The passing away of actor Om Puri at the age of sixty-six has robbed the Indian film industry of one of its finest talents, an actor who scaled the peaks of excellence with his portrayals in diverse roles in films that were all a class apart from the routine formula fare dished out by Hindi cinema.
Puri, whose entry into the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune was facilitated by its then Director Girish Karnad, brushed aside the derision shown by the interview panel and came out with flying colours. He also did a stint with the National School of Drama, where another giant Ebrahim Alkazi was impressed with his histrionic prowess and his passion for cinema. Incidentally, it was at the NSD that he met and befriended Naseeruddin Shah, and it was this duo along with brilliant actresses like Shabhana Azmi and Smita Patil which would later scorch the screens with their searing performances.
Om Puri got his first big break in the Marathi film â€˜Ghashiram Kotwalâ€™, based on a play of the same name by Vijay Tendulkar. Thereafter, he drifted into Bollywood and made an impact through minor roles in films like â€˜Arvind Desai Ke Ajeeb Dastanâ€™ and â€˜Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aate Haiâ€™, before stunning the industry with a fiery portrayal in Govind Nihalaniâ€™s â€˜Aakroshâ€™ in 1980. The character of a tribal Lahanya Bhiku who remains tongue-tied for most part of the film and spoke only in the flashback sequences was a turning point in Puriâ€™s career, and marked him out as a fine bet for the future.
Om Puri soon landed films like Shyam Benegalâ€™s â€˜Arohanâ€™ and Govind Nihalaniâ€™s â€˜Ardh Satyaâ€™, and in both these films his performance won him National Awards for Best Actor for two years in succession. In â€˜Ardh Satyaâ€™, where he played the role of inspector Anant Velankar, who single handedly takes on a mafia don (a riveting cameo by the late Sadashiv Amrapurkar), he did one better and also won an International Award for Best Actor at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival.
Om Puri and his equally illustrious contemporary Naseeruddin Shah were the darlings of the parallel film circuit and shared most of the roles between them. Puri had the opportunity of working with Lifetime Oscar Award winner Satyajit Ray in telefilm â€˜Sadgatiâ€™, in which he and Smita Patil were the main protagonists. He made several films with the cinematographer turned director Govind Nihalani, and the best among them were â€˜Aakroshâ€™, â€˜Ardh Satyaâ€™, â€˜Aaghatâ€™ (where he was cast as a trade unionist), â€˜Maachisâ€™ (leader of a cell of Sikh militants) and â€˜Tamasâ€™, which failed to get a theatrical release and was serialized on the small screen.
Om Puri worked with Sai Paranjpye in her film â€˜Sparshâ€™, in which he essayed the role of a blind man. Ketan Mehta was another Avant Garde director who used the actorâ€™s talents to good effect in films like â€˜Bhavni Bhavaiâ€™ and â€˜Mirch Masalaâ€™. Gautam Ghose directed â€˜Paarâ€™ and the Vishal Bharadwaj film â€˜Maqboolâ€™ too featured the late actor in strong supporting roles. The thespian also drifted towards commercial cinema and played stellar roles in films like â€˜Guptâ€™, â€˜Ghayalâ€™, â€˜Drohkaalâ€™, â€˜Dhoopâ€™ and â€˜Devâ€™, down to the more recent hits like â€˜Don 2â€™, â€˜Singh is Kingâ€™ and â€˜Mere Baap Pehle Aapâ€™. His over-the-top portrayal of a villain in â€˜Narasimhaâ€™ too won critical acclaim.
Another facet of Om Puriâ€™s talent was revealed in his flair for comedy which was manifest in various roles in films like Kundan Shahâ€™s laugh riot â€˜Jaane Bhi Do Yaaronâ€™ and Priyadarshanâ€™s remakes of his Malayalam hits â€˜Malaamal Weeklyâ€™ and â€˜Hera Pheriâ€™.
Another outstanding portrayal was that of a lusty old man in â€˜Chachi 420â€™, a remake of Kamal Haasanâ€™s â€˜Avvai Shanmughiâ€™. The actor also made a name for himself in British and Hollywood films, and notable among these films were Richard Attenboroughâ€™s â€˜Gandhiâ€™, â€˜East is Eastâ€™ (he was cast as a Pakistani immigrant), â€˜My son, the fanaticâ€™, â€˜City of Joyâ€™, â€˜Wolfâ€™ (where Jack Nicholson played the lead), â€˜The Ghost and the Darknessâ€™ and the Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts starrer â€˜Charlie Wilsonâ€™s warâ€™, where he was cast as the late Pakistani President Zia ul Haq. In 2014, he acted in the Steven Spielberg film â€˜The Hundred Foot Journeyâ€™ with Helen Mirren. Om Puri also featured in the TV series â€˜The Jewel in the Crownâ€™.
Apart from his roles in feature films, Om Puri also had a long inning on the small screen. One of his most hilarious performances was in the parody on politics and politicians directed by Basu Chattejee titled â€˜Kakaji Kahinâ€™. The role of the betel chewing, shrewd and scheming fixer Kakkaji was right up his street and the serial had a phenomenal rating when it was aired in the late eighties. Shyam Benegalâ€™s â€˜Bharat Ek Khojâ€™, in which he played the role of Aurangzeb to Naseerâ€™s â€˜Shivajiâ€™ was another serial that ranked high in the popularity charts. â€˜Mr Yogiâ€™, a comedy serial, also enabled Puri to give full rein to his talents.
The actorâ€™s biography penned by his second wife Nandita Puri stirred a hornetâ€™s nest as the actor was not pleased with certain episodes in his life that formed a part of the book and soured relations between the husband and wife. The actor also courted controversy with his remarks on the Indian army and he was forced to retract his statement. Yet, Om Puri with his baritone voice, his bearing and the intensity of his portrayals has left an indelible imprint on world cinema as a multilingual star, who despite his unconventional looks sparkled on celluloid for nearly four long decades.