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Remembering Om Puri on his 71st birth anniversary: An actor of impossible range, impeccable stature

·5 min read

Range is a word that gets thrown around too often in the world of cinema. Most actors wish for it, but only a few can actually truthfully claim to have any.

Even a modern stalwart like Pankaj Tripathi, for all the love and acclaim he has earned over the last few years, must now contemplate if he should continue playing the soft-spoken man-child in almost every second film he does.

The fact is that once you do something well, the Hindi film industry is bound to visualise you as an extension of that performance for the rest of your life. On the actor's part, it takes courage therefore, and a bit of cockiness, to attempt something other than you. So much so, only once in a generation, comes an actor who fits every shoe given to him to wear. On the birth anniversary of the late Om Puri, we must remember him as that rare specimen €" an actor who mastered all trades.

Puri's origins lay in penury, his family perpetually against the wall when it came to making ends meet. Even the birthday that we celebrate as his, Puri assumed for a lack of proper documents in the possession of his family. A close friend of Naseerudin Shah, Puri entered cinema on the back of gritty, art-house films. In Aakrosh (1980) and Arohan (1983), Puri played disenfranchised rural men looking for a leg up on the world around him. In Ardh Satya, he played a disillusioned, haunted cop in what is perhaps a landmark role in Hindi cinema.

Puri's collaboration with Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihlani resulted in grim realism. Though it shook the conscience, it could not stir the box office €" the unsaid ultimate objective behind films being made in the first place. Considered the birth of parallel cinema, the '80s are underlined by Puri's haunted eyes, the ragged contours of a face contorted by the harshness of reality itself. But in the middle of these films, the actor had already teased the path that would soon illustrate the next leap of his career €" comedy.

Om Puri in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro
Om Puri in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

Om Puri in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

Anger and angst were easily recordable through Puri's hoarse masculinity, his drone-like voice, and the wide eyes that could cry horror from a distance away. But in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Puri jumped beyond the fences of his exterior to find the charms of indifference. As the corrupt Ahuja, Puri was snide and boisterous, a quality that crescendos until it climaxes in the iconic Ramleela scene that the actor stole from everyone else. Puri would wait years before someone else reprised in him the notion of comedy, but when it came, it came back with stunning lucidity. In Chachi 420, Puri played a suspecting secretary, doing some hilarious physical and oral comedy despite his small role. In Priyadarshan's landmark film Hera Pheri, Puri's loud and suicidal Khadak Singh essayed some of the most hilarious scenes ever written. "Khadak Singh ke khadakne khadakti hai khidkiyan," he lovingly, almost self-effacingly, recites in the film.

In both Malamaal Weekly and Priyadarshan' Chup Chup Ke, Puri seamlessly melds into the environment alongside cast members typically known for their comedic roles. No one except him, not even his close friend Naseeruddin Shah, has so competently held his own in the world of obscure, indie cinema and the swarming seas of mainstream mayhem. Puri somehow aced both, with consummate ease and grace.

Which brings us to the axis that eludes most Indian actors during the trajectory of their careers. Most Bollywood actors today must consider themselves lucky to be working in a time where acting has, belatedly, become a qualifier for filmmaking. That Bollywood has, at least for the time being, moved beyond the premature notion of good-looking faces, fair skin, and a charming disposition that assures followers if not viewers. It is one of the reasons why Puri was perhaps rarely cast as the protagonist of his own film. And despite that obvious handicap, he carved for himself a bigger international footprint than almost all actors of his era put together.

Part of award-winning films like City of Joy, East is East, Charlie Wilson's War and others, the actor consistently collaborated beyond the borders of the country to stunning effect. Lapierre's magnum opus on Kolkata cannot be summarised without Puri's moving, destructive performance as the down-on-his-luck and yet noble Hazari.

Puri's filmography is so vast it perhaps cannot be observed or commented upon via a sit-in. It needs to be absorbed, meditated over, and consumed with the patience of someone assembling not milestones, but moments.

In some ways, that was Puri's own life and career, marked by performances and potential that in another country would have earned him Marlon Brando-esque iconicity. To his credit, the actor bagged whatever little award we as a country can offer such precocious talents; the kind that make us feel unworthy of them. The kind that will continue to make us wonder decades on, whether we exacted from Puri, his impossible range and talent, performances that merited his unimpeachable stature. Let us for our sake, assume, we did.

Manik Sharma writes on art and culture, cinema, books, and everything in between.

Also See: On Om Puri's birth anniversary, a streaming guide to some of the late actor's best films

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