Om Puri: the unlikely hero

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Om Puri: the unlikely hero

Om Puri. His was a face that was just so familiar in Indian commercial and ‘art house’ films, as well as in British, Pakistani and Hollywood projects.

He carved a niche for himself in the Indian cinema-goers’ hearts with his honest portrayals of whatever role he was assigned. Shabana Azmi, Amrish Puri, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri were familiar faces in many superb ‘new wave’ Hindi films in the 1970s and 80s.

Puri’s cameo appearance in Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, urging the Mahatma to break his fast, is unforgettable, with his intensity searing the screen. Intensity — that was what he brought to his characters, whether it was as the Pakistani Muslim Zaheed ‘George’ Khan in East is East, or Nathu, a chamar in the TV classic Tamas, or as sub-inspector Anant Velankar in Ardh Satya, or as Commissioner Yashwant Sinha in the Kannada film A.K. 47.

Om Puri owned the screen with his blazing portrayals. His rich baritone added depth to his roles. His burning eyes did much of his acting for him. In a career spanning more than 36 years, he was nominated for several acting awards. Puri won two National Awards for acting in Ardh Satya and Arohan.  

His fine portrayals

Om Puri’s portrayal of Zaheed ‘George’ Khan in East is East is one of the actor’s finer portrayals. Puri plays the frustrated father of seven children, who reject his attempts to instill in them a Pakistani way of living, including traditional attire and arranged marriages. Zaheed’s wife-beating and ranting at his children for abandoning their cultural links has stayed fresh in viewers’ memories, although the film released in 1999.

Less familiar perhaps is his brilliant portrayal as director/producer Subramaniam in Bollywood Calling, which brought out the completely disorganised side of the Hindi film industry. Here, the plot revolves around a westerner  who wants to act in a Hindi film. Hilarious episodes in the film underline the sleazy side of the film industry. The comic sequences manage to bring out the underlying tragedy of those who are taken for a ride by unscrupulous operators.

It was one of my favourite Om Puri roles. It showcased his ability to absorb and record subtle details that made his role  outstanding. The sleazy Subramaniam is just one part of the actor’s wide spectrum, while those like Nathu (the chamar from Tamas) or Lahanya Bhiku (in Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh), showed the angst of a character who is repressed by society.

Puri’s portrayal of Bhiku is one of his jewels, where one can feel the full blast of his acting prowess — heightened by the fact that the character does not say anything for the major part of the film — we can hear his voice only twice. For those who have seen Aakrosh, Bhiku’s screams in the film will haunt you for years.

Born in Ambala, Om Puri was not from a film background, but assiduously prepared for his craft. A product of the National School of Drama (NSD) and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Om Puri debuted in the Marathi classic Ghashiram Kothwal in 1972, which was based on a Vijay Tendulkar play by the same name, and there was no looking back after this.

Made a mark

In a medium where conventional good looks mattered, he made a mark with his earthy, pock-marked countenance, and many of his portrayals on screen made it seem as if they were created just for him. It is difficult to imagine an Indian film canvas without Om Puri — he occupied a huge space. It was not only strong characters that he will be remembered for, his comic roles were classics too. He could make you burst out laughing in films like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro or Malamaal Weekly.

He worked in over 100 films in Hindi, English, Kannada, Malayalam, Telugu and Punjabi. The last few years of his life were troubled on the personal front due to marital discord with his second wife, Nandita Puri, from whom he had a judicial separation. The stupendous body of work that the 66-year-old Om Puri leaves behind is testimony to his prodigious talent, and one has a lump in the throat as the news sinks in that this unlikely hero has made his final exit.

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