Om Puri

One who rose above his roles

Print edition : February 03, 2017

Om Puri. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Om Puri with Naseeruddin Shah, with whom he shared the screen in several seious films.

Om Puri's moment finally came in 1983 with "Ardh Satya". He played a cop and Sadashiv Amrapurkar played the villain.

Om Puri (1950-2017) came into his own in Indian cinema with “Ardh Satya” and with his screen presence and dialogue delivery strode parallel and mainstream cinema with ease.

THE early 1980s was the best period to be a serious actor in Hindi cinema. It was the time when the parallel cinema movement was not only appreciated but had begun to be accepted beyond the niche crowd that frequented art house cinema shows. Names such as Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani had become identifiable among those whose understanding of cinema did not go beyond popular films such as Amar Akbar Anthony.

The likes of Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Ketan Mehta were just a shout away. It was nothing short of a miracle when three films in succession— Aakrosh, Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai and Bhavni Bhavai—got the discerning as well as the more easily pleased sections of the audience rooting and cheering. While the first two were straight from the art house stable, soaked in the angst and pathos of the deprived and the dispossessed, Bhavni Bhavai, a Gujarati film directed by Ketan Mehta, proved that folklore could be the subject of serious cinema, too. All the three ground-breaking films starred Om Puri, who was in the middle of completing a quartet of actors, with Naseeruddin Shah, who studied theatre acting at the National School of Drama with him, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. Together, they dominated serious cinema. And when any director of note got a script ready, the names of Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil and Om Puri, in that order, were the ones that were first pencilled in. Later, when Deepti Naval sought to join them, the door opened, but only partially.

Albert Pinto, Aakrosh and Bhavni Bhavai were remarkable for the way they arrived at the cinema houses. Back then, the release of commercial potboilers would be preceded by advance publicity, with billboards erected at vantage points across cities and movie trailers/teasers, drip-feeding information about the forthcoming film either before the screening of a film at theatres or during “intermission” of a film screening. Nothing of the sort heralded the arrival, of say, Shyam Benegal’s Ankur or Mrinal Sen’s Mrigayaa. However, Albert Pinto, Aakrosh and Bhavni Bhavai brought about a big change in what the viewers wanted to see.

When Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh was made, it created a buzz among university students, who were already in a mood for films that did not portray the typical Bollywood melodrama. So much so that Aakrosh was actually released at cinema houses located near university campuses. In Delhi, Batra, then a new theatre, screened Aakrosh for seven weeks at a stretch. Such was the craze for this intense story of corruption in the judicial system to the detriment of the underprivileged, penned by the Marathi playwright Vijay Tendulkar, that special shows were arranged on Sunday afternoons.

While young men and women returned from the movie houses discussing Naseeruddin Shah’s brooding intensity, there were more than a mere handful who acclaimed Om Puri’s piercing intensity and his ability to communicate without uttering a word.

His rich baritone voice was to be applauded later. Om Puri won the Filmfare Best Actor in a Supporting Role Award for Aakrosh and the film itself won the National Award for the Best Film.

Around the same time came Saeed Mirza’s Albert Pinto. The film aroused such interest with its unusual name that many went to the movie for the wrong reasons, for those were the days of Amitabh Bachchan in his angry young man roles ruling the box office. Those who did not go to the movie to see something similar returned reasonably happy. Movie-goers praised Naseeruddin Shah for the way he played an idealistic Christian mechanic, and many of them liked Om Puri’s acting, too. The film, though, failed to live up to the hype in terms of box office returns.

Together, the three films, and indeed others before them, including Ankur, Manthan and Nishant, told the world that India was ready to leave mainstream escapism and embrace realism. As the actors who worked in these films came to be easily identified in real life, first Naseeruddin Shah and then Om Puri were hailed as the ruling duo of serious cinema. But there was a catch: it was almost always Naseeruddin Shah followed by Om Puri, seldom vice-versa. The roles accordingly had as much meat for the duo. Despite the clear gap in screen time, it was obvious that the two men had undoubted mettle, though few directors were ready to give Om Puri the responsibility of carrying a film solely on his shoulders. His high-calibre voice always needed the softer hues of Naseeruddin Shah’s presence and the simmering fire of Shabana Azmi. Om Puri’s ability to dig his teeth into the role, though, could not be denied.

But his moment finally came in 1983 with Ardh Satya. He played the cop in this Nihalani film that left many disturbed. The film helped Om Puri establish himself as the man whose screen presence and dialogue delivery were enough to get the discerning audiences queuing up at the turnstiles. It broke many a barrier. Cinemas that specialised in playing commercial movies in daily four shows created a matinee slot for it. Others played it in the morning or noon show. Either way, Ardh Satya proved that an angry young man need not be over the top in his performance to appeal to audiences.

