Once he was the angry man of serious cinema. Now Om Puri is angrier off-screen.
If excellent acting and exceptional voice quality had been the criteria for success in Bollywood, Om Puri would have been rubbing shoulders with superstars such as Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan. But alas! Bollywood has its own mantras for success; mantras that actors like Om Puri could never grasp. And even if they tried, if only for the sake of experimenting, they fell flat, tarnishing an image built on personal dignity and quality of performance.
But Om Puri has learnt his lessons well. Today, unlike early in his career when he was less accessible to the media, he mingles with the press. He does not react to hackneyed questions or repeated requests for 'exclusive' sound bytes. He even admits that he moves around "in the right circles." Take it as his new approach to himself. He has nine films to his credit in 2009 - the latest two being Wanted and Baabarr. Earlier this year came Dilli 6, Billu and Chal Chala Chal; Kurbaan, Kushti and Carry on Pandu are ready for release.
Meanwhile, London Dreams is all set to hit theatres soon. "It is actually based on the rivalry between musicians Mozart and Salieri. I play the role of the uncle to Ajay Devgn's character Arjun," says Puri. Arjun, whose late father was a musician, wants to devote himself to music, but his uncle will not allow it. Arjun meets Mannu (or Mozart) (played by Salman Khan) and they become best friends. Arjun, whose character is based on Salieri, becomes a famous musician, but it is Mannu who is the better musician. Arjun becomes jealous. "I act as the bridge between the two," explains Puri.
But is the actor happy playing small roles such as the above? He admits he isn't. "Even if I am not happy, who cares? I am not a star." The annoyance shows. Nevertheless, he has had plum roles in the past. "That was when directors needed 'actors' and not 'stars' for their films - Tamas, Aakrosh, Aaghat, Maachis, and serials such as 'Kakkaji Kahin' and 'Discovery' were a class apart. I don't want to reel back to the past, but that's the fact. Now we only have a few such directors. Ashutosh Gowarikar, Madhur Bhandarkar, Vishal Bhardwaj, Prakash Jha but do all of them have roles for me? We make 800 films a year, and only 20 of them are hits. It's a shame since we are the biggest filmmaking fraternity. Since the producers are making money, who is bothered about the quality?"
Artistic frustration led Puri to explore Punjabi as well as English films in the mid-90s. Now he is internationally known, having done British films such as My Son the Fanatic, East is East, The Parole Officer and so on. His notable Hollywood films include City of Joy, Wolf, The Ghost and the Darkness and The Hangman. One of his most recent Hollywood releases was Charlie Wilson's War in 2007 (starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts), in which he played General Zia-ul-Haq. "Hollywood films don't waste actors like me. Even a 70-year-old can play a hero. They take old age seriously," Puri says.
Adaptations from literature
But Hindi films too have respected age. "Yes, I appreciate films like A Wednesday, Dhoop and Saaransh. But how many such films are made today? We should learn from our past. Filmmakers such as V. Shantaram and Mehboob depended on literature to make their films. Why can't we go back to literature? They have stories, social messages. We can support them with poetry that the likes of Faiz and Faraz wrote!"
Does he have meaty roles on hand? "I have Percept's Carry on Pandu, a satire on the police, which was boxed for a year and Kushti. In Kushti, I play an ex-wrestler who trains others. My disciple combats on my behalf and comes to my rescue," says Puri, humming a Jagjit Singh ghazal. He has recently appeared with Jagjit in an ad for a cough syrup. Would he be willing to do more? "Why not, I can sell soap and oil, but not a cigarette," he laughs. What about reality shows?
"If they are ready to pay me as much as they pay Salman Khan, only then!"