He was the unconventional hero and actor at a time when the Hindi film industry was festooned with movies that carried masala appeal where trinity of stars, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand ruled supremely and their turf was taken by one Rajesh Khanna, for whom the term superstar was coined for the first time. One day, walked a tall and lanky man called Amitabh Bachchan who stormed the entire industry and whom the media called the angry young man. One would be tempted to ask where someone like Om Puri and his ilk would fit. He did. Puri Saab gave a new definition and edge to cinema and methodical acting that the audience-both mainstream and artistic-fell in love with.
The methodical actor, the first among his kin who steered this acting revolution, belonged to what I’d call the Alumni of the school of the 70s in the same school as Farooq Shaikh, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Amol Palekar and Deepti Naval who came with a wave of change to revolutionize cinema. It’s a sin to call it parallel cinema, a poor cousin of mainstream. It’s my firm belief that cinema is cinema, no matter how we define it.
A graduate of the premiere Film Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, Om Puri debuted in the Marathi film Ghashiram Kotwal based on a play by the Maharashtrian playwright, Vijay Tendulkar. Puri Saab went on to play remarkable roles in what was dubbed at that time as ‘art house’ cinemas such as Aakrosh, Arth Satya, Bhumika, Jaane Bhi do Yaaro, Mandi, Bhavni Bhavai and Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kya Aata Hai, where he shared screen presence with Smita Patil, who is arguably one of the finest actresses Hindi cinema has produced. Such was the times. Shyam Bengal was one of the rare directors who captured and brought to life one of the gems of the industry, be it in Aakrosh, Kalyug, Arohan or Bhumika.
A still from Govind Nihilani’s Ardh Satya with Om Puri and Smita Patil.
Om Puri Saab is one of the rare actors who never went over the top with his restrained acting histrionics, demeanor, body language and expression was honest to the core and a treat to watch. He was one actor who was an institution in himself and would serve as fodder to future actors and students of cinema. I personally believe that despite hailing from the theater background or art cinema, he showed the way and bare no contempt to what media terms as commercial outings where he held his might and polished acting into a fine art. I enjoyed watching Puri Saab in comic and commercial capers to the likes of Hera Pheri, Mere Baap Pehle Aap, Singh is King, Ghayal, and Narsimha. Who can forget the villain in Narsimha or, for that matter, his entry in Jaane Bhi do Yaaro? One just needs to sit and watch how he sashays, take a pause and mouths the dialogues. A tale of introspection, energy, observing and taking the game forward. Om Puri’s outing in commercial outings shows how a great actor should never shy away to venture and every act is part of its inherent skills, free from prejudices or baggage.
The clash of titans, Om Puri and Amitabh Bachchan in Dev, helmed by Govind Nihilani in 2004.
Two of the great actors and thespians, Amitabh Bachchan and Om Puri crossed swords in movies like Kyon Ho Gaya Na, Laqshya, Babul but what takes the cake is Dev which showcases the conflict, angst and deep-rooted ideological differences rooted in the system. The same was brought alive on screen by the two geniuses, Puri and Bachchan, on par with each other and hailing from two vastly distinct cinematic school of thoughts. A tale of art meeting mainstream cinema that was tapped with such ingenuity and competence by Govind Nihilani. Puri played Tejinder Khosla while Bachchan played Dev Pratap Singh brought the house on fire, bringing a rare intensity in what is the real deal and conflict is ridden in the system. Simply brilliant.
As Om Puri bade us farewell, a certain void is sensed which would make it very rare to fill and one is tempted to say that the golden era of acting is slowly waning away. The thinking actor that Om Saab was, never shied away at speaking his mind and hitting at intolerance raging in our society, getting it real at every juncture. He belonged to a very humble background and it was something that showed during his interviews, this kindness that made Puri Saab so human.
Hindi cinema lost one of its most sparkling mind and actors that echoed the real issues facing our society in films like Mirch Masala, Dharavi, Dev, Ardh Satya and wowed the global audience in international flicks such as Gandhi, East is East and My Son the Fanatic. Take a bow, Sir. Perhaps, you have gone too soon but retributive justice in a way for us to honor you posthumous when you never got your due as an actor.