Om Puri has died of a heart attack at the age of 66 – a sudden loss of one of Indian cinema’s most gifted actors, whose roles raged from raging intensity to side-splitting comedy.
Born in Ambala and educated at the National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India, Puri initially wanted to be a soldier, according to his biography by his wife, Nandita Puri, but was attracted to the arts while studying at Khalsa College in Patiala in 1967. At the NSD, under the tutelage of Ebrahim Alkazi, Puri began to display the talent that made him one of the greatest Indian performers of his generation. His entry into the Film and Television Institute of India was championed by director and playwright Girish Karnad, who recommended him to BV Karanth for the children’s film Chor Chor Chhup Jaaye in 1975 for what would be his first screen appearance.
After roles in Karanth’s Godhuli, Saeed Mirza’s Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan and Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai, Puri got his first big break in Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1989). Nihalani dispensed with Puri’s gravelly-toned voice and cast him as a tribal who has killed his wife (Smita Patil) and who has retreated into a catatonic silence. Through his face and body language alone, Puri magnificently conveys his character’s anguish.
Nihalani gave Puri his greatest role ever, as the tortured poetry-loving Mumbai police officer Anant Velankar in Ardh Satya (1983). Velankar’s idealism and integrity are rapidly replaced by cynicism and self-damage as he encounters the deeply embedded corruption in the system. Puri’s encounters with the gangster Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar) proves humiliating, but the real threat to his manhood comes from his peers in uniform.
In 1983, the same year Puri was scorching the screen in Ardh Satya, he displayed an untapped flair for comedy in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. Kundan Shah’s rambunctious satire, about two hapless photographers caught in a web of corruption woven by rival builders, sees Puri as the permanently drunk and goggles-sporting Ahuja.
“Om Puri was to acting what Premchand was to writing and Shailendra to lyrics – he could grass the essence of India,” Kundan Shah told Scroll.in. “You could put him in any role and he would deliver. He was a natural, and I could never grasp what his brilliant knack was, and how he did it each time.”
The 1980s proved to be Puri’s strongest decade. He was only 35 years old when he appeared as the elderly guard of a spice factory that shelters Smita Patil’s character from Naseeruddin Shah’s lecherous police officer in Mirch Masala. In Aghaat, he teamed up again with Govind Nihalani to play a trade union leader. His only collaboration with Satyajit Ray was in the telefilm Sadgati, co-starring Smita Patil.
Like his peers in the parallel film movement, Puri gravitated towards mainstream cinema in the 1990s. He played a police officer in Ghayal (1990) and a flamboyant villain in Narsmiha (1991). Previous roles in Gandhi (1982) and the British colonial-era television show Jewel in the Crown in 1983 got him international attention. He appeared in Sam & Me (1991) and as a Kolkata rickshaw puller in Roland Joffe’s controversial City of Joy (1983).
Om Puri’s best-known international roles were in the British productions My Son the Fanatic (1997) and East is East (1999). He played a Pakistani in both films, but the characters could not have been more different. In My Son the Fanatic, based on Hanif Kureishi’s script, Puri plays a secular taxi driver whose anguish at his son’s turn towards religious fundamentalism is movingly conveyed. Puri says in the biography Om Puri An Unlikely Hero that director Udayan Prasad’s initial choice for the role was Naseeruddin Shah. “… It was in this film that I felt I had excelled emotionally on screen,” Puri says in the book.
East is East, based on Ayub Khan Din’s play, was a complete contrast. Here, Puri plays the comical yet monstrous patriarch of a family who beats up his British wife and terrorises his family. Puri’s range was a bonanza for directors on the lookout for accomplished actors who could portray finely nuanced characters. He is hilarious as the crooked secretary Banwari Lal in Kamal Haasan’s Chachi 420 (1997), suitably over the top in Nagesh Kukunoor’s satire Bollywood Calling and the epitome of grief and gravitas as the father of a martyred Army soldier in Ashwini Chaudhary’s Dhoop (2003).
“As soon as action was said, he would become the character and effortlessly transcend the written word,” said Piyush Jha, who directed him in the comedy King of Bollywood (2003). Puri plays an aging star who agrees to be interviewed by a British journalist in the middle of his latest movie, Dhak Dhak. “If you were looking for an actor as an collaborator, you could not have anybody better than Om Puri,” Jha said.
Puri’s fame extended to television too. Nihalani’s Tamas, one of the most powerful shows ever on the Partition, features Puri as a Dalit tanner who flees the violence with his heavily pregnant wife (Deepa Sahi). In Basu Chatterjee’s hilarious satire Kakaji Kahin (1988), he plays a Teflon-coated power broker with a distinctive laugh.
Puri’s recent roles include OMG: Oh My God! (2012), the international production The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014), co-starring Helen Mirren, and the upcoming colonial-era drama Viceroy House. He also lent his deep rumble to the black panther Bagheera in the Hindi dubbed version of the Hollywood blockbuster The Jungle Book (2016).
Poor health – he had crippling back pain, for which he been operated upon, among other things – and domestic problems saw Puri in fewer roles in recent years. He had a falling-out with his wife Nandita Pur, after the publication of her book Om Puri Unlikely Hero over the publication of some of the candid information. He had an on-off relationship with Puri, a former journalist whom he met during an interview. They have a son, Ishaan. He had been previously married Seema Kapoor, the theatre actor.
Puri’s tendency to speak his mind got him into trouble in October 2016 during a television panel debate, in which he blurted out. “We have not forced them [soldiers] to join the Army…Prepare 15-20 people as suicide bombers and send them to Pakistan.” Puri was commenting on the ban on Pakistani artists working in India, for which one of the justifications was the deaths of Indian soldiers at the border. Puri had appeared in the Pakistani production Actor in Law in 2016, and he was pilloried for his remarks.
History will forget the scandals and remember the fine performances. According to Nandita Puri’s biography, when Om Puri was being interviewed for the acting course at the FTII in 1973, the board was reluctant to admit him. “He doesn’t look like a hero, nor a villain nor a comedian,” they asked. “What use will he be of to the industry?”
Girish Karnad, the FTII director and Puri’s champion at the time, replied, “That is not our problem.” It’s a decision the world is glad for.