In a four-decade-long career studded with memorable roles that defined their time — and transcended it on occasion — Om Puri has travelled the distance from an Indian legend to a bankable international actor like no one else from this country. In the recent Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey production The Hundred-Foot Journey, he holds his own even against the formidable Helen Mirren with remarkable ease.
However, we in India have for long taken his talent for granted. He was an intrinsic part of parallel cinema’s iconic quartet from the 1970s and 80s, which also included Naseeruddin Shah, ShabanaAzmi and SmitaPatil. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that legends are reduced to reliable stereotypes by the culprit who goes scot-free: our commercial cinema that offers such a limited choice of roles to great actors who deserve so much more.
Like his parallel cinema contemporaries, Puri, too, did a lot of forgettable films — one cannot live on just acclaim and awards — but as a trained professional, he has given a degree of credibility to poorly written roles. On balance, when you think of Puri, it is a roll-call of outstanding performances, some in films that have gone on to become landmarks.
His distinctive baritone, a grounded earthiness and an ability to enter the troubled psyche of the protagonist to convince the viewer of the truth of the person he portrays sum up the actor at his best. Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980), along with Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960), is one of the most disturbing Indian films, in its power to wound the soul. Puri’s Lahanya Biku’s obdurate silence conveys shades of pain that words can’t. He refuses to speak to or even look at the government-appointed lawyer who sincerely wants to help him. You see him lying on the floor of the cell, almost writhing with anguish as memories of his dead wife surface from the dark in fragmented images.
A year later came Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati, in which Puri looks emaciated. His limbs grow progressively weaker with hunger and hard labour, and he finally falls dead. While talking to me once, Puri modestly said he had made some suggestions to the master film-maker Ray to make the scene in which the Brahmin priest takes away the Dalit’s corpse more real. Ray accepted his recommendations: Mohan Agashe, the priest, ties a rope to the dead man’s ankle and drags him away from the village. Puri is a thinking actor who isn’t afraid to offer his take on how a scene can be made more authentic.
To a lesser extent, in Shyam Benegal’s Arohan (1982), he conveyed the illiterate peasant’s incomprehension of the court’s proceedings and judicial process with touching poignancy.
In 1983, Nihalani provided yet another crossover platform for Puri to dazzle us on. Ardh Satya articulates the stark despair of a sensitive individual trapped in a corrupt system. Nihalani paces Vijay Tendulkar’s script with calibrated force, making sub-inspector Anant Velinkar the most significant character of the 1980s because he symbolises the brutalisation of an essentially sensitive man. Velinkar is a typically repressed young man who submits to an authoritarian father in his career choice. He would rather study literature than be a cop. His crippling psychological emasculation and feeling of inadequacy are given Freudian credibility.
Velinkar’s simmering anger spurts into blind violence whenever he sees women physically molested and abused. Puri’s intensity is frightening when his rage explodes into unreasoning animal anger and disproportionate violence. It is brave of a virile Punjabi young actor in the initial years of his career to play a man who tries to overcome his deep-rooted feeling of impotency through a macho burst of self-righteous violence.
Viewed over four decades, Anant Velinkar is a more complex man, disturbing us with his inadequacies, than Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man of Zanjeer, released ten years earlier. It is good to remember that Ardh Satya achieved an unexpected degree of acceptability with an audience largely addicted to Bollywood formula. Nihalani’s use of Dilip Chitre’s poem seeps into our consciousness, which is familiar with the motif of Abhimanyu caught in the Chakravyuh, with its brilliant concluding lines:
“But the nature of the trap will never change…
Shall I die? Or shall I kill?
Shall I be the victim or the assassin?
This can never be settled.
The light in which decisions are made,
Does it render all things equal?
Impotence is weighed against manhood:
And the pointer of the balance fixed on a half-truth.”
