Over forty years, he defined what is realistic acting, whether it be in the parallel cinema, Bollywood, Hollywood or British films
In his trademark voice, the 66-year-old noted actor par excellence Om Puri said, “My contribution as an actor will be visible once I leave this world and the younger generation, especially film students will watch my films.” Nobody knew that these lines of his last interview would become a reality so soon. His sudden demise left everyone in a shock. In a true manner, Om Puri was a first Indian actor who left his mark in different genres and styles of cinema worldwide. Whether it’s theatre or television or films – Indian, British, Hollywood and Pakistani cinema, he did it all and left a lasting impression. There is no shortage of roles, big or small, heroic, comic or villainous in commercial or art films that does not showcase his acting skills. Om Puri perhaps best exhibited the adage in the thespian world: there are no small roles, only small actors. What with his pockmarked face and a rather obtrusive nose, he broke the stereotype of the conventional ‘good looking’ Bollywood hero by setting an example of artistic prowess.
After a successful inning on stage with NSD and FTII the veteran actor started his journey in celluloid with a Marathi film Ghashiram Kotwal in 1976. After Ghashiram, Om Puri played the role of a Marxist in Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978), directed by Saeed Akhtar Mirza. He played a remarkable role in Mirza’s other movie, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (1980).
But Om Puri got massive acclaim with movie Aakrosh in 1980. In Aakrosh, directed by Nihalani, he played the memorable character of a victimised tribal Lahanya Bhiku, a mute murder suspect whose silence through the picture is broken by a blood-curdling scream that reveals that his tongue had been slashed!
His next breakthrough film was the 1982 gritty drama Ardh Satya, about a young policeman’s crisis of conscience as he deals with the nexus between crime and politics in India. He won the National Film Award for best actor this role.
He was the major face of the parallel cinema movement alongside his contemporaries and NSD batchmate Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, working collectively in some of the biggest Indian classics like Bhumika, Sparsh, Bhavni Bhavai, Mirch Masala, Sadgati, Arohan and the iconic film Mandi. Around this time, the so-called mainstream Bollywood directors - at war with the parallel cinema movement - realised that it was impossible to keep their doors shut for this genius. In Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, perhaps Bombay’s best comedy film ever, he plays a drunk builder in a conspiracy to kill a land official, his rendition was a little more than ‘superb’.
Then there were Chachi 420, Machis, Tamas, Kakaji Kahin, Bharat Ek Khoj... where one witnesses his versatility. The actor, who starred in around 300 movies also received the Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India in the year 1990. Born in Ambala, Haryana, to a Railway officer, he was the youngest of seven children. Though he joined the theatre group Punjab Kala Manch while in college, he chose to get trained at the national School of Drama. After that he did his training at Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India.
Om Puri won a slew of national awards and international fame for his work in several critically acclaimed films. After a small role in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi his international profile increased through the years in Hollywood and European films. He worked with noted actors and directors of British and Hollywood cinema. He appeared in two of Mike Nichols’ films. He starred with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007).
Om Puri has left an indelible mark on Indian cinema. His trade mark was naturality. “D’Souza, tu to gaya”, he said, tumbling out of a hotel room drunk headless, in Jane Bhi Do...
That one sentence may perhaps shows up what he stood for in terms of acting.
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