Om Puri, the celebrated Indian actor, passed away to the great disbelief of Hindi cinema lovers in Mauritius. So far, several tributes borrowed from the international press and published locally, portrayed the international career of the great actor particularly in relation to his contribution to popular movies like ‘Gandhi’, ‘Fish and Chips’, and some televised Western serials. From a Mauritian perspective, this tribute translates how the image of Om Puri transited from that of a tough guy to an old man filled with humour and affection in the later part of his long and impressive film career that spanned four decades.
Om Puri started acting in the early 1970s but entered parallel cinema by the mid-seventies when art movies gained foothold amid the ‘make-believe’ Hindi cinema dominated by handsome heroes and actresses. Supporting roles were played by those actors not having the look of the ‘matinee idols’. In this way, Om Puri once stated that his satisfaction in working as actor in Bollywood was very high given that his physical appearance could rarely fetch him good roles and a place in the sun in that industry.
From the physiological perspective, Om Puri looked better like the ‘neighbour next door’ with a face filled with pimples, quite a huge nose and a trait that could be closer to that of any person other than an actor on the sets. This was in fact a test for him as he got into movies that were considered as ‘art’ films with themes often characterised by violence, poverty, plight for the lower classes and low budgets sometimes funded by the National Film Development Corporation or simply the public. One of Om Puri’s film ‘Manthan’ directed by Shyam Benegal was crowd-funded in 1982 by 500,000 people.
Aakrosh and Ardh Satya
Om Puri’s coming to prominence in Hindi cinema came from his sterling performances in movies like ‘Aakrosh’ and ‘Ardh Satya’ after playing secondary roles in earlier movies. His classical performances in former movies got him ‘easy to fit’ roles in most of the prominent art films that influenced cinema in the 1980s. Art film directors namely Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, Sai Parajpye included Om Puri in their movies.
‘Ardh Satya’ directed by Govind Nihalani was the movie that really made Om Puri a star of art films. Enacting as a police officer with a blunt attitude, Mauritian viewers could notice how Om Puri smashed a bus passenger whose hands just slid against Smita Patil, who played the role of his wife. In that movie, the element of brutality was stark with raw dialogues that took to surprise the audience namely the phrase: ‘Tum mere goo khao ge’ (Do you want to eat my sh..?’ in a scene where Om Puri addressed a convict in jail.
The ‘quatuor’ of art cinema
In this way, Om Puri made a perfect in-road in Indian cinema by acting concurrently with pairs like Nasseerudhin Shah, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Deepti Naval, Rakesh Bedi, Satish Shah, just to mention a few. Movies like ‘Bazaar’, ‘Bhumika’, ‘Sparsh’, ‘Manthan’, ‘Mandi’ among others gave a real dimension to Hindi cinema and offered the most resplendent years to art cinema. At a time, Nasseerudhin Shah, another advocate of parallel cinema, declined in an interview that such types of movies had their hey days in the 1980s but became shimmered like a dream in the next decade.
Fortunately, Om Puri, after playing bold roles in movies like ‘Patthar’ or ‘Mirch Massala’ played in a comedy ‘Jane Bhi Do Yaaro’ directed by Kundan Shah where he acted as an imposter in a Ramayana play with dark glasses that made the audience laugh. From that point, it was perceptible that Om Puri could shed off his stereotype hard acting to something lighter and more comedy-oriented.
Commercial cinema in the 1990s
Since the great days of art cinema were over by the end of the 1980s, Om Puri converted to acting in commercial movies both in India and abroad. One could appreciate his role in Roland Joffe’s ‘City of Joy’ with Patrick Swayze and Shabana Azmi. This movie earned him credits but also gained him international recognition. At that time, Mr Puri was said to have obtained about half a million dollars for the role of cart driver in Calcutta slum. Though the movie was made in tough conditions in India, it was a major hit in Mauritius where ex-‘ABC’ Cinema of Belle Rose successfully ran the movie for weeks.
In ‘Narsimha’, Om Puri played a negative role opposite Sunny Deol where he claimed to be spared death. A memorable scene in the movie was when Om Puri died neither in the air, nor on the soil but he laid on a wreath of sharpened arrows. This scene remains to date a memorable one.
Comedy through ageing
As most older actors on Bollywood, Om Puri played character roles which showed him in a more positive light. This was customary for ex-negative characters that moved to the milder part of acting as they grew older. Screen villains like Gulshan Grover, Paresh Rawal, Shakti Kapoor, Sharad Saxena shifted to comedy and this could not also spare Om Puri.
At a time, it looked like Om Puri had already said goodbye to serious roles. In ‘Malamaal Weekly’, he played the role of a miser who wanted to snatch the lottery jackpot. In ‘Mere Baap Pehle Aap’, he played the funny role of an old womaniser and played in several comedies with Akshay Kumar. His style was amazing each time he disguised himself into a character like either a Sadhu, a corrupt police inspector or simply an underground dealer.
Visit to Mauritius in 1984
The local fans of Hindi Cinema can recall Om Puri’s visit to Mauritius in 1984 during the first International Film Festival held by the newly-created Mauritius Film Development Corporation. Art movies were screened in most of the cinemas of the country for two weeks where productions of Satyajit Ray, Muzaffar Ali, Sujit Kumar, etc. were shown to the public who got the opportunity to watch art movies in the theatres at a time when video movies were gaining ground in the entertainment field.
After meeting the audience in the urban areas, Om Puri along with Shabana Azmi and other artists went for a ‘gala show’ at ex-Tadbir Cinema in Triolet now ‘Winner’s Supermarket. This was broadcast live on MBC television. The couple was thrilled to meet a highly enthusiastic audience fully-packed in the new theatre and this really charmed the actors. In a live interview on MBC, Om Puri stated that Mauritius looked like a country where he could feel totally at home. The phrase: ‘Naani yaad aa gayi’―I recall my granny’s place―might be still recalled by some viewers despite the fact that all the archives of MBC in the 1980s are now destroyed.
A moment of recall
Om Puri’s demise in the starting week of the New Year has been a blow to Bollywood where he received immediate tributes by fellow actors who paired with him during his career. What looked most inspiring were three pictures taken by the ‘Indian Express’ newspaper among the numerous celebrities who paid him a last visit. The first one was that of Shabana Azmi who broke into tears during the funeral of the actor after having been one of his closest colleagues during the great days of art movies. Another one was that of veteran Gulzar who was an earlier promoter of parallel cinema but in a milder way during his whole career. The final one could be of Shashi Kapoor who had a career similar to that of Om Puri where the latter played in movies of Ismael Merchant, Stephen Frears along with the Hindi filmmakers like Govind Nihalani, Mahesh Bhatt or Ketan Mehta. This image remains poignant which illustrated how actors thought to promote alternatively better cinema a quarter of a century ago.
To Mauritian viewers and fans of Hindi cinema, Om Puri’s departure from the scene leaves a void that cannot be filled. However, this remains an experience that could show us all that there was sense and sensibility in Hindi filmdom at some time in history although Bollywood is made of another stuff right now. The ‘Naani yaad aa gayi’ phrase can be of some solace to the great actor who visited us back in 1984.