Om Puri's Aakrosh, Ardh Satya director Govind Nihalani: 'He was forever hungry for a good role'

Seema Sinha

Jan,09 2017 11:44:18 IST

He's acknowledged as one of the acting greats in the Indian film industry. And for Om Puri — who passed away on Friday, 6 January 2017 — his big break came with filmmaker-cinematographer-screenwriter Govind Nihalani's Aakrosh(1980) followed by Ardh Satya(1983), Aaghat(1985), Tamas (tele-serial, 1987) and many more thought-provoking and socially relevant films when the parallel cinema movement was at its peak. In an exclusive chat with Firstpost, Nihalani spoke about Puri — an unlikely hero and versatile actor — whose filmography ranged from art cinema to commercial movies and includes even British and American productions. Excerpts:

It was you who spotted the talent in Om Puri and harnessed it in film after film since Aakrosh. Can we safely say that you mentored Om Puri and that he was your muse?

I don’t know if I can lay claim to that kind of position. Yes, I came to know about him (Om) while he was still in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII, Pune) when Girish Karnad was the director of the institute. Girish would speak very fondly about Om and Naseeruddin Shah and told me that they were very good actors and that one should work with them. I was shooting a documentary which was being made by Ram Mohan, who is regarded as the father of animation films, and I recommended Om and Naseer’s names on the basis of what Girish had told me. Both of them acted in that documentary, this was sometime in the late sixties or early seventies. We shared good vibes during the making of the documentary, they were also doing little bit of work in theatre those days and I saw some of their plays as well. Then, when I started making movies, I cast Om, Naseer, Smita Patil and Amrish Puri in my directorial debut, Aakrosh.

Still from 'Ardh Satya'

Still from 'Ardh Satya'

Naseeuddin Shah just mentioned that you must have been affected the most by Puri's demise. Since you knew Om so well, how would you describe him as a person and as an actor?

He was a very fine human being, warm, empathetic and a very instinctive actor. He could sense the character he had to portray very instinctively without doing too much of analysis and as a result, it was very easy working with him. He came from a theatre background which means creating a character, learning lines, changing body language according to the character was part of his training and that became the integration process. So there was no need to sit and explain it to him. He worked best when he was given a clear picture of the character and freedom to interpret it in his own way. He wouldn’t follow the instructions word-by-word as he would create a picture in his own mind. He would come up with the body language and speech of the character. Once he knew the character, he just owned it. He would go deep into the inner life and the state of mind of the character whether it was the main role or a supporting one. He was an absolute honest actor.

Can you recall some memorable scenes from when you were directing him?

The way in which Om modulated his voice was great. In Ardh Satya, there is a scene where he speaks to Smita Patil on the phone supposedly in a drunken state. We don’t see Om at all in the sequence. But we know exactly what his character is going through. Later, many people, including Naseer, asked Om if he had downed some pegs before doing the scene. He hadn’t. Then, I remember his scream from Aakrosh (Puri played a peasant), after the chilling silence throughout. Both, Vijay Tendulkar (who scripted it) and I, felt that this was the only way to end a story of human rights violation perpetrated against a victim not educated or empowered to challenge the culprit. This was the oppressed peasant Lahanya Bhiku's way of raising his voice against grave injustice. An expression of repressed rage and helplessness, it rents the air after he axes his sister to save her from the foreman's lust and a fate that drove his wife to suicide. Then, there is a scene in Ardh Satya in which he confronts a fellow passenger for touching Smita Patil. His strength was, once he got the emotional hook of the scene, the expression and the emotional quotient that he brought to it was amazing. The degree of anger, the degree of violence he expressed by beating up the perpetrator of the crime in that scene, was entirely his contribution. The suppressed violence in his character was proportionate to the reason that could trigger that kind of emotion in that last scene in Aakrosh. He had understood that the scream had nothing to do with pain, but it was the inner turmoil, the helplessness, utter rage. He would understand the emotional quotient of character in that particular moment without ever intellectualising or analysing. He also gave a great and effortless performance in Tamas.

Still from 'Tamas'

Still from 'Tamas'

Do you recall the very first day when you started shooting with Om Puri?

It is now more than 30 years ago. I don’t remember the first shot but I can only recollect that we were filming Aakrosh at Alibaug with Om and Amrish Puri. I remember the camaraderie that existed between all the members of the team. Parallel cinema was taking off and all the filmmakers who believed and engaged in that kind of cinema had this collective feeling of bringing a change in the industry. Playwright Vijay Tendulkar, who had written the script of Aakrosh and many more films, was at his peak. A lot of things were happening for the first time. I remember all of that except the first shot. But yes, Om was a happy-go-lucky kind of a person, and while everybody was too serious with the kind of subject the film dealt with, there was also a parallel story, a parallel film, a comedy version happening alongside which was helping us ease our tension.

