January 7, 2017 12:06:41 am
1980. A friend had just seen Aakrosh. “One of the most honest Indian films that I have seen.” When I asked about the star cast, he said, “Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, and Om Puri.” Never having heard of him, I asked, “You mean Om Shivpuri?” He said, “No. A new actor. Om Puri. He’s phenomenal.”
And phenomenal he was. As Bhiku Lahanya, he made his silence speak of his inexpressible pain, of the unbearable hopelessness of the oppressed castes of this country, of the history of unending exploitation. All of it, just with his eyes. In his very first scene, when Naseer’s question to him
carries the sub-textual presumption of his guilt, he just stares back at him, blankly. And that blankness showed an aggressive pity for Naseer. “You are incapable of understanding anything. Let it be.” That look hauntingly told us how our systemically prejudiced judicial structure denies justice to the poor.
Nobody, but nobody, could have done that role with such expressiveness. He followed it up with Anant Velankar in Ardh Satya. Critics and viewers alike were left gobsmacked by his superlative rendition of the misfit cop fighting his childhood demons which get tragically entangled in his unequal fight against a mafia bully in collusion with a corrupt police system. It fetched him the best actor award at the prestigious Karlovy Vary festival, and remains the finest performance that I have seen in an Indian film.
His versatility shone through with every challenging role. Who can forget his comedy in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Chachi 420 or Hera Pheri? Or his roles in Arohan, Aaghat, Tamas, Kakaji Kahin, Ghayal, Mrityudand? The list is endless. So compelling was his talent that even in small appearances he left his indelible stamp. There’s instant recall of him in Mirch Masala, Gandhi, Rang De Basanti, Bajrangi Bhaijan, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, where he was on the screen only for minutes. However, such is the unfairness of mainstream cinema that it invariably leaves great actors frustrated. Good roles began to dry up. But, luckily the international film industry noticed him. And it speaks volumes for his confidence in his talent that he held his own against global stalwarts, winning accolades everywhere his films were shown, for movies like City of Joy, East is East, The Ghost and the Darkness, Charlie Wilson’s War and The Hundred-Foot Journey.
But, for me, the foreign film that displays his best performance remains My Son, the Fanatic, where he played the character of Parvez, a London-based taxi driver whose son steadily veers to Islamic fundamentalism. So exquisite was his portrayal of the bewilderment and sad helplessness of a naturally liberal, ordinary Muslim that it won him the best actor award at the Brussels Film Festival. And such was the global impact of his talent through these films that Salon magazine wrote a piece in April 2000 titled ‘Is Om Puri our greatest living actor?’
This was the same boy who, born in poverty, used to work at his uncle’s tea-stall, washing cups, at age six, to augment his father’s earnings. As a child, when he contracted small pox, he used to be laid on his back on a cot, with his hands tied to the sides to prevent him from scratching his face. The disease caused such itching that he used to scream continuously in agony; it left his face pock-marked permanently. And yet, his sensitivity was reflected so richly on that very face that when Govind Nihalani was advised against taking Om as the lead in Ardh Satya, he had rightly declared that it was precisely for his face that he was perfect for such a complex role.
I met him first during Drohkaal. We hit it off instantly, and it led to a deep and close friendship for life. He never ever behaved like a star or a public figure. Among the many many wonderful memories that I have of him, I shall mention one. In 1994, his wife Nandita and he wanted a dog. She identified a new-born pup from the street below. But, after eight weeks, when the time came to bring him home, he had got mange. So, instead, she brought his healthy sibling home. When Om realised this, he immediately sent her down with it to bring home the one that they had selected. They had chosen that one and it would be theirs, disease or no disease. Period.
That is who Om Puri essentially was. An innocent, gentle, humble, generous and steadfastly loyal human being.
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