In possibly the zaniest scene from Kundan Shah’s cult film #JaaneBhiDoYaaron, Om Puri’s perpetually drunk builder barges into the middle of a mythological play on stage to serenade the very, fat and dead body of the city’s Mayor (a deadpan Satish Shah) draped in a saree. It was ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ and truly so. In a film that had an ensemble of some of the finest stage actors of the country, Puri stood out with a performance that required him to ham all the way through. The consummate actor that he was, Puri showed that one could go over the top and still make it look nuanced. The year was #1983, significant because it was in the same year that Puri won a #NationalAward for Best Actor. For his role as an upright cop in Govind Nihalani’s gut wrenching ‘Ardh Satya’ That was the genius of this every man’s actor called #OmPuri. From the sublime to the ridiculous he could play it all, with panache.
The first week of this year brought us the sad news. A heart attack had led to the untimely death of the legendary Om Puri and one says untimely simply because the actor was not ailing as such and had, in fact been busy with some acting assignments at the time of death. In a career spanning four decades and over two hundred films Puri wowed audiences the world over and is rightfully called as India’s first crossover actor. It was his marvelous acting in films like ‘City of Joy’ and ‘East is East’ that endeared him to western audiences. One still remembers his haunting cameo as an angry peasant in Richard Attenborough’s Oscar Award winning biopic #Gandhi where appearing for all of 90 seconds running time, Puri leaves a indelible impression on the audience. Regardless of the length, Om Puri had the ability to breathe life into a role and make it memorable.
Coming from a lesser privileged background, Puri had to make ends meet doing odd jobs from a very young age of seven. But what held him in good stead was the education that he managed to complete from respected film institutes like the #NationalSchoolofDrama & #FTII. Though his initial days in films were far from easy due to his ordinary looks, he was also fortunate to be an integral part of what came to be known as #The ParallelCinemaMovement of the late 70s and the 1980s. This in turn was the tail end of the neo-realistic Bengali films of the 1950s & 60s that had roots in Italian neorealism. These were all film known for rejecting the song and dance routine of commercial films and for embracing realism and serious subjects. With directors like Shyam Benegal, Gulzar, MS Sathyu and Mrinal Sen and Mani Kaul and actors (and actresses) like #NaseeruddinShah, Shabana Azmi and #SmitaPatil for company, Puri delivered some stellar performances. Till the movement died.
From the late 80s began another glorious chapter in Puri’s career. Where on one hand he was seen playing stellar roles in ventures in international ventures, he also made a successful crossover to commercial Hindi films. Where the lead role eluded him but the actor in Puri made sure he got the author backed roles in which he shone. From playing the archetypal villain of the piece to essaying goofy characters intended to raise a good laugh Puri did what was expected of him. With aplomb. The greatest contribution of Puri to Indian cinema will be having inspired not so good looking great actors to try their hand in big, bad #Bollywood. From Manoj Bajpai to #IrrfanKhan, #NawazuddinSiddiqui to Rajkumar Rao the list is long. So when the #AcademyAwards paid a warm and touching tribute to the splendid Puri this year but not one of the dozen odd Indian film awards deemed it fit to do so, one feels a little disappointed. Even in death, life is a struggle for Puri.