Om Puri in Ardha Satya
It is commonly believed that ‘good looks’ are needed to be a film actor. Om Puri, one of the greatest actors of Indian cinema who passed away suddenly on Friday after a cardiac arrest, proved this wrong.
Every newspaper and news channel commended his talent and recalled his histrionics. Writing on the life or talent of Om Puri, Padma Shri, OBE, would be repetition. So I would record only a personal memory.
Going to meetings and appointments minutes before the scheduled time being one of my weaknesses, I reached the Rajkumar College in Indore, where he was to speak, to find only Om Puri and the Principal there. It seemed Om Puri too suffered from the same ailment – very unusual for film people.
As there was still half-an-hour for the event to start, we had time for a chat. Among other things, I asked him about his role in one of his most famous films, ‘Ardha Satya‘. He plays a policeman in the film. Om Puri loses his “romantic interest” in the film, played by Smita Patil, to another person. He is infuriated at this “stealing”. When he confronts the villain, Rama Shetty, played by Sadashiv Amrapurkar, he accuses him of “stealing other people’s possessions.” And kills him.
Then he goes to his senior officer, salutes him and says, “Sir, I have killed Rama Shetty”, plainly, without any emotion. I asked Om Puri whether it was his interpretation of the role to tell his boss about the killing as if he had just performed a duty.
Om Puri was happy I noticed the nuance and said that exactly was the intention. “But it is not my interpretation, but of the director, Govind Nihalani,” he added.
Here was an actor getting accolades for a portrayal and says the credit goes to the director! That is the humility and honesty of Om Puri. Some of his remarks touched off furore, but he would not mince words. He was a plain speaker, not pretending or bothering about being politically correct
There was a controversy when he said, speaking of martyrs who died in a terrorist attack that nobody had forced them to join the army.
The media flared up at the “insult” to army. He had to apologise. What he said could have been interpreted as a compliment – to people who laid down their lives for the country, fully aware that their career choice could lead to death. They did so of their own accord and not due to any compulsion.
It is commonly believed (even by me for long) that he was younger brother of two other actors, Amrish Puri and Madan Puri, who both played villains. In fact he was not even related to them. His roles in Ardh Satya, Tamas, Akrosh, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Arohan, Sadgati, Pakistani film Actor in Law… and several other films were memorable and showed great versatility. He could do art films and comedy with equal ease.
The 66 year old actor came from a poor family and rose to be one of the most versatile and able actors of Hindi filmdom. And every report on the death noted that he rose to that position even with a face that cannot, by any stretch of imagination, be called handsome. No one with an unattractive, pock-marked face, could even dream of being a film actor. But he not only aspired to but became one, rising to the top only on the strength of talent.
His batch-mate at the National School of Drama,Naseeruddin Shah, another who rose only on acting talent, says in his autobiography, ‘And Then One Day: A Memoir‘, that Om was “a model, if somewhat stodgy, student and human being: completely virtuous, genuinely considerate, deeply compassionate, industrious, punctual, attentive, thoughtful”.
Om Puri’s marriage in 1991 to Seema Kapoor, actor Annu Kapoor’s sister, lasted only eight months. He married a journalist, Nandita Puri, in 1993, but her references to him in her book led to their separation. They have a son named Ishaan.
Beautiful women and ‘sugar-candy’ men with stunning good looks can, with luck, become stars with careers only as long as the looks last and then forgotten. Talented people like Dilip Kumar, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Amitabh Bachchan remain actors – till their last days. And in public memory – for ever.