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Why Om Puri was Hindi cinema’s best policeman

Who can match the seething sub-inspector from Mumbai's Gol Chowki police station?

Om Puri’s sub-inspector Anant Velankar and Patil’s Jyotsna Gokhale in ‘Ardh Satya’.
Om Puri’s sub-inspector Anant Velankar and Patil’s Jyotsna Gokhale in ‘Ardh Satya’.

Amitabh Bachchan is Hindi cinema’s most popular police inspector, though Iftekhar was often higher ranked at police commissioner. Vinod Khanna was the one who made us swoon when he donned the uniform. Rekha and Salman Khan tie for most fantastical portrayal of a cop. Ajay Devgn is the policeman whose battles are always set to the most melodramatic background score. Govinda has the most realistic policeman body and Akshay Kumar has the body type we wish our policemen had.

Best generational policemen in the movies? Dharmendra and Sunny Deol. A policeman who never was? Shah Rukh Khan. And the most authentic, impactful policeman? Sub-inspector Anant Velankar from Mumbai’s Gol Chowki police station.

Om Puri’s portrayal of a seething teetotaller policeman who is driven to drink before interval by the influence a gangster wields over the police force in Govind Nihalani’s 1983 film Ardh Satya left a deep impact on teenage me. Back then, the gloved sub-inspector on the Enfield Bullet was the clear hero of the story set in 1980s Mumbai—a world of HMT watches, Wills cigarettes, Thums Up and Yankee Doodle ice cream. Here, your boss gave you life lessons over endless cups of chai and khari biscuits in Irani restaurants but for a potential life partner, nothing less than coffee at Prithvi Cafe would do.

Like that city portrayed in the film, most of Ardh Satya’s key actors—Sadashiv Amrapurkar, Smita Patil, Amrish Puri, Shafi Inamdar and now Puri—are no more.

Then, I viewed the film as an early lesson on the impotence of being an upright citizen trapped in the maze of a violent, corrupt system. The law has to be respected, one character says early on, and you know this is a story where exactly the opposite is going to happen. But when I went back to the film last week after Puri died, it was less a me-against-the-world tale and more a brilliant portrait of a man as flawed as the system he inhabits.

The villainous Rama Shetty—who has the ability to get under Puri’s skin just by the fluid movements of his facial muscles—was Amrapurkar’s debut role in Hindi cinema. As Puri puts it in the film, Rama Shetty makes my blood boil and the mere mention of his name challenges my masculinity. The film ends with Puri strangling Shetty for this same reason.

But Shetty is not the first person to make the policeman feel emasculated. As a young man he often watched helplessly as his father, also a policeman, beat his mother. If only Puri could have been a professor like he wanted, instead of following his father’s orders. Puri’s eyes light up when he first encounters a powerful Dilip Chitre poem from which the film gets its name. Chakravyuh mein ghusne se pehle, kaun thha main aur kaisa thha, yeh mujhe yaad hee na rahega (Before I entered this maze, who was I? I will not remember).

Yet Puri is not uncomfortable with the violence his own job calls for. He tortures criminals and lathi-charges factory workers quite matter-of-factly. The cycle of violence is complete when he finally yells back at his abusive father: “Who do you think you are to give me orders? Am I your wife?" That’s also the first time they drink together and the first time his father feels like his son has become a real man. Nihalani’s gender insights are even more valid today.

Smita Patil is Jyotsna Gokhale, the composed college lecturer who believes that you should speak only if you are willing to do something about effecting change, otherwise all discussion is pointless. She would have been appalled by the idea of Twitter; in the pre-liberalized, pre-digital world of Ardh Satya, betrayals and disappointments unfold over rotary phones.

As Puri begins to drink on the job and rely more on the numbness alcohol provides, Patil must grapple with that age-old relationship dilemma. The one where you feel like you’ve met someone perfect with whom you wouldn’t mind spending your life—and then you realize that you don’t really know the first thing about that perfect person. Puri’s violence terrifies her the few times she witnesses it. You look different today, she tells him when she meets him on that rare day when he’s sober and smiling.

Puri’s well-meaning colleague meanwhile can only offer him testosterone-fuelled advice about his alcohol dependency: “Stop being a sensitive fool. Do you want the world to think you couldn’t handle the pressures of being a policeman?"

I haven’t seen any other film that captures so unflinchingly what policemen go through in this country and how they are compromised.

The department’s gender insensitivity is on full display. Puri sees himself as Patil’s protector and beats up someone who is harassing her on a BEST bus. Yet the opening sequence where Puri meets Patil at a New Year’s party is followed by one where his colleagues ask him: “Koi maal-waal haath laga?" They enjoy dissecting the loose morals of a nightclub dancer with “shapely thighs". There are only two things in life for these men: naukri and chhokri (work and women) “A wife should not be too pretty," Puri’s father tells him. “A policeman is never at home."

Of course, it all unravels at the end after a messy custodial killing. “I drank too much and behaved like an animal," Puri confesses to Patil. “Everything is over for me." The day she leaves him is also the day he tells her his big secret. That he’s never done anything to make himself feel proud of his manliness. “Anything is possible if you keep this uniform on," says Puri’s boss, exhorting him to ask Shetty for help. But you already know how that meeting goes. Puri is left alone to mull Chitre’s words: The perfect balance of impotence and manhood on a scale points only to a half-truth or ardh satya.

I’ve never encountered another Hindi film policeman quite like Puri. And that’s the full truth.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable. She tweets at @priyaramani and posts on Instagram as babyjaanramani. Read Priya’s Mint Lounge columns here

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