Om Puri – such a long journey !

“I don’t expect anything from anybody When You Grow Old.Your Days Are Gone; It Is Part Of Life.” — Om Puri (@OmRajeshPuri) November 3, 2016 

The tweet possibly expressed the pain Om Puri felt with his situation in life – a bitterness that was a cocktail of disappointment on personal and professional fronts.

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Om Puri in City of Joy    Image Courtesy – Life Beyond Numbers

It was also on account of his inability or rather honest arrogance to not be ‘diplomatic’ while expressing his views on social issues. Often he seemed to go out of his way to make ‘politically incorrect’ statements. It reminds you of a popular sher by another stormy petrel, Nida Fazli, –

बात कम कीजे जहानत को छिपाते रहिये

बात कम कीजे जहानत को छिपाते रहिये
अजनबी शहर है ये,  दोस्त बनाते रहिये

दुश्मनी लाख सही, ख़त्म  ना कीजे रिश्ता
दिल मिले ना मिले, हाथ मिलते रहिये

ये तो चेहरे कि शबाहत हुई तस्वीर नहीं
इस पे कुछ रंग अभी और चढ़ाते रहिये

गम हैं आवारा अकेले में भटक जाता हैं
जिस जगह भी रहिये, मिलते मिलाते रहिये

जाने कब चाँद बिखर जाये जंगल में
घर कि चौखट पे कोई दीप जलाते रहिये

निदा फ़ाज़ली 

जहानत – Prathibha i.e. Talent  शबाहत – Sadrishyta i.e. Canniness

It was an unconventional face and it became an unconventional hero. For an introvert and socially insecure person there was no shortcut to success. The relentless pursuit of effort reflected in his work as he started a grand innings in ‘Art’ cinema with Ghashiram Kotwal, Bhumika, Arvind Desai Ki Ajab Dastan, Sparsh, Aakrosh, Sadgati, Arohan, and Ardh Satya. The journey continued with special films like Mirch Masala (Ketan Mehta), City of Joy (Roland Joffe), Maachis (Gulzar), and Aastha (Basu Bhattacharya). Interspersed in the course of the journey was commercial capers particularly comedies with Priyadarshan and David Dhawan and roles in British / American films where he became the conventional character face for the immigrant from South Asia. In the last phase of his career there were some rare sparks such as Chakravyuh (Prakash Jha) and ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’ (Helen Mirren).

The key vignettes of his 40 year-long journey in cinema would include the following for me –

A special relationship with Govind Nihalani– The ace director of parallel cinema gave Om Puri the identity of the ‘common man’ as an angry young man in the cop-story ‘Ardh Satya’. Zanjeer was candy-floss commercial cinema whereas Ardh Satya was the genuine and realistic portrayal of a cop’s struggle in the system. Their collaboration produced a credible body of work that included Bhumika, Aakrosh, Mandi, Vijeta, Ardh Satya, Party, Aghaat, Tamas, Karmayodha, Droh Kaal and Dev.

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Om Puri Ardh Satya Image Courtesy – Alternate Movies

An intense actor with amazing sense of humour – It was not just Kakaji Kahin on TV. He started his career with the classic black comedy, ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron’. His act as the corrupt loud-mouth builder, Ahuja, was an authentic act. The sequence wherein he tows away the coffin of corrupt Municipal Commissioner D’Mello (Satish Shah) was topped only by his riot act in the Mahabharata scene where he seizes Bhim’s mace and adds to the madness.

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Kamal Haasan exploited his funny bone in ‘Chachi 420’ wherein he essayed perfectly the character of corrupt womanizing secretary, Banwari Lal Pandit who is hell-bent on saving his reputation and unmasking Kamal’s impersonation of a Brahmin lady-housekeeper, Lakshmi Godbole.

The South Asian face in British / American cinema – It started with pieces like Gandhi, In Custody, The Jewel In The Crown, City of Joy and My Son Is A Fanatic. But he hit the sweet spot with ‘East is East’ wherein he essayed an authentic portrayal of a Pakistani immigrant in UK who struggles to come to terms with his brood of kids not relating to him and their traditional culture.

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Om Puri in ‘East is East’                                                       Image Courtesy- The Indian Express

The immigrant’s angst is a common theme in movies but Om Puri managed to own the role and create a niche for himself. In face he repeated variants of this role in many more movies over the years to come.

Om Puri’s Tryst With Bollywood – ‘Bollywood Calling’ – Nagesh Kukunoor’s little known gem that was not as popular as Hyderabad Blues but gave Om Puri a chance to display his acting chops. His portrayal of Subramaniam, a small producer in Hyderabad who aspires to direct a Hollywood star and deliver a ‘super hit’ movie is fantastic. His body language, accent and look makes him look authentic ‘South Indian’ character.

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Om Puri as Subramaniam in Bollywood Calling  Image Courtesy – Saavn com

The movie was a great spoof on what are conventional ‘Bollywood movies’ – unprofessional and ego-driven set ups, no concept of bound script, a lackadaisical work culture, ageing hero with tantrums, the age-old song n dance routine, the done-to-death stories with no plots and stale dialogues. You name it and it is there.

Pat Cusick act on being a bewildered Hollywood star caught in this nightmare is perfectly understandable. The real irony of the movie is that it would be Om Puri who always felt the angst of having to live with the commercial world of Bollywood cinema and here he enacts a role where he is key proponent of the same culture. It must have a deja vu for him for sure.

So Om Puri’s film journey was a mixed story – it began with struggle, there was a breakthrough that was followed by a string of successful films. It didn’t quite sustain as he eventually made compromises to make peace with the world of commercial cinema. Episodically he found fulfillment when he essayed critical roles particularly on the international screen. Om Puri’s image of a ‘wheeler-dealer’ in Kakaji Kahin was the facade of a man enjoying himself – in reality he had become embittered and didn’t quite relish his current situation in life. To echo a line from one of his successful movies –

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