Puri’s performance in Ardh Satya was more than matched by that in Tamas (1987), Nihalani’s epic on Partition as seen through the eyes of the uprooted common man caught in the vortex of communal violence. The sheer cinematic brilliance of the opening scene, with long takes that demand so much from an actor – Puri’s face betrays fear, and his physical energy is drained by the exhausting task of capturing a pig and killing it – is unmatched for conveying so much without words. After such an acting triumph, one wondered, what next?
What made Puri stand out even among the parallel cinema greats of his generation was the sheer range of his acting talent. As seen in the deadpan black humour of Jaane Bhi Do Yaron (1983), in which he played the corrupt builder Ahuja, and his portrayal of the slimy, sneaky secretary tailing the matronly, mysterious Chachi who has captured his boss’s fancy in Chachi 420 (1997), he is adept at underplaying to milk the laughs. He can be hearty when the scene demands or play it down to match the tone. There are no ego hassles when it comes to fitting into an ensemble cast; Benegal’s rambunctious brothel comedy, Mandi (1983), has him in a small role of a sleazy photographer who tries his damnedest to film the girls in revealing clothes and poses.
To vary his range, he went back to playing the seriously driven lecturer Deven in Ismail Merchant’s mournful ode to Urdu poetry, In Custody (1993). He is both the catalyst and helpless observer of the decline of a once-great poet. The irony of a middle-class man struggling with college bureaucracy while pursuing his passion for the reclusive poet is brought out through small behavioural details and dogged determination at all odds.
In The Hundred-Foot Journey, Puri is expansive and sly, by turns, in the larger than life role of Papa Kadam, taking on the chillingly superior Madame Mallory with gusto and upping the ante in insulting rejoinders. This engaging war of cultures and cuisines meanders to a predictably sweet ending. What spices up the watchable drama is the cut and thrust of the verbal warfare between the snooty Frenchwoman and the gregarious Indian paterfamilias.
It was international cinema that reinvented Puri the actor in the 1990s. In Roland Joffe’s City of Joy (1992), Puri and ShabanaAzmi reprised bits of Do Bigha Zamin – the Bihari family coming to Calcutta to eke out a living in order to repay a loan and Hazari Pal (Puri) plying a rickshaw. The emphasis of City of Joy was more on Patrick Swayze and his humanitarian mission, and yet, Puri did have an impact that led to more international roles.
He bloomed more in British films. England’s familiarity with working-class immigrants from the subcontinent resulted in authentic scripts that probed beneath the surface of cultural clashes and problems of adjustment. Puri’s taxi-driver Parvez in My Son the Fanatic (1997) revealed the generational gap between a father who fits into British society and a son who gets drawn into Islamic fundamentalism to the former’s utter incomprehension.
East is East (1999) tones down the generational gap for easy laughs. Puri’s George Khan, a Pakistani with a white British wife who tries to shield her children’s minor and major escapades (including one son’s homosexuality), is all macho bluster. He tries to steamroll his kids to fit the good Muslim stereotype. The infectious goodwill and cheery satire of East is East has a funny aside that one remembers to this day. George Khan goes to his favourite theatre playing Bollywood films and stops the screening of whatever film is on to show ChaudhvinKa Chand, and the celebrated anthem to WaheedaRehman’s luminous beauty begins on cue.
The sequel, West is West, released more than a decade later, is a damp squib made for the sake of making a sequel, hoping to stretch the comic potential by taking the sons of the family back to Pakistan and confronting the sulking silence of the abandoned first wife. Puri looks as hassled as the film’s director must have been to make something of a narrative that really goes nowhere. Puri does try to cope manfully, as his wont.
I have to admit to having not seen all Puri’s international films, but can say with firsthand experience that The Hundred-Foot Journey got gratifying, appreciative chuckles and laughs at the right places in an American multiplex with a predominantly white audience — not houseful, but a decent enough crowd. The Hindi dialogue was not subtitled. Puri’s body language and voice inflections were enough to convey the gist of the meaning. If that is not the signature of a good actor who is often great, what else is?