The 1970s were known for films portraying the ‘angry young man’ – well epitomised by Amitabh Bachchan who symbolised the anger of the common citizen against the system. But while Bachchan reigned over commercial films, parallel art cinema had its own ‘angry young man’ – Om Puri. In film after film, Puri portrayed characters with simmering, barely contained rage who, instead of letting his fists do the talking, spoke eloquently through his eyes and deep voice.
For any other actor, a pockmarked face would have been a handicap – in Puri, it further emphasised his everyman persona, making him all the more believable. He stood out early on in a small cameo in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi as the angry man who bursts out at the fasting Gandhi in Naokhali. It was therefore all the more impressive that he regularly got roles in the UK and Hollywood, acting in Hundred Foot Journey, East is East (and its sequel West is West) and White Teeth, based on Zadie Smith’s novel.
Like many others at the time, Puri was a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India and came to Bombay looking for work. Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah were his batchmates, and while the former was already getting roles, Puri and Shah joined the ranks of the many unemployed actors in the city. It was difficult to break into mainstream cinema, but fortunately for them, the parallel cinema movement – with its low budgets and need for non-starry actors – offered great opportunities.
Puri kept on getting small roles, but it was Aakhrosh (1980) by Govind Nihalani that got him some recognition. That brought him to the notice of Satyajit Ray who cast him in Sadgati. Puri was being taken seriously by then and even commercial film directors were ready to offer him roles. Just around the time he made his most famous ‘art’ films, he also appeared in Disco Dancer, starring FTII mate Mithun Chakraborty.
Then came his breakout year; in 1983, Puri scored big in two small films – Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Aakrosh. In the former, he played the builder Ahuja, who, in a drunken state, keeps thinking that the dead municipal commissioner D’Mello is alive. The film, with its impossibly anarchic style and sharp contemporary references, became a sleeper hit.
For Puri, however, it was his turn as Inspector Velankar, with the memorable last line – “maine Rama Shetty ko maar diya” (I killed Rama Shetty) – that made him an actor to reckon with. By then, he was accepted, along with Shah, as one of the best actors in Indian cinema.
Puri was among the earliest to take to television – acting in monumental, long-running shows such as Khandaan, Raag Darbari and Tamas, as well as Granada’s Jewel in the Crown. By the end of the 1980s, parallel cinema had vanished and Puri became one more character actor in masala films. Filmmakers had no special roles for him – he played everything from inspectors to retired soldiers to kindly uncles.
Foreign films saved him – in East is East, he played George Khan, a Pakistani immigrant in Britain who runs a chip shop and yearns to bring up his sons as true Muslims.
It was funny and poignant at the same time, and Puri imbued his character with charm and humanity, saving it from becoming a caricature. In Charlie Wilson’s War, he played General Zia opposite Tom Hanks.
But these roles were few and far between. For the most part he remained under-utilised by Hindi cinema, in the same way other good actors are – mainly because of a dearth of good scripts and general mediocrity. Even so, it was a pleasure to see him on the screen, lending his quiet dignity and powerful voice to whichever character he portrayed, such as CBI officer Vishal Malik in Don.
His last memorable film was Hundred Foot Journey, in which he acted opposite Helen Mirren as an Indian who opens a restaurant opposite her Michelin-starred establishment. The two start off as bitter rivals before the onset of an unlikely romance.
It was a role that got him much accolades, but in Mumbai, it was back to unheard of films like Dirty Politics and Tere Naal Love Ho Gaya.
Off screen, he kept on getting into unseemly controversies such as making fun of MPs at the India Against Corruption agitation in 2011 and the alleged insult against the Indian army on television. He was upset when a biography by his wife Nandita Puri spoke of his private life in a candid way and he accused her of making him look cheap. They separated soon after.
Puri will be remembered as one of the greatest actors of his generation, but who was never fully exploited by Indian filmmakers after the first burst of great roles in the 1980s.