As news of Om Puri’s untimely death floated on social media this morning, the enduring image of him that sprang to mind was from Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (1983), billed as a seminal work in Hindi film history and a priceless monument of the parallel cinema movement of which Mr Puri was the poster-boy. As an upright cop up against the corrupt system, Puri’s raging bull performance makes it the most intense and angst-leaden portrayal of this kind in Hindi movies. Of course, unless you are inclined to pit Ardh Satya’s Anant Welankar against an earlier generation’s Vijay a.k.a Amitabh Bachchan. You can chart the history of Bollywood by simply outlining the parallel lives and times of Puri and Bachchan who finally got a chance to work together in a Govind Nihalani cop drama titled Dev. While Bachchan dominated the right side of Bollywood which was all about algorithms and stardom Puri represented the left-wing, with an active interest in art cinema. There was a joke that, like Bollywood, even the relatively esoteric art cinema had a rigid hierarchy with Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah being its reigning superstars.
Sure, Puri did start out and consolidate his position in art cinema but many viewers knew him thanks to the generosity of Bollywood. Like Pran and Amrish Puri before him, he switched to character roles donning a number of avatars for commercial cinema, which as he kept fervently insisting, he was doing to keep himself from starving. But the truth was that both Naseer and Puri were also concerned with fame and popularity. They wanted to be famous.
Fame came to Om Puri via mainstream Bollywood. Ask any Bollywood fan and they may not be well aware of his much-celebrated body of work in the Shyam Benegal-Govind Nihalani brand of cinema but will joyfully point out that he was the tilak-sporting, Thackeray-esque parody Baapji in Narsimha, the drunk and violently corrupt builder Ahuja in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, the abusive Punjabi who shows up looking for a certain Ghanshyam to recover money for his sister’s wedding in Hera Pheri or the religious priest in the more recent Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
This is not to say that all his commercial works were outstanding. It was, if you are feeling generous, a mixed-bag. In fact, many of these films were washouts, causing critics and audiences to wonder why a critically-acclaimed actor like Puri even had to be a part of such trash. A significant part of Puri’s work happened in the UK, in films such as East is East and My Son The Fanatic. Funnily, while Indians were losing interest in Puri’s talents, the English discovered and revived him. There came a point when he became more famous in England than in Bollywood and was regularly written about in The Guardian than in Indian papers. And then there was his long career in theatre, where he honed his craft. An NSD and FTII alumnus, Puri was looked upon as a father-figure by a whole generation of actors. If Manoj Bajpayee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui had a true ancestor it would be Om Puri.
It’s a pity that Puri could not do anything substantial in the last decade. He was sleepwalking through most of the commercial fares. What’s more, as his film work began declining, his private life became the subject of much controversy. Whether his comments (allegedly) insulting the army in the wake of the Pakistani artistes’ row or his various domestic issues involving his wife Nandita who exposed him by writing a scathing biography, Puri slid into a parody of his earlier self.
The media has often painted a picture of him as a misogynist and a ladies’ man at the same time, the truth may lay elsewhere. Puri, who died of a heart attack today at 66, lived life on his own terms. In the cosmetic world of Bollywood, he was a rustic presence who was fond of the earthy ways of life. That, unfortunately, was also his greatest undoing.
Anupam Kher called him one of “our greatest actors” in a tweet. But the title of Nandita C. Puri’s biography sums him up well – ‘Unlikely Hero.’ You could argue that there was still a lot of cinema left in the unlikely hero but nobody can deny that this was certainly an unlikely way to go. RIP, sir.