He was, quite literally, the face of the entire transition in Indian cinema, and could play any role, in any format or genre, with as much ease and conviction.
Om Puri’s death marks the end of an era where an unlikely hero could become a true star.
Ardh Satya’s director Govind Nahilani, on a flight from Prague to Bombay, misplaced the Best Actor Award that the lead of the film Om Puri won at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, in erstwhile Czechoslovakia. There is no keepsake of the biggest award that Puri, who died following a massive heart attack, won for what is arguably his greatest acting performance. Much like the course of his career, Puri’s body of work is his award, and everything else, perhaps a footnote. Om Puri’s more illustrious contemporaries such as Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, and Smita Patil might have been considered the poster boys and girls of the changing values of Indian cinema in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but Puri was, quite literally, the face of the entire transition.
In a profile of the late actor that appeared in August 1984, in India Today, author Sunil Sethi noted that much of what there was to be said about Puri was written on his face. In the same profile Puri’s constant co-star, Smita Patil, herself someone who broke new ground when it came to unconventionality entering the mainstream, felt that the acceptance of Puri had a lot to do with the changed perception of the new cinema. Looking back at Puri’s life, if the talk about his ‘face’ being the one thing that helped him breakthrough does not make much sense now, or seems irrelevant, then it is a testimony to what Puri achieved.
Shabana Azmi was the first among the quartet who managed to strike a balance between masala films and the art-house movement, where she could go from being directed by a Manmohan Desai to a Shyam Benegal on the same day. Smita Patil came to the commercial film party a little later, but such was her aura that her presence added gravitas to the popular films that she became a part of. Naseeruddin Shah managed to mirror both Azmi and Patil in his approach, and no matter where he went, he was automatically considered the lead man material.
While consciously or otherwise Shah was being seen as the art-house alternate to Bachchan, it was Puri who ended up becoming the ‘angrier young man.’ Ironically enough, Bachchan refused Ardh Satya (1983), the film that transformed Puri into a bona fide star. It is also hard to imagine anyone but Puri as Inspector Anant Welankar, whose idealism is killed by the ugly nexus of local mafia, politicians and corrupt cops. Bachchan would have been far too stylised to play Welankar with the same sincerity that Puri brought to the role. The manner in which the narrative unfolded, it would also have been very difficult for not just Bachchan to convince the audience but also the audience to accept the character’s frustration at the hopelessness of the entire situation being portrayed by a star like Bachchan.
One of the biggest achievements of an actor like Puri was to make the viewer feel for the character. Of course, his everyman persona helped to further the element of realism in the films that he was a part of in the initial stages of his career, but it was also the training that he had undergone, first as a student of the prestigious National School of Drama (NSD), and later, the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), that came in handy.
It is true that great actors are born, and their entire existence, up until the point they translate the words on a page into emotions that the viewer could connect to, is a preparation. The turmoil of Puri’s childhood, where his mother died while he was still in his teens, and his father having packed him off to some relatives, might have also impacted him. He wanted to join the army and was not much interested in films or acting, but a chance encounter with some NSD graduates inspired him to take up a job with a theatre group. He did odd jobs there for Rs 200 a month, and a while later, decided to give NSD a shot.
He got selected and came in contact with Shah, and the two became lifelong friends. Puri spent a year between NSD and FTII, trying his luck in Bombay, but faced abject rejection. Perhaps, the year that he spent trying to land a role convinced him that training for films would somewhere make things easier.
One of his earliest roles came to him via Girish Karnad, who was a director of FTII while Puri was studying, and offered him a part in a Kannada film. Mani Kaul’s Ghasiram Kotwal (1976) followed, but it was with Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980) that the world noticed Puri. It was Puri’s humility that saw him credit Nihalani for “creating” his performance on the editing table and always maintained that he had very little to do with it. Nihalani’s cutting might have shaped Puri’s performance, but its impact was felt in the cinema halls and at the year’s Filmfare Awards, where he bagged the Best Supporting Actor statuette.
The very next year Satyajit Ray cast him in Sadgati (1981), based on Munshi Premchand’s short story, and he also featured in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) in a brief role so beautifully played that it left almost an equally indelible impression as Ben Kingsley, who played the Mahatma. He also bagged the National Award for Best Actor for Arohan (1982), where he played a farmer who tries to fight a lonely battle against the Jotdar Bibhutibhushan Ganguly (Victor Banerjee) by registering a case during the Naxal movement of the 1960s. He won his second National Award for Best Actor the very next year with Ardh Satya and also delivered one of the most memorable performances in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983).
