OBIT

Om Puri: an actor, an institution in himself

Om Puri: an actor, an institution in himself Smita Patil and Om Puri in the film Ardh Satya

"I knew zilch,” he said during the launch of his biography Unlikely Hero: The Story of Om Puri, written by his wife Nandita C. Puri, in Delhi, in 2011. He was referring to his lack of knowledge in English, and why, with little knowledge and limited vocabulary, he could not have written an autobiography. In these few years as a journalist, I have not come across a person, especially of his repute, being so forthcoming and accepting ones shortcomings the way he did.

But that's how he was mostly—straightforward. At many chat shows in the last few years, the actor accepted how he used to be conscious of his English all the time while studying at the National School of Drama. Yet, in a career spanning almost half a century with more than 100 films, Puri has been a part of some of the most critically acclaimed films, including Ardh Satya, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Drohkaal, Gandhi and Sparsh among others.

Sai Paranjpye's Sparsh (1980) was one of the first films in which I noticed him. If I remember correctly, I had watched Sparsh on a VCR in the 90s as a school-going girl. Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi played the lead roles in the movie, while Puri played a small role—of a blind man. Even then, he was so convincing that he left an indelible mark. Later, when I watched films like Chachi 420 (2006) or more recently Malamaal Weekly (2006), I wondered how an actor could be so credible in both intense as well as frivolous, comic roles. He knew a little more than many others in the industry who are often typecast. He was critics' favourite, and often took unusual roles. Films like Aakrosh (1980), Arohan (1982) and Drohkaal (1994) are a testament.

Born in Haryana to a Punjabi family in 1950, Puri went to the National School of Drama, in New Delhi, and later joined the Film and Television Institute of India, in Pune. He was one of the few actors to have actively worked in British and Hollywood films, including My Son the Fanatic (1997), East Is East (1999), City of Joy (1992), The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), and the more-recent The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014) with Hillen Mirren. The actor was honoured with the Padma Shri Award and Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the Empire (OBE) status.

Puri was in news off late for not-so-good reasons, but that can't take away his contribution to the Indian cinema over the years. 2011 wasn't a remarkable year for the Puri. Just after the launch of his biography, he openly revealed his displeasure with his wife for mentioning stories of his sexual escapades in the biography. What followed was an ugly fight between the couple, the details of which were on public domain. In the same year, when he addressed a crowd at the Ramlila Maidan, in Delhi, during Anna Hazare's famous protest, many thought he was drunk.

A friend, who handled his PR mandate during the time, recalls how the actor was “little scared” for being in the news for wrong reasons, and how he wanted his work to always do the talking. In interviews at that time, the actor had clarified, “In my 35 years in this profession, I've never felt so humiliated except when my wife [Nandita] wrote that book about me. I don't deny that I enjoy my drinks. But not in the afternoon. And that, too, when I'm at a venue where history is being created.”

Earlier this year, the actor was slammed for being insensitive towards the Uri soldiers who lost their lives for the country. A police complaint, too, was filed. But Puri accepted his mistake soon and was willing to be punished. He went to the extent of considering a retirement from films. It is sad that within a few months we lost him—an actor par excellence, a person who fought adversity to live his dream, and someone who will always be remembered for films that evoked emotions.

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Topics : #Om Puri | #Bollywood

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