Flashback | With the demise of Amrish Puri, entire era of screen villainy came to an end

Amrish Puri was a one-man army, ploughing easily from Shyam Benegal’s classy and raw Nishant to the out-and-out potboilers that he did through the 1980s and '90s.

Subhash K Jha January 12, 2022 11:30:13 IST
Flashback | With the demise of Amrish Puri, entire era of screen villainy came to an end

Amrish Puri as Mogambo in Mr. India

“Mogambo khush hua,” the booming menacing baritone in Shekhar Kapur’s Mr. India defines the career of the  sinfully talented Amrish Puri. He was a one-man army, ploughing easily from Shyam Benegal’s classy and raw  Nishant to the out-and-out potboilers that he did through the 1980s and '90s.

“I just kept working and working. I had seen hard times. I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to make a living. Luckily, for me, there was no dearth of work. I could do offbeat films for free, and compensate by doing the  commercial films. It was, according to me, a fair deal,” Puri told me.

In his 30-year career as an actor, Puri did over 200 films. In his early years, most of the work he did was either quality-oriented work  for the avant garde directors Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani or outright kitsch, where he used his powerful voice and screen presence to accentuate the cinematic  definitions of evil. Puri’s truly fecund phase as Bollywood’s most dependable character-actor, or actor of character, began in 1992.

In Benegal’s Nishant (1975), Puri played the eldest brother in a family of zaalim (cruel) zamindars who abduct and rape a schoolteacher’s wife. Puri struck a note of immediate and everlasting terror in viewers’ hearts. Though the film had other terrific actors, it was Puri who dominated the show in every way possible. The role had apparently been written for the Bengali actor Utpal Dutt, who excelled at playing obdurate disciplinarians. Puri too went on to make a great impression on mainstream Hindi cinema as the unrelenting patriarch.

In 1992, Puri  chanced on  huge commercial success with Phool Aur Kaante. Though this was the launchpad for Ajay Devgn, it was Puri who stole much of the dubutant’s thunder as the good-natured don who wants to win his  estranged son’s respect back. Puri admitted this film was a turning point in his career.

During the same year that Phool Aur Kante brought grey glory into Puri’s black persona, he went out-and-out benign in Priyadarshan’s Muskurahat, a wonderfully heartwarming story of a sullen old man, and a young woman who brings a smile to his frowning face. In the two pivotal roles, Puri amd Revathi were outstandingly synchronised. Priyadarshan went on to cast Puri in most of Hindi films, including Hulchul (2004), where the actor played an obdurate village leader who goes to any lengths to settle scores with his enemies.

In Viraasat (1997), when Priyadarshan was roped in to remake the Tamil blockbuster Thevar Magan, who but Amrish Puri to play the benign zamindar, modeled on Marlon Brando in The Godfather? In the Tamil original, it was the theatrical thespian Shivaji Ganesan who played the main role. Puri modeled his performance on none. He was one of his kind.

Screen villainy got a new face with Mr. India in 1987, and so did Puri’s  career. Playing the comic-book bad-guy Mogambo, Puri gave a new caricatural twist to celluloid villainy. Partly comic-bookish, partly like the typical arch-villain from James Bond films (he wore a Hitlerian costume throughout), Puri scared and amused the kids. His  antagonism was unique. The role was originally offered to Anupam Kher, and apparently taken away when Kher could not quite deliver what Shekhar Kapur had in mind.

Puri’s best phase as an actor came not as a villain but as a stern disciplinarian with principles that the new generation finds impossible to uphold. More than Shah Rukh Khan, Puri was the pivotal character of Aditya Chopra’s all-time blockbuster Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995). As the London-based Chowdhary Baldev Singh, who pines to return to his village in Punjab, Puri’s character propelled the plot through its tumultuous romantic karma. He was undoubtedly exceptional.

Flashback  With the demise of Amrish Puri entire era of screen villainy came to an end

Amrish Puri in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge

Subhash Ghai’s Pardes (1997) was Puri’s second famous NRIs part, spotlighted by his patriotic song 'Yeh mera India.' Interestingly, Puri was a part of every film by Subhash Ghai, from Ram Lakhan and Saudagar to Pardes  and Yaadein to Kisna.

Pardes remains special for how different Puri made this NRI seem from the one in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge.

In my opinion, Puri’s single-most accomplished performance in a commercial film was in Raj Kumar Santoshi’s  Ghaatak, that featured him as the eccentric idealist (a role that Puri patented) from Uttar Pradesh, who comes to Mumbai for medical treatment with son (Sunny Deol) only to encounter the worst possible corruption in the city. The theme of disillusionment with corruption was reified in Puri’s wizened face. Every wrinkle in his face told its own story.

