New Delhi: “In my opinion, any art creation — whether it is a poem, novel, or a film — through which you connect with the public, is a weapon in social or political struggle,” journalist Avinash (Om Puri) says in the film Party (1984). In real life, too, Om Puri followed this maxim.
For Puri, cinema was a medium to touch the lives of farmers, labourers, shopkeepers and to force the wealthy to introspect. It reflects in the characters he played in his career spanning over four decades. He often gave voice to characters that were marginalised or went unnoticed, whether it was a rickshaw puller or a cotton weaver.
Om Puri acted in more than 300 movies, bringing many characters to life. Comedy, drama, commercial, parallel cinema — he was everywhere. His deep rumbling voice and nuanced performances ensured that he became a household name.
Puri would have turned 69 years old today.
An unconventional actor
Born on 18 October 1950 in Ambala, Puri did not have a comfortable childhood. After his father was arrested for a false theft charge, the family was forced to live in dire poverty.
“I was sent to a tea stall as my mother thought that I’d at least get a day’s meal there. I also cleaned vessels at a dhaba,” Puri said in an interview. He and his brother often collected coal fallen near the railway track as trains passed by.
After school, he joined an evening college and started working as a lab assistant to earn some money during the day.
“Once, I participated in a play and won first prize in the National Youth Festival. Among the panel of judges was prominent playwright Harpal Tiwana from Punjab Kala Manch. He asked me to join his theatre group. I said I work during the day and earn Rs 125 per month. He said he will pay me Rs 150. That’s how it all started. I later got a clerical job which I left for the passion of theatre and joined the National School of Drama” Puri told Irrfan Khan in an interview on Rajya Sabha TV.
A big nose, a face full of chickenpox scars and a heavy Punjabi accent — it wasn’t an easy ride for the aspiring actor. Recollecting his NSD days, he said, “I came from a Punjabi medium school and did not know how to speak English. NSD was intimidating and I wanted to run away from there. My teacher Ebrahim Alkazi observed and told me that English was not a difficult language to learn and also encouraged me to ask if I did not understand something.” So he did.
After NSD, he auditioned for the Film and Television Institute of India in the 1970s. His wife and the author of his biography Unlikely Hero Nandita Puri wrote that the panel remarked that he “neither had a face of a hero, nor a villain, nor a comedian”.
Puri knew that making a name as the lead in commercial cinema would be difficult for him. “I never went to any other director or producer except Shyam Benegal,” he had said in the Rajya Sabha TV interview.
The legendary filmmaker found Puri incredibly versatile and devoted to the craft. He remarked, “It was in 1981 we first worked on a feature film where he was in the lead role. Arohan was shot in Calcutta and some remote villages in Bengal. In the film, Om was in the central character and he gave a radiant performance that also won him the National Award.”
Balancing art & commercial cinema
Right from Marathi film Ghashiram Kotwal (1976) based on Vijay Tendulkar’s play, Puri went on to act in some of the most critically acclaimed films in Hindi cinema. Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal, Kundan Shah were some of the auteurs he worked with. A cop juggling between idealism and grim reality in Ardh Satya, a hilarious turn as a corrupt builder in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro — whatever be the character, it became his second skin. He learned to pull a rickshaw on the busy streets of Kolkata for City of Joy, wove cotton for Susman (1987) and mastered horse riding for China Gate (1968). In three years (1981 to 1983), he won two National Awards.
But Puri knew that he couldn’t survive on only parallel cinema. “One cannot buy a house by working in art films,” he said. “Compromising between art and ‘harmless’ commercial cinema was inevitable for a reasonably good life in Mumbai,” he added.
He believed that cinema was the most powerful medium to reach more people. “If I did Ardh Satya and Tamas in theatre, it would have taken my whole life to reach as many people as it did through the silver screen.”
From Punjab to Hollywood
His journey from a struggling hesitant English speaker to working in Hollywood and British cinema, is inspiring. He became the first Indian to be awarded the Order of British Empire in July 2004. Puri was also the first Indian actor to be nominated for the BAFTA award for his role of a Pakistani father in East is East.
Puri acknowledged this film to be a stepping stone for his career in international cinema. American filmmaker Bette Gordon wrote about East is East, “What really makes this film outstanding are the performances, especially that of Om Puri as George…. he brings a warmth to what could easily be a stereotypically tyrannical father. As his world falls apart, we cannot help but feel compassion for George, who takes refuge in the traditions into which he was born, unable to accept ideas alien to his upbringing.”
In December 2016, a month before he passed away due to a cardiac arrest, the actor tweeted, “I have no regrets at all. I have done quite well for myself. I didn’t have a conventional face, but I have done well, and I am proud of it.”