Om Puri deserved not just better directors and writers, he deserved a better audience
Most directors have a tepid idea of a frame. Most of them also struggle to fill that frame with emotion, a connected sensibility and a mutually felt loneliness that the audience often flocks to the theatre to purge. An Om Puri would sort that out. He was the thinking director’s dream, an actor so acutely balanced in his occupation of the screen and his anchoring of a character that he remains only in memory, never making the climb to fantasy.
Puri could be remembered for any number of roles and it is perhaps pointless to enumerate them, just as it is to say that Puri deserved not only better directors, better writers but also a better audience.
We are worshippers of the spectacle, and larger-than-life personas. We don’t look for reflection, we merely want to escape. It is not entirely the fantasising that is to blame here. Reality in itself was unhealthy for our conception of the modern film. The ‘90s, which put an end to many a good actor in the country, are an example of this idea of delinking. Globalisation brought in the idea of a greater connected world, and it presented us with more space to get lost in. And that is what our films did, with cartoonish beta-male heroes, prancing and preening in colourful shorts and trousers, women dovetailing them with their feminism handed to them in a stylish bag, telling us how the virtuosity of material was worth falling for and even aspiring to. Puri had no place in this world, and he clearly struggled to find any. He did what he could, from what he was offered.
Puri and Naseerudin Shah were lifelong friends and often even mistaken for each other. There were eerie similarities between the two. Not only were they great actors, they were, so to speak, unremarkable in a purely superficial sense. Neither was a blue/brown-eyed dream. Puri wasn’t even as well educated as Shah. They were no one, and that is why they became everyone. Neither of two ever occupied the frame of a film and ran away with it. Their presence had a graceful earthliness, a static humanity. Good actors know the art of appearing. The greatest can disappear, when they are required to, even in camera’s sight. Puri was remarkably accomplished at both. In Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, he impossibly wrested the narrative with stylised exuberance and stubbornness that underlined the urbanisation of the middle-man in Ahuja. In Tamas he exhibited the winding-down of history, of burden, of the deflated sense of a future.
Perhaps, it is only fitting that none of Puri’s roles, or at least most, did not make him central to a film. He just wasn’t that kind of an actor. In that way he probably reflected ‘us’ more than most. It wasn’t that the commonness necessitated the supporting acts, it was just that Puri made that little shared space his own – like we just about manage to in our lives. Most actors struggle with being unable to rein in a worthy second act. They can only do the first, and the first alone. And though it helps them in adding numbers to the Cartesian system of popularity, it purloins from their craft their most felt quality – their humanity. Something similar can be said, perhaps, of Anthony Hopkins. Puri, thankfully, had no such problem. And most importantly, even his second acts were earned. They were not the friend-of-the-hero roles that the ‘90s mandated. Puri mattered, in whatever he did, regardless of the film itself.
Puri, who died on Friday morning (6 January 2017), was cast to play Toba Tek Singh in an adaption of Saadat Hassan Manto’s most famous short story. It would have been a fitting tribute to a career that, at least in terms of acting, operated in a level of its own. Puri earned a reputation rather than a fan-following. In him we neared our realities, however crushed, and in the emptiness he leaves behind, we risk being shown the same fantasies again, one fancy song a time.
Updated Date: Jan 07, 2017 10:56 AM