He was by far the first of the home grown stars who found consistent work in international projects. In this piece from April 2002, when he was just making his presence felt in British cinema, Puri spoke about the challenges he was up against.
Location: White Teeth Unit Office, North London
19.45 GMT the sun hasn’t been out all day; A snow-storm defines the wintry sky. London weather. We weave through the icy rain, swearing at the wind, which has blown all the fluorescent arrows leading to the White Teeth (WT) unit office askew. We met up with Om Pun on that squally day, between shots, punctuated by the legendary London rain. “How these goras still shoot yaar, that’s what demands respect…”
A clutch of bright white trailers set in the largish backyard of an old office, like giants’ uprooted molars: quite apt I think ‘WhiteTeeth. Beside the makeup trailer a spacious caravan, fitted with its own kitchen and bedroom is labelled SAMAD. “See?” he says proudly, “I’m being looked after so well” and then extends his own hospitality. Over a hot brew of peppermint tea, inside the orange warmth of the trailer, Om tells us about this latest project where his character Samad Iqbal Miah, a Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant, is second lead.
Zadie Smith’s White Teeth was voted the winner of the 2000 Whitbread First Novel Award. Channel 4 has picked this critically acclaimed novel for production as a mini-series. Set in 1974, it traverses three cultures and three families over three generations. Samad Miah lqbal migrates to England in search of his English army-officer friend and colleague from the Bangladesh War, Archie.
“Here’s a man at the age of 42 who comes to a new country full of hope and enthusiasm… then suddenly realizes he must work …so he joins his cousin’s shop as a waiter for fifteen years.” We witnessed the scene when Samad comes to England and is walking with Archie expressing his excitement. I could hear him over the biting wind, a hint of a Bangla accent as he exclaimed, “It’s good to return to the busaam of the maather country.” The English crew jogged around in their fluorescent yellow rain gear, getting cups of tea and keeping everyone’s spirits up shouting, “Pack it up in a bit…let’s hurry gang!”
The range of emotions Om Puri can explore in this character made it exciting for him to accept the part. He specially mentions Samad’s grief of separation from a young son. I asked if he identified more with that as a father missing his own son who is in Mumbai? “Not really, as an actor one observes continually, one experiences grief through everyday life…you just store it”. He mentions how when he heard of the 10,000 people killed in the 1971 Bangladesh War he had burst into tears. His ability to manoeuvre an emotional graph is unparalleled. He has proved his innate intensity for creative exploration of a character many times over. “In philosophic terms you have to be naked with your emotions,” he says sedately.
Julian Jarrold, the director is a good man to work with he says, “…he doesn’t impose his director’s vision on the actor, I hate being told what to do and how to do it. He makes a mild suggestion …that’s what I like most about working abroad. The respect with which you are treated, it’s highly professional.” Another thing he really appreciates about working on international projects is receiving the bound script months in advance. “This is what I miss most in Indian commercial cinema.”
His inclusion in an almost entirely British cast and crew is proof of his acceptance into the international film fraternity, an Indian actor who has finally each the Bollywood-Hollywood barrier. Last year he did four international projects. He shares a jovial cordial relationship with his co-workers, whether it’s Anita who painstakingly maintains his fake moustache, gingerly gluing it on just before the shot, or his regular driver Mike, who he swaps stories with on the way home. The Jewel in the Crown (1981) mini-series was the first ever English production Om worked in. Since then of course he has made a huge reputation for himself as one of the finest actors around. East is East brought him international recognition and film offers from UK and America. In fact these days he spends as much time In London as in Mumbai. But till recently he was cast mainly in roles that stuck close to his ethnic origin. But he has broken past this final colour and accent barrier as well. He’s played a Welshman in one film and a Russian in another. These films might not be screened here, but Om is steadily building an international, multi-cultural image for himself.
Has that affected work at home? “Not really, look… commercial cinema brings home the naan. I’m not making big bucks abroad, though it may seem that way. But it’s more the experience and the creative growth that inspire me to work outside India.” He explains that he pays almost 50 per cent of his earnings in terms of taxes in Britain and then his agent’s fees.
How does he deal with emoting In a language he doesn’t own? “English all said and done, is not my language,” he says modestly and claims that he records everything in his head. “For East is East… all the cast members had voice tutors. I was meant to maintain my own Indian accent. But I felt that after living with a woman for 25 years my character was bound to have picked up something. The voice trainer had left by then, but I spoke to my director Damien and found an interesting way out. I got Linda, who was playing my wife, to read my lines to me. I made notes both on paper and in my head…” He picked up her natural accent and the subtleties of the Cockney lilt mouthing “Sonday”–for Sunday.
He is currently incorporating a delicate Bangla flavour to his English for Samad Miah. Though he makes it sound easy, his keen ear for language variations is evident. “A little extra effort is required of course.” He decided only a hint of Bangla sensibility should suffice. “It is important not to caricature the accent in order to sound authentic.”
I notice a hefty Asian-looking policeman hovering around the cordoned off street where a violently red telephone box and a No.8 London bus, both being used for the shoot—it’s the only colour for miles. The poIiceman, we discover later, wants to have a picture taken with Om. “It surprises me to be recognised in the street here in London, and actually have people remember my dialogues,” he chortles. “I was quite taken aback when an English telephone-wallah looked up from his mass of wires, recognized me and threw me a line from East is East.” Even in pubs the younger people recall his hilarious rendition of a convict in The Parole Officer (by the makers of Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral, which reached No.5 on the UK Top 10 (not very long ago).
He recounts another incident while grocery shopping at Sairisburys’. An Italian man asked to be let ahead in the line. “He stared at me for sometime then asked if I was a taxi driver! It took me two minutes to control my laughter, and then I replied that I had been a taxi driver but only on screen… he immediately stood back pointing at me and said “bashtaard” mimicking my character in My Son the Fanatic. For the next few minutes before we paid our bills we chatted like old friends.”
“Do you know?” he asks quietly,-“it was not the first time I was mistaken for a driver…when I’d gone to America for a special screening of Roland Joffe’s City of Joy (his first major role In an international project) they thought I was a real rickshaw puller, they refused to believe I was an actor.” Realism is the genre he adheres to. There is a sense of honesty in every role that he does. He turns philosophical when asked. “lt is basically a concern for humanity that helps an actor give honest emotions. Not only for acting, but even in life…”
Suddenly the shoot is over. It is wrap-up time. All evidence of a movie shoot vanishes from the street. After that tough outdoors spell on a cold London day, he provides us a glimpse of his local popularity. Umar Miah, the Pakistani policeman who had been hanging around the set all day, caught up with us minutes before we got into the car and requested a picture with Om. Umar’s grin when Om put his arm around his shoulder, despite the clammy wind on his face, said it all…The flash on the policeman’s instamatic flashed catching white teeth on a greyer than black night. “Acting isn’t all,” Om grins “…life is all.”