Ardh Satya marked a homecoming of sorts for Om Puri. He started his career with the Marathi film Ghashiram Kotwal in 1976; now, seven years later, he got to share screen space with Sadashiv Amrapurkar, then a well-established name in Marathi theatre and cinema. Incidentally, it took a good word from Vijay Tendulkar for the two to come together: Nihalani had not seen Amrapurkar earlier but was advised to watch him on stage. He did, and in the middle of the play made up his mind to cast him as Rama Shetty opposite Om Puri’s Anant Welankar. In a rarity, it starred Naseeruddin Shah in a less meaty role of a suspended cop. The film was a splendid advertisement for Om Puri’s stern bearing, and Amrapurkar’s eyes that could burn down the enemy. With Ardh Satya, Nihalani proved that serious cinema did not have to be dull or slow moving. It could grab the viewer’s attention, not allowing him the privilege of moving out for a cup of coffee during the interval. Om Puri won the National Award for the Best Actor for the film. He had clearly stepped out of Naseeruddin Shah’s shadows. Much later, when Naseeruddin Shah did Gulzar’s Ijaazat with Rekha, Om Puri got his own screen time opposite the style diva with Basu Bhattacharya’s Aastha. Both men proved that they could hold their own in front of Rekha and help in raising the respective films to above average levels. Of course, Asha Bhonsle’s rain-soaked melodies in Ijaazat helped the film stay in viewers’ minds longer. Om Puri did not occupy centre stage for long, though. The same year (1983) had Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron in which Naseeruddin Shah was the king. The film, which had Sudhir Mishra as one of the assistant directors, was an example of brilliant teamwork, with Satish Shah, Bhakti Bharve, Ravi Baswani and Pankaj Kapoor, besides Om Puri, coming up with a gem each. The comic timing displayed by Om Puri was to later land him a rare author-backed role with the Hindi television serial Kakaji Kahin. Cast in a pivotal role by Basu Chatterjee, Om Puri proved that his popularity transcended mediums. If he could pull off Ardh Satya on the big screen, he could also rule the family drawing rooms with Kakaji Kahin. The TV serial was not Om Puri’s only passport to fame on television. He had done Shyam Benegal’s seminal Bharat Ek Khoj, playing with aplomb the characters of Alauddin Khalji and Krishnadeva Raya II. The ease with which he modulated his voice, and the natural air with which he changed his language, spoke volumes for Om Puri’s early learning under Punjabi theatre veteran Harpal Tiwana who, it is said, noticed Om Puri’s talent in a play early on and asked him to join his theatre group, Punjab Kala Manch. It is there that Om Puri learned the value of team work. He would fetch eggs for the team, learn about stage design and sets, and do baby-sitting besides, of course, honing his timing on stage.

It was this ability to lose himself that helped Om Puri in more than one film across many a continent. For instance, when he was doing Roland Joffe’s City of Joy, he actually learned to pull a rickshaw from a couple of men who were plying rickshaws for livelihood. So good was Om Puri at rickshaw pulling that a bystander is said to have commented that he resembled Om Puri. Others concluded that he was indeed the actor who had fallen on bad times. In Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, Om Puri’s cameo was worth more than many a main role. The best though were East is East, My Son the Fanatic and The Hundred Foot Journey. His fan following grew by leaps and bounds, often his timing leaving his peers in awe. Not that he was always judicious with his choices. He erred badly with Saturday Suspense and The Ghost and the Darkness. In films too, he made the blunder of working in T.L.V. Prasad’s Guru Mahaguru and much earlier in Raj Chopra’s Meena Bazar where he shared the screen space with the likes of Poonam Dasgupta.

Such ventures only proved that Om Puri was human, too. For all his impeccable screen timing, he could err in the choice of films as well. Err he did in real life, too. It was something that came out in ugly tones in his biography, Unlikely Hero, penned by his wife Nandita. Om Puri had a couple of unsuccessful marriages, first with actor Annu Kapoor’s sister, Seema, and later with Nandita, then a journalist. Then there was a case of marital violence, leaving Om Puri alone and lonely in the last years of his life. He longed to go back to his first wife. He was not quite happy with the films on offer. And he was certainly dismayed at the way politics was impinging upon cinema. He was a rare man to speak out in favour of Pakistani actors working in Indian cinema at the height of the Shiv Sena-led protest. He was trolled mercilessly for speaking his mind. But then that was Om Puri.

Never flamboyant, his pock-marked face and the ordinariness of it keeping him away from candyfloss screen romances and glamour. He was never larger than life. But even when he played second fiddle to Naseeruddin Shah, he always rose above the film. He will be remembered as an actor who was always better than his films.

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