Om Puri, actor who redefined realism in Indian cinema, dies at 66
Om Puri’s death brings the curtain down on an acting mettle that could mould effortlessly for the arthouse and the potboiler, the comic and the tragic, both at home and abroad
Om Puri, who died of a heart attack on 6 January in Mumbai at the age of 66, could nail a part in one punch, and summon a character’s entire life in one gesture.
With him dies a certain acting mettle that could mould effortlessly for the arthouse and the potboiler, the comic and the tragic, at home and abroad. Puri electrified the screen, hardly uttering any words, as Lahanya Bhiku, a man accused of murdering his wife, in Aakrosh (1980), the debut film of Govind Nihalani. Puri pulled off the role with a stunned steeliness that redefined, for the Indian screen, what dialogue could and could not do.
1980 was crucial for the actor. The same year, he acted in Ketan Mehta’s Gujarati film Bhavni Bhavai, about caste oppression.
Mehta remembers: “We worked in three films together, Bhavni Bhavai, Holi (1985) and Mirch Masala (1997). We started our careers more or less together. All the actors in Bhavni Bhavai had to learn the Gujarati language. While Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) and Smita (Patil) would be struggling with the lines, he would be saying them with ease. During the shoot, every day we found out that there were sheets of Devanagari scripts under Om’s pillow. It had become a joke that he put them under his pillow and it would get into his mind. Even after 30 years of that film, whenever we met up, he would rattle off those monologues in Gujarati to show off that he still remembers his lines. One more image that stands out in my memory is of Om playing a bearded man with long hair with chilli powder all around him during the shooting of Mirch Masala. The beard, wig, dust and gum used to get all mixed up and would become very irritating but he would bear it in the great summer heat."
After the role of sub-inspector Anant Velankar in Nihalini’s Ardh Satya in 1983, Puri became integral to the parallel cinema movement of the 1980s that reintroduced realism to Indian cinema with an overtly socialistic sensibility—without songs and sentimentality, a movement that, in a sense, subverted the lyrical socialism of Bimal Roy’s cinema. This movement reached a pinnacle in the 1980s with films like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), a scathing satire in which Puri played Ahuja, a builder. He was exceptional in his comic timing in the film’s climax, a brilliant dramatization of the Mahabharat.
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’s director Kundan Shah says: “I first saw his comic ability in a Molière slapstick play that involved a lot of physical comedy and choreography. That’s what led me to think of him in the role of the perpetually drunk Ahuja in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, that was originally supposed to be played by Pankaj Kapur. When Kapur got the role of Tarneja, I approached Om at the last minute for the role. I remember standing with him in the balcony of his PG in Churchgate when I told him I am out of actors. He said he will do it. I said it’s a small role and I could only pay him Rs6,000. I don’t think he even read the script, but during the shooting of the Mahabharat scene, he came and told me it is a great script."
Nihalani’s series for Doordarshan, Tamas, based on Bhisham Sahni’s novel of the same name from 1974 set during Partition, has Puri in the unforgettable role of Nathu, a man from a “low Hindu caste" who gets unwittingly embroiled in a communal flare-up. Television also gave him the lead role in Kakaji Kahin (1988), a political satire directed by Basu Chatterjee.
Puri was an old-fashioned character actor. His versatile, volatile talent was instrumental in fuelling this creative ferment of the 1980s in Indian cinema. It was an explosive confederacy of screen talent, with directors like Nihalani, Mehta and Shyam Benegal, and actors like Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Patil, Shabana Azmi, Mohan Gokhale, Benjamin Gilani and others. He was prodigious and prolific—a combination that often eludes great actors.
“I would rate Om Puri really high, pretty close to Balraj Sahni," Kundan Shah says. “Like Sahni, he would always give grace to the roles he played. I can’t think of Mandi without him. He is one of the rare breed of actors who would capture the ruh (soul) of the character. This greatness comes with effort of course, but it is hidden effort. It reminds me of Munshi Premchand’s stories or Shailendra’s poetry: You can smell that they are from the land."
Puri was born in Ambala, Punjab, and graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India and the National School of Drama in the early 1970s. He acted in more than 100 films from the 1970s to 2016.
In the late 1990s, Puri enacted subcontinental roles in British productions—as the Pakistani George Khan in East Is East (1999), Abu in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013) and as Papa Kadam in The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014). Puri’s extraordinary acting jus remained untapped in these roles, mostly repetitions of each other in portraying Indianness or Pakistani-ness in neat prototypes. Meanwhile, he continued to play the odd neta or police officer in mainstream Hindi films. His later years are a shadow of his early refulgence.
Personal strife and ill health confined Puri in the last few years. A film aesthete would perhaps say the best of Om Puri was yet to come. For a nation of film lovers, the raspy tenor of his voice and his splendid balance of prolificity and prodigiousness will be hard to forget.
Puri is survived by his son Ishaan.
Sankhayan Ghosh contributed to this story.