An unlikely hero

Om Puri told many a tale quite effectively with his expressive eyes and deep baritone voice.

A few winters back, I had the great fortune to watch the Punjabi play, Teri Amrita. The tender tale about unrequited love had the t

wo protagonists reading out letters they had written to each other over the years.

Sitting at separate tables, the actors mouthed their lines without even looking at each other. Voice modulation and dialogue delivery were the only tools they had to work with.

And what a performance they sculpted — the vivacious Divya Dutta as the playful, sometimes coquettish, at other times forlorn Amrita, and the inimitable Om Puri as the authoritative and practical Zulfi, provided the perfect pitch to the poignant setting. That was my uber moment, watching my favourite actor Om Puri in action.    
One of the finest actors of our times, the ordinary looking Om Puri could enliven the proceedings with his sheer acting prowess. Absolutely effortless on screen, he just seemed to walk in and out of the scenes, the encomium we use for another great, Balraj Sahni.

Naseeruddin Shah, Puri’s classmate and friend, has called him his inspiration. “He was the most hardworking student. Later, I realised why people like Puri work so hard. He was not a naturally gifted actor,” Shah had once said. Such was the genius of Om Puri.

An unlikely hero with an “imperfect” face, he told many a tale quite effectively with his expressive eyes, the magical cadences of his deep baritone voice and perfect timing. In a space uniquely his own, my indelible memory of him is as the untouchable running through the streets with his wife in labour on a cart, frantically looking for help even as riots rage on in the aftermath of Partition. That was the opening scene of Tamas, the show that set the tone for mini-series on Doordarshan.
Or as the city-bred young man who takes lessons on hinterland politics from another legendary actor Manohar Singh in the political satire, Raag Darbari. His legendary rivalry with Naseeruddin Shah was aptly brought on screen in his face-off with Shah’s Chhatrapati  Shivaji versus his Mughal emperor Aurangazeb in Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj. And who can forget his ruthless Allauddin Khilji lustily eyeing Rajput queen Padmavati or the ambitious Rajaraja Chola executing his expansionist plans in the same series. 

In the multiple Oscar-winning Gandhi, he had a blink-and-miss role as an angry rioter who flings a roti at the fasting Mahatma at the fag end of the film — but who dare blink when he is on screen! His versatility as an actor shone through in the utterly hilarious character of the eternally drunk Ahuja in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, especially in the one long scene with the coffin of Commissioner D’Mello.

In another equally entertaining scene, as all characters stake a claim on the body of D’Mello amid an enactment of Maha­bharata, Puri says, “Draupadi tere akele ki nahin hain, hum sab shareholders hain.” Sure, we are all shareholders in the legacy of the impressive body of work the consummate actor has left behind.

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