In the film industry they look for that perfect face and body...how did Om Puri win against all odds? During his days of struggle, he once told a very senior critic that if he goes out and meets filmmakers like Yash Chopra or Manmohan Desai, they’ll take one look at his face and tell him to go for a walk. Did he ever discuss this with you?

With his kind of looks, and face full of pockmarks, many filmmakers didn’t want to touch him. But talent was far more important than looks for a certain kind of filmmakers. There came a time in the '70s when the industry was no longer obsessed about good looks as the audiences' tastes were changing. Om was that actor who entered the industry at the right time — when cinema was looking at artistes in a different way where good looks, fair and smooth skin, bulging biceps were not just the criteria for casting. There were filmmakers who were ready to work with non-glamorous people. His ability to project a range of characters came at the right time. He was a very honest actor and went for the essence of the character. Look at the work he has done in the West with huge actors and legends like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg. He was also very ethical and never tried to steal the scene from his co-stars, he never played dirty tricks. He did whatever the character demanded and never suggested any change in his dialogues, or the scene, or lighting, or that he wanted a particular profile while facing the camera. He was a fearless actor. He was gifted and one of those few actors who had tremendous sense of instinct to imbibe any character. But he never wallowed in self- pity. When he decided to work, he gradually forgot that he had marks on his face, he wasn’t self-conscious. And the accolades that he got for his work gave him tremendous confidence. He remained consistent in his nature — very warm, genuine and accessible. He also dressed like a common man.

Still from 'Aakrosh'

Still from 'Aakrosh'

While Om Puri played varied roles when he was part of parallel cinema, do you think he got stereotyped in mainstream and commercial cinema? Because eventually he got bracketed into the kind of loud, boisterous character he played in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron...

I think mainstream cinema simplifies everything — which is its strength [laughs]. When he played the character in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, he was not just a comedian. There the whole motivation was to play to the genre of black comedy... dark satire, which was later simplified by mainstream cinema (in his later characters) and he was made to do comedy in many films. Om never said that he wanted to follow a certain genre, he would never differentiate between a small or a big role. He would have even played a ghost with elan. His range was immense.

Did he nurse any unfulfilled ambition that he shared with you? Was there any role that he yearned to play? And did you have any script in mind for him?

Not really. Except that he was forever hungry for a good role. We have been discussing something for the last six to seven years but I can’t speak about it. It wasn’t for any film though, it was something personal. I had just finished my Marathi film and had some time on my hand and we were supposed to meet soon.

Which of his commercial films did you like the most?

I liked Om’s work in the comedy genre. I enjoyed watching Chachi 420 and Priyadarshan’s films like Hera Pheri, Maalamaal Weekly and few others. Some of them were really very delightful and Om too enjoyed working in those films. He was excellent in comedy even on stage. He was extremely versatile.

Govind Nihalani. Image courtesy YouTube

Govind Nihalani. Image courtesy YouTube

There were some personal problems and probably that affected Om Puri mentally as well as physically, he was suffering for the last few years. At times he was in news for all the wrong reasons...

I wouldn’t like to comment on this.

Do you think, as an actor and as a creative person, he got what he deserved? At times he ended up doing bad films maybe for financial reasons...

I don’t want to get into comparative questions. Whatever Om did has put him in a very good position in the history of cinema in India, and more than that he will forever remain in the hearts of the people. Besides financial reasons, Om and Naseer would work in films for many other reasons, like for the love of the subject, for friends, for certain directors...For instance, Naseer made a very small, brief appearance in my film Party, in the end. That was the spirit. For whatever reasons they did, they have enriched the history of Indian cinema.

You must have been shocked on hearing about his demise since you’d just spoken to him.

Yes. We last met a few months ago and two days before he passed away, we chatted. I had called him when he was returning to Mumbai from Khandala and we agreed to meet on the same day (that) he breathed his last. He was to come over, before lunch. Instead, I get the news from actor Ashish Vidyarthi though he wasn’t too sure and I didn’t know whom to contact. But eventually I got calls from a few of my journalist friends who told me that he's gone and then it started sinking in. His driver told me that he was found lying in the kitchen. Om and I still shared a great relationship and stayed in touch. I will remain forever grateful to the kind of role he played in my life.

Updated Date: Jan 09, 2017 11:44 AM