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A man for all seasons

With his huge talent, Om Puri conquered cinema, stage, TV — and boundaries

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January 7, 2017 12:05:34 am
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Om Puri passed away at 66 but left behind hundreds of unforgettable performances. Interestingly, Puri, like his friend, co-actor Naseeruddin Shah, trained at both the National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India. He thus belonged to a league of actors who understood both the stage’s flair and cinema’s technical precision. His talent showed. Shooting to prominence in 1976 with Ghashiram Kotwal, Puri swiftly became a fixture in films, part of and powering darkly vibrant “art” cinema.

Puri was applauded for his path-breaking work in Bhavni Bhavai, Sadgati, Ardh Satya and Mirch Masala, frequently playing a doughty individual who opposed modern might or traditional custom, no matter how cruel or daunting. But he didn’t only play angry, not-so-young men. He brightened up many comedies; in Kundan Shah’s rip-roaring satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Puri played a corrupt Punjabi builder whose crudeness — including a drunken Puri roaring “Oye, Dmullow!” at the easily-bribed Mumbai commissioner D’Mello — became urban legend. Remarkably, despite his screen success, Puri didn’t confine himself to 70mm. He moved nimbly between cinema, theatre and television. In TV shows like Bharat Ek Khoj, playing historical characters, he was measured; in Kakaji Kahin, as a Hindi heartland neta, he held hangers-on in thrall with his leisurely, paan-chewing flourishes.

Yet, Puri didn’t confine himself to the heartland either; he was the first Hindi star to establish himself in international cinema. The 1990s onwards, he appeared in diverse British and Hollywood films, from East is East to The 100-Foot Journey. Puri played several significant roles, from a confused migrant-patriarch to Pakistan’s General Zia. His flawless performances made his characters stand out, the star, Om Puri, often retreating to the shadows. But his fans — and the many mediums he enlivened — will greatly miss both.

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