As the wily, wicked, and grotesque chief minister in Shankar’s Naayak (2001), who gets his comeuppance from a  common man (Anil Kapoor), Puri was larger than 'laugh.' More than any of the other versatile and virile characters, how he played the role of the unidimensionally corrupt politician showed how ably Puri could transform a stereotypical role into a pageant of parody. Coolly caricatural and yet purely  individualistic… that was Amrish Puri.

In Sharaarat (2002), as Prajapati, a cantankerous, partly delusional old man thrown into an old folks’ home, Puri was one of a gallery of veterans, and yet a natural cheerleader. Puri’s scenes of verbal sparring with the bratty Abhishek Bachchan gave to the drama a rippling resonance.

“What a gentleman, and such a nice man to know,” writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar summed up the general dismay in the film industry over the sudden passing away of one of Bollywood’s most revered and in-demand character actors. "He was not just a brilliant actor, but also a wonderful person.”

Speaking to me, Kamal Haasan had this to say when Puri died on 12 January, 2005. “Puri Saab was my leading man in Chachi 420. I masqueraded as a woman, and he was the man who had the hots for me. Puri Saab was, as usual, flawless. Since Chachi, we kept in touch constantly. A true gentleman-actor.”

One of three brothers, Amrish’s elder brothers Chaman and Madan Puri were actors long before Amrish. At age 40, a career as an actor came belatedly to Amrish. His first screen appearance was in Sunil Dutt’s Reshma Aur  Shera in 1971, where he made his debut alongside Amitabh Bachchan. Coincidentally, they are regarded as two of the best voices ever heard in Hindi cinema. And it could not be mere chance that a fortnight before his death, Puri’s baritone provided the voiceover in Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyon, which starred Amitabh. Puri  first made audiences and critics sit up and take notice in Nishant. Success in avant-garde cinema was instant, though the same cannot be said about mainstream cinema.

“Those weren’t easy years for me,” the actor with the booming baritone said to me once. “Recognition was hard to come by, and I had a family to support. I took on any and every villain’s role that came my way.” After struggling through years of small and not-so-small diabolic roles, the actor became a household name with Mr. India. Not since Gabbar Singh in Sholay had villainy on Hindi screen acquired such a swanky, swaggering, contemporary, and quirky aura.

Seldom, if ever did an actor other than the leading man acquire the respect and command the fee of Amrish Puri. Right till the very end, when he played Priyanka Chopra Jonas' suspicious and fastidious father in David Dhawan’s Mujhse Shaadi Karogi and Akshaye Khanna’s fretting and fuming father in Priyadarshan’s Hulchul   (both hits!), Puri was perpetually cast in author-backed roles that demanded great power and strength, and an indomitable screen presence. As the homesick NRI in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, the benevolent feudal landlord in Priyadarshan’s Viraasat, Sunny Deol’ terminally ill, vocally idealistic father in Raj Kumar Santoshi’s  Ghaatak or Amisha Patel’s anti-India father in Anil Sharma’s Gadar: Ek Prem KathaPuri created a gallery of characters that count among the highest points in the history of mainstream Hindi cinema.

Flashback  With the demise of Amrish Puri entire era of screen villainy came to an end

Amrish Puri

Speaking about his illustrious grandfather, actor Vardhan Puri said, “I was lucky to have Daadu with me for 15 years of my life. We used to stay together, and I was in the room next to his. Not a night passed when I didn’t sneak off to sleep between my Dadu and Dadi.”

Since his Daadu played the arch-villain, Vardhan grew up cheering the bad guy. “I’d watch Daadu being mean, and I’d feel happy. When he got killed in the films, I’d get very angry. In London, I kept asking my teachers how to  deepen my voice. Perhaps it was the fact that my grandfather was reputed to have the deepest baritone possible . But I was told to work on the traits that I have, to  sharpen the skills that I was born with, and not to crave for  what I don’t have. My Daadu was truly one of his kind,” recalls Vardhan.

With Amrish’s death, an entire era of screen villainy came to an end. Not since Pran did we have a villain so menacing and intimidating. Like Pran, Amrish moved on effortlessly from grey to positive roles, and was equally  successful in both.

 As I recall my conversation with Amrish, I remember his last wish before ending our conversation. “Are you recording our conversation? May I request you to erase my voice after you finish transcribing my interview?  I don’t want my voice to fall into the wrong hands.”

I am not sure of what Puri Saab meant. But I complied. Who wanted Mogambo to be na-khush?

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based journalist. He has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out.

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