By Tirthankar Mitra
A newcomer with a handsome face needs no recommendation for entry into filmdom. Feted by Hollywood and nearer home at Bollywood to be one of the finest actors to perform before the camera, Om Puri who stood out in a crowd with a pockmarked face was an exception. He was at the height of his histrionic talents when he passed away. He was only 66 and certainly not an age for him to die. . He was born on October 18, 1950.
Small wonder, one would rather pay a tribute to his talent on his birthday. Puri was an unlikely hero. For with a pock marked face and a gravelly voice, he was an anti-thesis to the men hailing from the wheat fields of Punjab or the angry young man who would take on the world be it in the avatar of big-time bootlegger who had killed his parents or essay the role of a top notch smuggler who after a rags to riches career yearns to return to his roots. Puri was not cut out for these roles. Nor did he hanker after them.
A new breed of directors had emerged bent on focusing on the problems plaguing the country before it attained freedom. Be it as a deaf mute in Akhrosh or an uncompromising policeman in Ardh Satya, the roles with which Puri started his acting career in Hindi films were destined to be land marks in celluloid.
There was an innate rusticity about this Ambala boy. Yet this was no country bumpkin; a swagger in his character made him stand out in the crowd. This holds good for the roles Puri essayed. Playing the role of a rickshaw puller in Kolkata to a Tee in City of Joy , he effortlessly slipped into the role of a communal cop through whose character the love for his friend Dev (enacted by Amitabh Bachchan in the film having the same title) runs like a golden thread.
The NSD graduate was a man of contradictions. Puri who wanted to drop out of this coveted course to learn acting as his knowledge of English was not upto to the mark won several Hollywood awards together with an honorary Order of the British Empire.
Gravitas and warmth exuded from the characters Puri essayed in Hindi and English films. Be it a political comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro or Macbeth inspired Maqbool; sharing a scene with Jack Nicholson in Wolf, sharing screen space with Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks in Chalie Wilson’s War in which he essayed the role of a wry President Zia-ul-Haq, East is East in which he was cast in the role of a Pakistani patriarch and of course his debut in Gandhi.
Having mastered the art of emoting on the silver screen, Puri was never at a loss acting in an out and out commercial film like China Gate. But arguably he reserved his best for arthouse movies like Paar directed by his NSD batchmate Gautam Ghosh.
Puri knew the importance of lucre. He was also aware of the urge to satisfy his creative urges. Hence his tryst with theatre where he could emote, before a live audience watching the delivery of every dialogue. Inarguably , the screen and later television helped him find a wider appreciation and greater prosperity.
Playing the role of a pawn in a game of high stakes Puri essayed an untouchable tossing an animal carcass in a place of worship triggering a wide ranging communal conflagration in Govind Nihalni directed television serial Tamas. One may split a hair whether his role as a person of the same caste as in the tele serial, his acting can be spoken of in the same breath for his acting in Satyajit Ray’s tele film Sadgati.
Talk of Puri’s acting, one is amazed at the range of his roles. From a corrupt politician in Yuba to a don holding a town and it’s residents to ransom in Narsimha, his roles displayed varying shades of grey.
Time was when together with Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi, Puri formed a formidable triumvirate of protagonists of art house films. Shah and Azmi did not quite make an easy coexistence between the two genres; Puri did. This is a pointer to the flexibility of his acting skills. Even now when a difficult character role comes by, the search is on for an actor of his calibre.
It is a fruitless task; it is a tribute to Puri’s acting abilities that his boots are too big to be filled by lesser men. He remains irreplaceable till this day. Om Puri had a penchant for scaling unconquered peaks in the world of acting. Let it be his epitaph that he breathed his last while on this act. (IPA Service)