So, Om Prakash Puri has left the building. He’s left his shadow in the abandoned Akashwani Theatre, ex-home of art house movies. He’s left us that pock-marked face, those laser piercing eyes and that subterranean voice. He’s left us Inspector Velankar from Ardh Satya and the mute Bhiku from Aakrosh. He’s left us the Pakistani-Brit fish and chip shop owner from East Is East. He’s left us the comedy of Hera Pheri and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. He’s left us as the last of the actors who straddled Bollywood, Indian TV, British cinema and indie films. He’s left us as the thespian with more unforgettable roles in our pantheon of cinema than any other. And, he’s left in his wake a vibe of decency, and humility — unique in a world of facades and fake emotions.
Cinema has buried a giant. A lone actor in a galaxy of stars.
One of the greatest joys of growing up in the 70s and 80s was the Parallel Cinema Movement.
It was a true alternative to mainstream Bollywood, a heady mix of leftist politics, east European films and FTII angst. Directors who wanted to change the face of India through their 35mm cameras, each riffing and feeding off the other — Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Saeed Mirza, Govind Nihalani, Kumar Shahaney, Mani Kaul, Sai Paranjape Ketan Mehta, Kundan Shah, Gautam Ghosh and a young Vidhu Vinod Chopra, among others.
These were artisans, with ideas, experimenting with form, exploring content, shorn of box office concerns, largely because they had no ‘big bucks’. They were true pioneers — Christopher Columbuses of celluloid. Sailing the high seas of cinematic uncertainty.
Crucially, they had at their disposal, four human pieces of plasticine — Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri — to mould their visions and sculpt their screenplays.
Often, half ideas became fully realised films with one of these four extraordinary performers. This was cinema, where story superseded the star. True characterisations outweighed the cardboard cutouts of today. Real films were being made, not song and dance routines, woven together with a thin storyline.
At the centre of this pioneering revolution was Om Puri. Initially a scraggly scarecrow fresh out of NSD, he was a superb leading man for these films, often playing underdog protagonists.
What made Om Puri so special, especially in those author-backed Nihalani/Benegal classics? Perhaps because he did very little, he conveyed so much. The funny and the ferocious emerged from his DNA with minimum effort.
His ability to totally personify the part he was playing.
He approached performance with no ego, he removed the ‘I’ out of the equation completely.
Shyam Benegal told me, “Om’s greatest gift was his powers of concentration. We’d be shooting in the noisiest of places, mayhem all around, but he was never distracted. Perhaps the most dependable actor I’ve ever worked with.”
Govind Nihalani said, “He was an empty canvas; Om would just paint with the role he was playing. He was happiest in front of the camera or an audience. And he just never wanted to be a star.”
Frankly he was a star with no starry airs.
Om Puri was a simple man. But, perhaps a simple man who overcomplicated his life.
Rest in Peace, Om. The heavens will be richer with you around.
Rahul da Cunha is an adman, theatre director/playwright, photographer and traveller. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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