My apologies. This tribute to Om Puri is so late now that perhaps it’s already time for him to be reborn! But do read for legends never die and it’s never too late to write about them…
That pockmarked face with blazing eyes had dared to dream of becoming an actor in an industry that ran on star power and “face value”, and Om Puri had neither.
Naseeruddin Shah, his friend of 40 years since their NSD days, recalled in a television interview how their co-star in several parallel films, Shabana Azmi, had looked at an old photo of the two friends and had jokingly commented: How could such ugly men even think of becoming actors!
Indeed. How could they?
The answer was beautifully captured in an ad on Doordarshan in the late eighties or perhaps early Nineties. One vaguely remembers it was an ad for a scooter and went something like this:
Om: Log kahte thhe tum actor nahi ban sakte…lekin mujhe apni kabiliat par pura bharosa tha…
Technician: Sir, shot ready hai
Om: Dekha? Ab sir kahte hain!
Om Puri carried the aspirations of the Average Joes of an entire generation on his shoulders and this ad tried to cash in on the success of this man, who was making waves in an industry that valued an actor’s looks more than his or her acting skills. His success was an inspiration not only to struggling actors but people in general.
He did not even have the advantages that his friend Naseer had — “charm and impeccable English” as Om himself had put it in an interview.
But what he had was confidence — as he says in that ad — in his ability as an actor. The ability to transform himself on stage or in front a camera to be the characters we came to love over the years.
From the angry cop in Ardha Satya to the likeable buffoon in Hera Pheri, from the rickshawala in City of Joy to George in East is East, Om Puri has left his footprints in English films as much as the parallel cinema movement of the 70s and 80s and of course regular Bollywood fare.
But those who knew him closely say his global fame sat lightly on him, to the extent that he appeared quite oblivious of his colossal status in the world of cinema. He was proud of his work but had no airs about him — an uncomplicated, emotional and down-to-earth Punjabi man who had his own flaws like any human being.
The son of a railway man, he is known to have washed dishes at a tea stall and scrounged around for pieces of coal fallen from steam engines on the tracks to help run his family’s kitchen fire. Such humble beginings kept him rooted and helped him effortlessly portray those raw emotions on screen that left us spellbound.
In Satyajit Ray’s TV film Sadgati based on a Premchand short story, Puri’s silent portrayal of the untouchable Dukhia’s pain, suffering and his impotent rage at being exploited by the Brahmin remains etched in one’s memory and so is Ardha Satya’s angry cop Anant Velenkar’s fury when he mercilessly beats up a thief in lockup while the audience sees through Anant’s eyes that he is thrashing his own demons.
But Om Puri was not just about raw emotions, he could also make you laugh. Slapstick comedy came as naturally to him as any of his serious roles and he did it better than those who were known for such roles.
Recall Ahuja in Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron in that epic stage sequence where he enters in Bheem’s costume still wearing his goggles. “Oye baat to maine apne baap ki nai suni tu cheez kya hai?,” Ahuja deadpans when asked by Arjun, “Bheem kya tum bhratha Yudhisthir ki baat nahi sunoge?”
A crooked Punjabi businessman, who loves his tipple, played to the hilt by a Punjabi bloke who loved his booze. Recall another legendary scene where a drunk Ahuja thinks the dead civic official D’Mello’s (played dead in the entire movie by Satish Shah) coffin is a sports car! Om lifts this over-the-top slapstick sequence to another level, making us believe that Ahuja was indeed capable of such stupidity.
That was 1983. His knack for comedy remained largely unutilised– barring that memorable DD satirical series Kakka Ji Kahin where he plays a political fixer– till we get to see him in a string of comedies such as Hera Pheri and Golmaal.
The versatility of Om Puri’s craft is matchless, even his legendary college buddy Naseer doesn’t come close. And we haven’t even touched the body of his work in international films, which is for a later post.
Om Puri was born to be an actor. Like Naseer says in one of his interviews that Om credits me with bringing him into films, but the fact is: “Om jahan bhi hota Govind Nihlani usse zameen khod kar nikaal lata.”