Om Puri’s brilliance can be summed up in one scene from Govind Nihalani’s hard-hitting drama Ardh Satya (1983). As Anant Welanker, a promising young man who is travelling in a bus, Puri tries to confront a fellow passenger who tries to touch Jyotsna Gokhale (Smita Patil). He does this without wanting to be seen as over-protective of Gokhale.
Many actors wouldn’t be able to portray the many shades of expressions Puri brings out in this scene.
In a film industry known for its obsession with near-perfect faces and bodies, Puri’s success seems like a metaphor for winning against the odds.
He was one of the 16 FTII graduates who decided to do a film on Vijay Tendulkar’s marvelous play, Ghasiram Kotwal, in 1976. This turned out to be the beginning he was looking for.
In a couple of years, Puri and his NSD partner Naseeruddin Shah, along with the likes of Amrish Puri, Smita Patil, Pankaj Kapur and Shabana Azmi, became pioneers of the parallel cinema movement in India.
Directors such as Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul and Kumar Sahni, who decided to drift away from escapist Bollywood, engaged these actors to achieve the unthinkable when stars such as Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan were on top of their game.
Bhumika (1977), Aakrosh (1980), Aarohan (1982), Ardh Satya (1983), in film after film, Om Puri was turning into the perfect representation of a common man on the silver screen. This was the time when the government had a strict control over media, and celluloid representation of marginalised sections was limited to them speaking in an alien language and singing around fire in funny attire. Mainstream filmmakers couldn’t differentiate between a dalit and an adivasi.
Thanks to Puri and his co-actors’ efforts, cinema had a better reflection of the social injustices.
Puri’s foray into comedy as a shrewd businessman Ahuja in Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983) brought out a completely different side of an otherwise ‘serious’ actor. Years later, the West witnessed the same in East Is East (1999).
His ability to switch from one dialect to another made him a favourite with Hollywood filmmakers who wanted to explore South Asia. His grip over diction and Urdu made this look easier than it actually was.
The ‘90s saw him getting into character roles that were taller than the heroes. Be it in Narsimha (1991), Droh Kaal (1994) or Maachis (1996), he excelled in every part.
This was in addition to films like Chachi 420 (1997) and Hera Pheri (2000), in which he explored purely comic opportunities.
However, in the last couple of years, Puri was in the news for the wrong reasons. B-grade films, divorce and nasty comments against soldiers tarnished his tall image.
But all said and done, Om Puri was that one commoner who dared to bring a change through his acting in cinema. And for that, we will keep going back to his films, and in the process, to the man he was.
Om Puri, in five unforgettable scenes
Pradip Kumar Saha
The fiery, versatile actor brought to life some of the most memorable characters in Hindi films
Ardh Satya (1983): The poem
A proud cop hoping to change the world soon realises that he is a mere pawn in the larger game of corruption, power, politics and crime. He struggles with the evils around him and his own vulnerabilities. The honest cop’s life goes into a downward spiral and he has to seek assistance from a corrupt politician.
Puri plays the honest cop Anant Welankar in the movie and puts the character’s struggles into perspective in one pivotal scene in the film where he reads a poem from a book named Ardh Satya.
Tamas (1987): The Pig
Govind Nihlani’s Tamas is largely based on the eponymous novel by Bhishm Sahni that deals with partition and its after-effects. In the book the killing of the pig has significance as its carcass becomes the cause of a riot. And the man commissioning the act is seen driving a ‘peace bus’ later. Nathu chamar, played by Puri, kills the pig for Rs5
Hera Pheri (2000): Khadak Singh wants his money back
Khadak Singh keeps recurring throughout the Priyadarshan movie to claim the money he had lent a friend and is fooled every time. Towards the end, he comes with a truckload of people to recover the money and is fooled again. This time he follows his friend to what becomes a hilarious melee involving almost every actor in the movie.
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983): Mahabharat
Puri plays perpetually drunk builder Ahuja in Kundan Shah’s political satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). Draupadi is about to be disrobed in a stage production of the Mahabharat when the stage is crashed by several actors in what turns into one of the funniest scenes ever in the history of Bollywood.
Aakrosh (1980): The funeral
What stays with you long after you have watched this film is Bhiku Lahanya’s chilling scream (at about the two hour 14 minute mark) that follows the equally unnerving silence of the character through the movie. Bhiku, who is accused of killing his wife and is in prison, screams after killing his sister with one stroke of the axe at their father’s funeral, moments after lighting the pyre, in an attempt to save her from the unconcealed lust of the village foreman and a destiny that drove his wife to suicide. Puri plays Bhiku with conviction. The scream was the revolt against the grave injustice and human rights violation against a victim from the lowest strata of the society.
Director Govind Nihlani, in a 2013 interview, has admitted that Puri had lived Bhiku’s story by the time of this scene.