Film maker Goutam Ghose turns nostalgic when I ask him about his actor friend, Om Puri, on a wintry January afternoon. Ghose knew Om Puri from 1981, when Hindi cinema started breaking out of its traditional mould and toppling old patterns of film–making in Bollywood. Om Puri had already carved a niche for himself in this world of new cinema, filled with passion, tension and love of the medium. “I directed two films with Om, Paar and Patang. I summoned him at short notice for Paar(1984) since the local who was supposed to play his part, dropped out at the last minute. Such was Om’s passion for good cinema that he arrived and was ready for his shot in two day’s flat. His performance was outstanding.
In Patang(1993), Om and I worked together again, though the film was not released for political reasons. The film was shot in Gaya and Om mixed with locals to study their mannerisms, dialect etc. He was a serious actor and always did his homework”, recalled Ghose. The award winning director, who loved Om’s performance in Aakrosh, Tamas and Mandi, is now trying to revive Patang, based on the theme of mafia in the railways.
Personally, Ghose recalls a man who was a perfectionist, passionate about cinema and spoke a smattering of Bengali. “He and Nandita(Om’s second wife) met during the shooting of Patang. She came to interview him. I used to call him Golparker jamai”, reminisces Ghose with a smile.
Puri was one of those rare Indian actors who excelled in mainstream commercial Indian, British, American and Pakistani films, as well as art house films. He is best–known for author–backed roles in films like Aakrosh (1980), Arohan (1982) and television films like Sadgati (1981) and Tamas (1987) as well as light–hearted roles in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), Chachi 420 (1997). Says Chaiti Ghosal, a Bengali film and television actress, “Om Puri is one of the top three Indian actors of Bollywood of all time. Puri and Naseeruddin Shah took Indian cinema to new heights in their heydays and even carried the movement of parallel cinema forward. Bereft of good looks, he singlehandedly dispelled the myth that in order to be a hero, you don’t always have to be handsome”.
Puri cut his teeth in acting in the 1976 Marathi film, Ghashiram Kotwal, based on a Marathi play of the same name by Vijay Tendulkar. But that was only the beginning. Along with Amrish Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, he was among the main actors who led what was then referred to as art film movement with films like as Bhavni Bhavai (1980), Sadgati (1981), Ardh Satya (1982), Mirch Masala (1986) and Dharavi (1992). Small wonder then the legendary film director Mrinal Sen said in retrospect that he rated him as ‘an actor of a very high standard’.
The ace actor received critical acclaim for his performances in many unconventional roles such as a victimized tribal in Aakrosh (1980), Jimmy’s manager in Disco Dancer (1982), a police inspector in Ardh Satya (1982), for which he got the National Film Award for Best Actor, Vinod’s uncle in Zamana (1985 film) the leader of a cell of Sikh militants in Maachis (1996), as a tough cop in the commercial film Gupt in 1997 and as the courageous father of a soldier in Dhoop (2003). Puri was awarded the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India and in 2004, was made an honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
In 1999, Puri acted in a Kannada movie AK 47 as a strict police officer who tries to keep the city safe from the underworld—it became a commercial hit. In the same year, he starred in the successful British comedy film, East is East, where he played a first–generation Pakistani immigrant in the north of England, struggling to come to terms with his far more westernised children.
Puri worked in numerous Indian films, as well as many films produced in the United Kingdom and the United States. Puri had a cameo in the highly acclaimed film Gandhi (1982), directed by Richard Attenborough. In the mid–1990s, he diversified to playing character roles in mainstream Hindi cinema, where his roles are more appealing to mass audiences. He became known internationally by starring in many British films such as My Son the Fanatic (1997), East Is East (1999) and The Parole Officer (2001). He appeared in Hollywood films including City of Joy (1992), opposite Patrick Swayze, Wolf (1994) with Jack Nicholson and The Ghost and the Darkness (1996). In 2007, he played General Zia–ul–Haq in Charlie Wilson’s War, which stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. Puri, therefore, will perhaps be remembered as one of India’s first successful cross–over film actors.
Puri’s repertoire also includes Hindi television serials like ‘Kakkaji Kaheen’ (1988) in the role of a a paan–chewing ‘Kakkaji’, which was a parody on politicians, and ‘Mr Yogi’ (1989) as a suave ‘Sutradhaar’ who enjoys pulling the protagonist’s leg. These two serials underline Om Puri’s versatility as a comedian. He also received critical acclaim for his performance in Govind Nihalani’s television film ‘Tamas’ (1988)based on a Hindi novel of the same name. He played comic roles in Hindi films like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro which reached a cult status,followed by Chachi 420 (1997), Hera Pheri (2000), Chor Machaye Shor (2002), Deewane Hue Pagal, Chup Chup Ke, Kismet Connection and Malamaal Weekly (2006). Says Bengali film and television actor Rudranil Ghosh, “Puri’s comic timing was superb. He had a small cameo role in Hera Pheri but he executed it so well. Om Puri’s performance in both serious and comic films will forever make a deep impression on the minds of students of cinema like us”.
His notable roles in commercial Hindi films included Drohkaal, In Custody, Narsimha, Ghayal, Mrityudand, Aastha, Hey Ram, Pyar Toh Hona Hi Tha, Farz, Gadar, Lakshya, Rang De Basanti, Yuva, Singh Is Kinng, Mere Baap Pehle Aap, Billu, Kyunki, Lakshya, Dabang, Bhaji In Problem, Khap, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Ghayal Once Again. In 2014, he appeared opposite Helen Mirren in the comedy–drama The Hundred–Foot Journey.
Puri was born in 1950 in Ambala in a Punjabi family. His father worked in the Railways and in the Indian Army. As an adult, when Puri moved to Bombay, he looked up when Dussehra was celebrated in 1950, to establish his date of birth as October 18. Puri was an alumnus of the 1973 class of National School of Drama, where he studied theatre acting. Another eminent colleague, Naseeruddin Shah was a fellow student, who encouraged Puri to follow him to the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune.
Puri married Seema Kapoor, the sister of actor Annu Kapoor, in 1991, but their marriage ended after eight months.In 1993, he married journalist Nandita Puri, with whom he had a son named Ishaan. In 2009, Nandita wrote a biography of her husband titled ‘Unlikely Hero: The Story Of Om Puri’. Puri never took politics seriously, and often found relaxation by cooking or gardening, a fact corroborated by his director friend, Goutam Ghose. Recounts Ghosal, “I found Om Puri to be extremely down–to earth and affectionate. We met him during the dubbing of my father Shyamal Ghosal’s film, Dastavej. He was sleeping on a sofa at the NFDC studio in Kolkata(for dubbing another film). When I told him that I have seen some of his films, he smiled, who let you see those adult films?”