An Actor Par Excellence: Five Roles Om Puri Cherished
Veteran actor Om Puri passed away on 6 January 2017 at the age of 66. During his last days, the National Award winner was in the news for all the wrong reasons. But those who knew the actor would tell you that he was far from controversial. He was the last person to seek attention and all he really craved for was a good film to get his adrenaline flowing.
He was an actor par excellence; equally at ease with Sadgati (Satyajit Ray) or Aakarosh (Govind Nihalani) as with City Of Joy, In Custody or My Son the Fanatic. At heart, he was a Punjabi who loves his Indian meals and desi films.
On his birth anniversary, we are republishing one of his last interviews (that Om Puri gave to The Quint) where he looked back on his five favourite roles and explained why these films evoke special memories even after so many years.
Om Puri: Basu Bhattacharya called me up in mid 90s and narrated a one liner of the film on the phone. It sounded like a good idea and Basuda said he’d be shooting the film in both, English and Hindi. The added attraction of course was to work with Rekha. Given the sensitive subject, nobody expected Aastha to click at the box-office but strange are the ways of show business and we can never be sure what the audience will like. Aastha was not released in Mumbai because there was a theatre strike in the city at that time but it was released outside everywhere and the reactions were amazing. The film was largely patronised by female audiences and it reflected how much they have changed.
I was not exactly satisfied with the portrayal of my character, Amar. I expected more out of a director who has made sensitive films like Anubhav, Aavishka and Grihapravesh but the film worked despite my reservations. People often ask me if husbands like Amar exist and I say ‘yes’ because I’m not a pessimist. I believe that relationships have to be viewed in the context of circumstances and what is interesting is till the end of the film the audience is not sure if the husband knows the complete truth. He knows something has gone wrong and he does not want to delve in it and which is why their marriage does not collapse.
Om: This film was released when my son Ishaan was born. He was a premature baby and the initial weeks were crucial. Director Rajiv Rai was thrilled with the audience’s reactions in the theatres. He called me a couple of times for his private screening but every time I had to decline because I was at the hospital.
The reactions at the traffic signal are the best indicator of how your career is faring. If they have liked you in the film, the urchin boys and the magazine vendors address you by your character in the film - that's the first sign of a hit film! I played a cop, Udham Singh in Gupt and unlike Anant Velekar of Ardh Satya, Udham Singh is without complexities and so easily accepted by the public.
3. Ardh Satya
Om: My character Anant Velekar in Govind Nihalani’s film is a troubled soul. He has a very dominant father (Amrish Puri), an idealistic girlfriend (Smita Patil) and a high pressured job.
Velekar is in search of identity and though he is at heart a reasonable guy he has too many demons to resolve. Most of the time, Velekar follows his instincts but sometimes he makes mistakes and goes out of control. A role like that does not need external trappings and Nihalani is a caring director who helps you find your space as an actor. When I was a new actor I needed references to play characters. With time, as I became more confident, I was able to sculpt my characters and bring them alive on my own. But this is only possible when you have a good story and a very good director.
Om: Gulzar saab offered me Maachis when we were shooting for our tele-serial, Kirdaar. He said he was writing a film on terrorism and had a role for me. My character Sanathan is a chemistry professor now embroiled in a national battle.
My favourite scene in the film is where I say “Aadhe ko toh 1947 kha gayi, aur aadhe ko 1984”. It's a brilliant dialogue where the dates explain history and no explanations are necessary. The only other parallel I can think of is Kalyug when during the confrontation scene between the mill owners and mill workers I’m asked “Toh shuru kare...?” to which I reply, “Waqt bachega” and the entire scene is in two or three words. That's the strength of a writer; in this case, Satya Dev Dubey.
The character didn’t need much input from me as an actor because Gulzar saab very clearly defines the character for you. The fact that I hail from Punjab and I’m familiar with the language and ethos was an advantage. That I had earlier shot for Tamas and researched on the subject also came in handy.
Om: I normally don’t like to depend on getups but sometimes it is important to accept them as part of the character. I have worn a bushy moustache and draped a heavy shawl over my shoulder in this film and the manner in which the shawl is draped is very dramatic.
I have an interesting part even though it is the third most important role in the film. Mrityudand is about female power and featured three beautiful actresses Shabana Azmi, Madhuri Dixit and Shilpa Shirodkar. It was about how they connect and fight a feudal society. I agreed to do the film because I liked the story and sensed that Prakash Jha had the making of a powerful director, which is what happened. Heroines often agree to play secondary roles in male oriented stories, sometimes heroes also must agree to be a part of female-oriented films.
(Bhawana Somaaya has been writing on cinema for over 30 years and is the author of 12 books.)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on October 18, 2016. It is being republished to mark Om Puri’s death anniversary.)