Om Puri (1950-2017), is perhaps the first actor to have raised the bar for every Indian actor in terms of acting talent. Before Om, it was assumed that smashing good looks, good height and a relatively fair skin were imperative for a man to make it in films. Om, with his pock-marked face he did not care to ‘correct’ with cosmetic surgery even when he could afford it, proved again and again that an actor can rise above his looks through his dedication, passion and hard work. He leaves behind a volume of films that would stand testimony to his priceless contribution to Indian cinema for all time.
He was the first actor with a pock-marked face, a skeletal, bony frame, a dusky complexion and average height to set the benchmark for many wonderful actors who have made a mark in Indian cinema not for their looks but for their sterling performances. Examples are many, but the few that come up at once are – Irrfan Khan, Nana Patekar, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Manoj Bajpai, Neena Gupta, Raghuvir Yadav, Rajpal Yadav,Tannishtha Chatterjee and many others, most of who, interestingly, like Om and his lifelong compatriot and close friend Naseeruddin Shah, were also graduates of the National School of Drama, Delhi. So, they have in common their background in theatre in an era when they did not carry their stage mannerisms, voice modulations or dialogue delivery into their screen roles which underwrote their extreme versatility as actors.
Versatility, thy name Om Puri
Versatility was the key to Om Puri’s tremendous success as an actor who ruled over Bollywood in every film and role one could conceive of, for four long decades and was still counting, till death took him away at the relatively ‘young’ age of 66 on January 6 this year. Naseeruddin is of course, the more ‘glamorous’ between the two who did many films together for many years and remained friends forever. But that is because Om was a down-to-earth actor who did not give importance to glamour at all. Right through the four decades, he never resorted to make ‘improvements’ on his face either with make-up or with cosmetic surgery even when he could have afforded to have done so when films began to fall into his already full basket. As age grew on him, his hair turned completely white and he wore a wig or dyed it black only when the director asked him to in order to fulfil the demands of the character he was playing in a given film.
Two classic examples of how he performed the balancing act between and among different genres of films, different characters and mainstream and parallel films are – Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala and the masala blockbuster Narasimha. In Mirch Masala, he plays Abbu Miyan, the septuagenarian security guard of the red chilli factor where all the workers are women. He acted three times his age with a long beard and long white hair, his affection towards the women so paternal and emotionally close that he did not bat an eye when he knew his life was at stake; just so he could protect the dignity of the woman who had taken refuge in the factory from the lascivious Subedaar, and thus risked the safety of all the women there.
N. Chandra’s Narasimha (1991) was an out-and-out action film filled with fights, killings, sword-fights and the like. Om portrayed Suraj Narayan Singh, a big lord of goons and capitalist of the city who basically controls the law and order of the city and rules over it using muscle power and his immense wealth. He does not blink before ordering to kill whoever dares to cross his path. For this role, Om wore a shoulder-length wig with touches of grey in it, big glares and a vertical red mark on his forehead that enhanced the cruelty of his character. He looked both hateful and funny, and that was his unique contribution to his roles in different kinds of films.
He smoothly gravitated from the underdog, the poor and the oppressed man in umpteen parallel films to brazenly commercial films to genres ranging from entertainment to comedy, to negative roles, to serious characters under any and every director across the cinematic landscape in India and also abroad. For directors, he had tremendous repeat value which means they must have been more than happy with his performance.
His first break in Hindi films was in Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980) in which he did not utter a single word, and had to emote with his angry and expressive eyes filled with simmering violence. It is said that Nihalani who was making his directorial debut with this film, was advised against taking Om to portray Bhiku Lahanya, the low-caste man accused wrongly of having murdered his wife. But Nihalani stuck to his decision and said that was exactly the kind of actor he was looking for to portray that role. Aakrosh is a brilliant cinematic example of voluntary silence used as a strong political statement against wrongful indictment of a low-caste, poor and illiterate man by vested interests in the semi-rural place he lives and works in.
Ardh Satya (1983), saw him in a mesmerising performance as Anant Velankar, a gentle, poetry-spouting police inspector, who is fiercely angry with his father who used to regularly beat up his mother, angry with himself because he did not protest, angry with the system that he found to be corrupt to the core, and this simmering anger found expression in an explosive act in the climax. He won the Best Actor Award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 1984.
A tribute can hardly do justice to his voluminous oeuvre of work ranging from films like Prakash Jha’s Mrityudand, through the amazing performances such as in Gulzar’s Maachis, or Kundan Shah’s rollicking black satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, or the romantic husband in Basu Bhattacharya’s Aashtha, or Shyam Benegal’s Mandi, in which he portrays a dirty photographer who sneaks into a brothel to take dirty pictures and many more. This therefore, is a modest attempt to pay a tribute to one of the greatest actors of Indian cinema.