RIP Om Puri: The actor's reel legacy remains peerless; we've lost a true star

Gautam Chintamani

Jan,06 2017 13:35:46 IST

Om Puri’s death reminds us of what a great actor once said about talent. “Talent”, believed Alan Rickman — who like Puri was one of the finest actors of his generation — was “an accident of genes, and a responsibility.”

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Om Puri from one of his earlier films; Puri in East is East. Imags from Twitter.

Perhaps Rickman was thinking of Puri when he said this, for besides being supremely talented, Puri understood the responsibility that fate had bestowed upon him. The veteran actor who passed away on Friday morning, 6 January, following a massive heart attack was 66 and in a lifetime spent in front of the camera, he more than delivered on that promise.

The times Puri decided to become an actor were very different from now. His father worked in the railways and the family barely had money to feed the children. Many of Puri’s siblings had died in childhood due to various diseases and lack of proper diagnosis and medical facilities. The era when Puri took up acting was also a phase when anyone wanting to be an actor was looked upon as outlandish.

But for Puri acting probably was about finding the similarity in what was apparently different, and in the bargain also discover himself. This is the reason that Puri could play any character and yet make it look different and familiar at the same time. He could play a faceless peasant compelled by circumstances to move to Calcutta (City of Joy), or a wheeler-dealer with some kind of scruples (Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron), a village elder who becomes the final bastion between good and evil (Mirch Masala), a tribesman accused of murdering his wife (Aakrosh) or even Zia-ul Haq (Charlie Wilson’s War) to name a few and he would make them appear as people one might have known all their lives and still discover something new about them.

The word ‘different’ has been used to describe Om Puri at various stages of his acting career. And, different he truly was.

Even in a group of people, who prided themselves on being different from the actors in the mid-1970s that they were going against, Puri stood out. He was different from Naseeruddin Shah, his partner in crime when it came to rewriting the rules of the profession, or Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. He would be the only one in the entire parallel cinema movement who played all kinds of characters across all formats and all genres. He acted in television series before they became fashionable (Tamas, Kakkaji Kaheen, Mr. Yogi), he played minor parts that stood out as much as the lead (Gandhi), he could act in a Shyam Benegal film or a Satyajit Ray project with as much sincerity as being a hanger-on in commercial films of the era.

He was also one of the first prominent Indians to feature in top-billed roles in Hollywood with Roland Joffe’s City of Joy (1992) and followed it up with much-publicized appearances in Wolf (1994) with Jack Nicholson and The Ghost and The Darkness (1996) with Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer. In just under a decade from there, Puri also became one of the first true crossover stars with the immensely successful East is East (1999).

With Om Puri’s death, an era comes to an end. It also marks the severing of a link between two different worlds of cinema. Unlike his more illustrious contemporary, Naseeruddin Shah, Puri never brandished a holier than thou attitude while working in ‘Bollywood’ or commercial Hindi films. While there came a time when both Shah and Puri completely disengaged from what could be called art-house cinema and became out-and-out masala actors, Puri quite enjoyed parodying himself.

Right from the time he played David Brown, Jimmy’s (Mithun Chakraborty) manager in Disco Dancer (1982) he rarely traded his earnestness. By comparison, there were times when Shah appeared to be sleep walking through films to simply collect the paycheck. Puri’s acting, on the other hand, as described by an Al Pacino quote, was telling the truth even when he was lying. Once while shooting in the same studio as his mentor Shyam Benegal, Puri quipped how he was working in a David Dhawan film [Dulhan Hum Le Jayenge (2000)] while Benegal was making Zubeidaa (2001) with Karishma Kapoor, a heroine known for her roles in David Dhawan films, who was also in DHLJ.

Om Puri’s untimely death robbed us of one of the best actors we would ever know and snatched from him a chance to change the last memory that would stay back with millions of his admirers. Towards the end, Puri was embroiled in many controversies right from threatening to quit India and move to Pakistan, or saying that he didn’t care if his films were boycotted following his comments on the Indian Army following the Uri Attacks.

Irrespective of the “real” life controversies, for which he would later as readily apologize, Puri’s “reel” legacy remains peerless and in him, we have lost a true star.

Updated Date: Jan 06, 2017 13:35 PM