Puri’s brilliance did not rest on the fact that he could play varied characters, such as Ardh Satya’s Welankar and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron’s Ahuja in the same year. Puri’s virtuosity rose from reality, that he could play any role, irrespective of the format or the genre with as much ease and conviction. He was one of the first film actors to adapt himself to television at a very early stage with shows such as Kakkaji Kaheen, Gulzar’s Kirdar, Tamas, Mr. Yogi, and later played a multitude of characters in Shyam Benegal’s opus Bharat: Ek Khoj, that included Duryodhan, Ashoka, Ravan, Angulimaal, Krishna Dev Raya and Aurangzeb.
Even when he gravitated towards pure commercial cinema, he had no hang-ups, and played minor roles such as Dilip Kumar’s confidant in Duniya (1984), the manager of rock star Jimmy (Mithun Chakraborty) in Disco Dancer (1982), an upright cop in Ghayal (1990), the larger-than-life villain Baapji in Narsimha (1991), a rich industrialist’s secretary who is always on the lookout for a deal in Chachi 420 (1997), a yesteryear’s superstar who refuses to exist in the real world in King of Bollywood (2004), or being part of Priyadarshan’s repertory in nine films with equal poise. Puri never hammed, although many of the roles might have demanded that.
Later when he became a recognizable face in the West, thanks to films such as City of Joy (1992), Wolf (1994), where he shared the screen with Jack Nicholson, The Ghost and The Darkness (1996), My Son the Fanatic (1997) and East is East (1999) that fetched him a BAFTA nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Puri refused to left anything other than the role be a factor. He was open to any kind of offer, as long as it enticed him, and he never discriminated, even if some fell short of challenging him, or those that he agreed largely for the paycheck.
For many actors, the personal and professional hardships become a distant memory once they make it big, but here too, Puri was different. Puri’s second marriage with Nandita Puri, a former journalist, turned bitter when she wrote his biography, An Unlikely Hero, which contained shocking revelations about Puri’s sexual exploits with a series of maids. Puri expressed rage at the manner in which Nandita ‘reduced a sacred part’ of his life to ‘cheap and lurid gossip’ and added that he was not allowed to read the manuscript by his wife. The last few years saw Puri lose his cool in public, and his drinking became a point of discussion as well. He continued to work, but the passion that had once defined him was losing steam. Puri started to keep a low profile, and despite making appearances, remained distant.
During the book tour following the launch of Shah’s autobiography, Puri was often seen seated in the audience and silently listening to his friend reminisce the good times the two spent. It was a strange sight, where the two seemed as synonymous as they were long ago, and yet different from each other as chalk and cheese. The irony of Puri, long considered a close second in many aspects to the leading man material that Shah was, and yet, being someone who pipped him to the post, in many ways being almost invisible, was not lost on those who saw them.
The last few months had not been kind on Puri. During a television debate following the call for a ban on Pakistani artists in Bollywood in the wake of Uri attacks, Puri, in a moment of immense passion, blurted that no one forced any soldier to join the army, and therefore, in a way, they knew what they were signing up for. Puri walked off the debate and refused to apologise for his comment. Puri’s stance surprised many, especially when they had heard him question an Aamir Khan for the comment he made on the “climate of intolerance” in India. Puri felt that such remarks could incite people against each other and asked Khan to apologise to the nation.
A few days after his comments on the army, Puri reportedly wanted to make amends for his outburst. He told a newspaper scribe that his outburst was a result of being irritated after being poked continuously on a live television debate, and added that it was terribly wrong of him to disrespect soldiers. But the manner in which media highlighted his outburst was so intense that no one bothered to talk about the change of heart that Puri had had once he acknowledged that it was wrong of him to disrespect our soldiers. Puri even toyed with the idea of quitting acting altogether after completing a three-month-long offer from Canada that he was supposed to begin in a few days.
All controversies aside, Om Puri’s death marks the end of not only a great actor who broke new ground across Indian, American, British, as well other cinemas, but also an era where an unlikely hero could become a true star.