting his son’s photograph in the rogue’s gallery in the police station. Puri balanced these roles that demanded him to be the baddie, and once he played Chaudhry Baldev Singh in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, he became something that many leading stars in the twilight of their careers would have killed for.
In the mid 1980s, if someone had come up with a film like Ghatak: Lethal (1996), it would have been impossible to think of any actor besides Sanjeev Kumar to play Shambu Nath, the former freedom fighter dying of cancer, who, before death could take him away, witnesses the utter decay of a society that he fought to free from the British. Even in the 1970s, Sanjeev Kumar would have been the automatic choice to play Shambu Nath, but come 1990s, and the equivalent was not a star at crossroads like Rajesh Khanna or Dharmendra, but Puri. The fact that at his peak Puri sahab was outdoing Dharmendra, Shatrughan Sinha and Vinod Khanna, who could never graduate to playing the strong character roles that they were capable of, is a testimony to his brilliance. Perhaps, that is why, Puri was a natural choice to reprise Sivaji Ganesan’s role in the Hindi version of Thevar Magan.
Even when Bachchan slid into the ‘Amrish Puri’ bracket with Mohabbatein (2000) to play a role originally written with Puri in mind, and whose success practically killed the careers of ‘character actors’ like Kader Khan, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Om Puri, Amrish Puri escaped unscathed.
By the 2000s, the kind of films where Puri could play the standard Hindi film villain were dying a slow death and the resurrection of Bachchan post-Mohabbatein saw the advent of former heroes as fathers, as elder brothers or crazy uncles, but Puri was still in demand. One of the last films to feature an out and out classic Hindi film villain, Gadar- Ek Prem Katha (2001) would have been unimaginable without Amrish Puri. Life came a full circle for Amrish Puri, a few months before his death in 2005, when this time, Subhash Ghai got him to play the ‘Amrish Puri’ role in Kisna (2005), one of the last films that Puri did.