On the black-and-white screen of the Telerama TV set we had in the early 1980s, his pox-ravaged face was more off-putting, as though the stark reality depicted in Ardh Satya were not enough. Those were the days when one waited eagerly for Sunday, with the feature film to be shown on Doordarshan in the evening being the main attraction of the weekend. An arthouse cinema on the day would leave much of the audience with a sense of being let down; this was truer for those in their early teens like me. But Om Puri had the talent to change the trend.
Along with his compatriots Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi — with Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Amrish Puri, Pankaj Kapur, KK Raina, Sadhu Meher, Mohan Agashe, SM Zaheer and several other theatre personalities essaying character roles — Om Puri personified through the films of Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal, Satyajit Ray, etc what cinema was supposed to be. Not a play with song-and-dance sequences shot on a movie camera, but a portrayal of life as it is!
The extraordinarily ordinary looks of Om Puri worked to his advantage in this genre. Who else can you visualise as Lahanya Bhiku of Aakrosh? In an interview, Azmi once recalled having said to Puri and Shah, “How did you guys dare enter films with faces like these?” But narrowing Puri’s credibility to his appearance alone would be grossly unjust. The vulnerability of Anant Velankar not only before a spine-chilling Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar) but also before a domineering father (Amrish Puri) and then turning the heat on both, in turns, in Ardh Satya couldn’t probably have been attempted with such persuasion by anybody else in the profession in Hindi cinema of the parallel epoch. While Om Puri underscored the reality of life-like characters film after film, his best was reserved for Nihalani, the director from the art school of cinema who never made intellectualism a camouflage for the inability to convey a message, unlike most Indian filmmakers inspired by French cinema rather than Hollywood.
Towards the end of the ’80s, Om Puri did what several stars from the tinsel town did after him — make a different mark on television. Kakkaji Kahin, a political satire aired in 1988, preceded his peer Shah’s Mirza Ghalib conceptualised by Gulzar. It predated by years an otherwise forgettable actor Parikshit Sahni’s magnum opus Gul Gulshan Gulfam, by a decade megastar Amitabh Bachchan’s Kaun Banega Crorepati and by three decades Salman Khan’s Bigg Boss. The late ’80s and early ’90s made an era of cynicism that saw the acceptance of parallel themes as mainstream, with several creations expressing the proletariat’s communist-like scepticism for the ruling class, as a liberalised economy was yet to yield a new middle class with higher purchasing power. Before Javed Akhtar-scripted, Tinu Anand-directed Main Azad Hoon filled us with pessimism with Bachchan’s character committing suicide, Puri’s pan-chewing Kakkaji laughed it off under Basu Chatterjee’s direction. Puri established his comfort with comedy further with Mr Yogi — decades before the current generation came to know he could make the audience go hysterical with laughter through Malamaal Weekly and Chup Chup Ke.
Unlike Shah, Om Puri was not bitter about the giants of parallel cinema. As Shah issued a series of statements cursing the “hypocrisy” of “art film” makers while perhaps essaying stupid roles in commercial cinema as a mark of revolt, Puri showed up in about an equal number of nonsensical films without ever getting into the business of making statements through films. In this manner, he acted against the counsel of his character in Nihalani’s Party, Avinash, who believed that an artist (or artiste) must be political, failing which his art had no relevance.
Like Bachchan, he made a mistake. He entered politics. He became a member of the Indian National Congress. While the political stint was as short as Bachchan’s, after it did not work out, he did not appear in a series of interviews regretting the decision either. Unlike Bachchan. He perhaps did not believe in making statements.
Puri survived a biography by his wife that had embarrassing, if not devastating, graphic descriptions of his sex life. He emerged unscathed from the episode just as he had come to terms with the failure of serious cinema. In the recent past, he was misunderstood for a remark that nobody had forced a soldier, who had laid down his life for the country, to join the Army — even though he had said enough sensible things throughout the television debate on IBN7 before that loose remark was forced out of his exasperation, for which he apologised on Times Now subsequently.
Puri had a unique style of delivering his lines in films. While mouthing long sentences, he would halt several times in between as one is forced to do when running out of breath. He left cinema lovers at a not-so-old age of 66 years — in that identifiable signature style, with the audience expecting more from his repertoire. Now that the plots in Hindi cinema are turning increasingly plausible, and yet they are being accepted as mainstream cinema, Om Puri should have played his fourth innings. A convincing one at that.