Mumbai, It was just yesterday that I met Om Puri at the movies, on the big screen, albeit as a disembodied voice in a small film called Prakash Electronics. His booming, gravelly intonation was unmistakeable in the film’s voiceover. Among the many things about him, as one of India’s foremost actors, I can’t shake off the impact of his strong, emotive, expressive voice, especially as the cop Anant Velankar in Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (1983), rendering aloud Dilip Chitre’s poem and slowly realising how it actually reflected his own doubts and dilemmas:
Ek palde mein napunsakta,
ek palde mein paurush,
aur theek taraazu ke kaante par
(Impotence balanced on one side of the scale,
Masculinity on the other,
And right on the needle in the middle of the weighing scale,
A half truth)
Face of the marginalised
Ironically, the performance that made the viewers take note of Puri and implanted him in the viewers’ consciousness most strongly and everlastingly was the one in which he barely spoke save that last, haunting scream of anguish. His vacant eyes, gritty face and sheer intensity of presence told the tale of extreme oppression of the underprivileged, victimised tribal Lahanya Bhiku, the role he became one with in Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980).
Those were the days of the zenith of Indian parallel cinema and Puri rode splendidly on the wave alongside virtuoso talent like Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil among others, and supported by directors like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Ketan Mehta, Kundan Shah and Sudhir Mishra. He and Naseeruddin Shah have been a prime example of healthy rivalry and positive competition when it comes to cinema, both feeding off and contributing to each other’s growth as actors. Both came with the thespian training of two rock solid institutes behind them — the National School of Drama in Delhi and the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. The niggling personal issues, if there were any, cease to matter now in retrospect.
“He was like water, taking the shape of every vessel he was put in. He soaked in the generosity and creative influences in his life,” remembers a friend. Some of Puri’s most significant performances in this time were all about the deprived and the disadvantaged. Perhaps Puri’s own struggles in childhood and youth in Punjab brought them alive with a rare verity. Take for instance, the control and dignity with which he essayed the trauma of an untouchable shoemaker in Satyajit Ray’s TV film Sadgati (1981). Or the desperation of the poor land tiller in Shyam Bengal’s Arohan (1982).
The “imperfect” face, which was initially perceived as his biggest drawback, eventually became his calling card, the blemishes only adding to the strong personality and depth of expression. It was in this ordinariness that gave Puri a face and identity to the common man on screen.
Staggering diversity in roles
When the parallel cinema movement ebbed, he was able to switch effortlessly to the mainstream as well. One of his earliest memorable roles was that of the cop in Rajkumar Santoshi’s Ghayal (1990) and then again in Rajiv Rai’s Gupt(1997). Just as much as the intensity he got identified with, Puri’s perfect comic timing made him win as many hearts. Most prominently as the corrupt, inebriated builder Ahuja in Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983), especially in the one long scene with the dead body of Commissioner D’Mello (Satish Shah). Assuming D’Mello’s coffin to be a broken down car, he tows him away to his farm house, a moment that makes one double up in laughter till date. He was as insanely funny as the womaniser Banwari Lal in Kamal Haasan’s Chachi 420 (1997).
The strength of good actors lies not just in bringing author-backed roles to life but in how they make their presence felt even in smaller roles and cameos. One of my favourite Puri performances is in Sai Paranjape’s Sparsh (1980). As the blind man Dubey, never once does he turn the disability into a caricature, as Bollywood is prone to, but lives his visual impairment physically, with all the inner turmoil and anxieties. Then he towered in the climactic moments of Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987), as Abu Mian, the guard of the spice factory, who gives refuge to Sonbai and is the only man standing with the women against the arrogant subedar and the submissive village. He was the powerful Sanatan in Maachis (1996), the pivot on which rested Gulzar’s problematising of the insurgency in Punjab, on how innocent youth were forced to turn “terrorists” at the alter of the “system”.
Puri was instrumental in being the ambassador of realistic Indian cinema abroad and ended up being part of a number of reputable and also some smaller foreign films, starting with a small role in Richard Attenborough’s epic Gandhi(1982). In Roland Joffe’s City of Joy (1992) he is the unlikely poor migrant pal of Max, played by Patrick Swayze.
In Ismail Merchant’s In Custody (1993), he is the Hindi professor who loves Urdu poetry. He acted alongside Jack Nicholson in Mike Nichols’ Wolf (1994). Two smaller but significant turns were in Udayan Prasad’s My Son the Fanatic (1994) where he is the liberal father of a hardliner son. And then in Damien O’Donnell’s East Is East (1999), where he is the conservative Pakistani father unable to deal with the generation gap and cultural rift with his half British kids.
Last, but not the least, Puri was at the head of the quality content on television, in the glory days of Doordarshan, be it the sprawling Partition epic Tamas ,Bharat Ek Khoj , Yatra , or the betel-chewing netaji in Kakaji Kahin . Somewhere in the midst of it all these mediums, the original platform — theatre — took a backseat. The last a friend remembers seeing him on stage was in a Punjabi adaptation of the play Tumhari Amrita , called Teri Amrita , with Divya Dutta.
Friends remember him the most as a caring person and a dogged nurturer to his son Ishaan, who has a visual impairment. Sadly, the last few years for Puri had not been great. The explicit revelations in the book, Unlikely Hero: The Story of Om Puri, by his second wife Nandita Puri, broke him and the marriage as well. There was also a concomitant, unfortunate personal dissolution.
The only consequential presence in film of late was as the blacksmith sutradhar (narrator) in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Mirzya last year. And the last straw, perhaps, was how he was humiliated publicly for his contrarian views on the Indian armed forces on television.
But some good is still to come even in his absence. He is in perfect tune — laidback, natural and full of good humour — as Bakshi Uncle with his onscreen better half, Tanuja, in Konkona Sen Sharma’s upcoming debut feature as a director, A Death In The Gunj .
Meanwhile, my abiding memories of him are of a close encounter way back in 2010 at a film festival in Yamuna Nagar, Haryana. He was pleasantly surprised at the overwhelming number of women in the audience, pointed out that there were more “devis” than “devatas” in the hall. Though he was a bit guarded while speaking of the sex and nudity scenes in his own film My Son the Fanatic, he was extremely happy at the response of the “politically aware” audience to filmmaker Seema Kapoor’s (also his first wife) film Haat – the Weekly Bazaar , on the Rajasthani custom of Natha Pratha. “It’s ridiculous to assume that small-town audiences are not ready for serious cinema. We have to give them an opportunity,” he said. The audience lapped it up and went beserk clapping. After all, it was Puri walking the talk on what he has been the best on screen — their face, the face of the common man.