Until two years ago, my attitude to Bollywood was indifferent at best. For someone who spent her entire life in India, there was no avoiding the music; the gyms and malls offered even the most unwilling an in-depth education in Sheela’s illustrious jawani and how poora London thumakda.
Then I watched Maachis. For someone with a functional grasp of Hindi, Gulzar’s lyrical Urdu was elusive. I watched it over and over, willing Maachis to yield to me and let me in on its poetry. Some of the greatest lines in the movie were written for Sanatan, the amoral patriarch of a group of revolutionaries, played by the magnificent Om Puri.
“Teeliyan. Maachis ki teeliyan. Jo chirag bhi jalati hain aur chitaiyen bhi. Silen teeliyan se inquilab nahi shuru hoti hai. Teeliyan agar sil jaayein, toh ek ek ko phoonk phoonk kar jalana padta hai. (Matchsticks. They light both lamps and corpses. A spent match cannot ignite revolution. Matches, once spent, have to be re-kindled, one by one.) ” Om Puri tells a young Chandrachur Singh, sending shivers down my spine.
I shared a complicated relationship with Sanatan, the ideologue on the wrong side of the law, who would go to any lengths to ensure the success of a mission, even going so far as to sacrifice his young wards. Whatever my reservations about Sanatan, the man with the enormous voice had me hooked.
I saw Bollywood’s irascible father-figure in a number of films after watching Maachis- Ardh Satya, Maqbool and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro come immediately to mind. I also remember his blink-and-miss role in the feel-good tear-jerker, Lakshya.
However, my first stirring encounter with Om Puri wasn’t in a Hindi film. The first time I truly felt the man tug at my heart strings was in The Hundred Foot Journey, where he starred alongside the powerhouse Helen Mirren. The movie is a delightful, feel-good, sensual treat. Set in an impossibly beautiful French town, it tells the story of two feuding restaurants on opposite sides of a road. Helen Mirren is the proprietor of one, and Om Puri, of the other.
Om Puri, is delightful as Papa Kadam, the unreasonable, temperamental owner of “Maison Mumbai”, the restaurant in which he serves mouth-watering Indian food. He finds a worthy adversary in Helen Mirren, the owner of “Le Saule Pleureur”, a stubborn, ambitious businesswoman who believes that good food is an art. The two eventually resolve their differences, bonding over their love for food.
I only ever knew Om Puri through his movies. Somewhere, deep down, I didn’t want to shatter the illusion- the fact that he wasn’t really the leader of a rebellion would have diminished Maachis’ aura somehow. Now that he is no more, I cannot claim to mourn the man; I never knew him. I will instead miss the storyteller; the man who introduced me to a stupendous new world.
Om Puri’s passing away has left a giant Sanatan and Papa Kadam-shaped void in theatre and cinema, both English and Hindi. The man who rarely ever played the part of the uncomplicatedly good guy will always have my love and empathy. He never looked like the hero of a milk-and-water romance and therefore, never played the part.
To the man who made rebellion sexy, and participated in a celebration of good, beautiful and hearty food, thank you. Thank you for awakening my imagination to some of Bollywood’s best offerings- my cultural education would truly have been incomplete without you.
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 6 January 2017. It is now being republished to mark Om Puri’s first death anniversary.)