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Om Puri’s six defining roles

January 06, 2017 03:01 pm | Updated January 10, 2017 12:50 pm IST

Actor Om Puri

Actor Om Puri

In an interview given to Rajya Sabha TV in 2012, Om Puri spelt out the factors and incidents that shaped his acting career. Growing up an introvert in a village in Punjab with suppressed, troubling emotions, he found his own artistic voice by questioning the class divides around. He believed in using art -- theatre and cinema -- to raise socio-political questions. His skill-set also included knowledge of cooking and agriculture, and if he ever opened a Dhaba, it would be simply called Dal-Roti. These credos -- being rooted in the soil, being socially aware, and using cinema to raise questions while finding expression for his undecipherable emotions -- defined his acting oeuvre.

Unlike his friend and contemporary Naseeruddin Shah, Puri did not have the looks or the demeanour to do the role of a mainstream hero. However, his dedication to art found appreciation during his stint both at the National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India, encouraging him to take cinema as a career. A knowledge of his own limitations ensured that Puri did not stray too far into the mainstream territory, unlike Shah who was successful to some extent in the 90s through films like  Tridev  and  Mohra . That his struggling days coincided with the early wave of parallel cinema in Bombay was a stroke of fortune.

In the most defining roles of his career, Puri sticks to the purpose for which he turned to cinema: raising questions on class divide, poverty, corruption and nepotism.

Here are some of the most defining roles of Puri’s career:

Aakrosh (1980)

Puri plays Lahanya Bhiku, a lower-caste peasant without any identity or agency, a victim of oppression whose voice is subdued forever and who only communicates through his violent gaze and quiet desperation. As the camera zooms in on Puri’s face, the marks on his face blend with the horror in his eyes to create a traumatic feel. He raises his voice only twice: to warn his wife against getting too proximate to the landlord, and at the end, to scream out his anguish.

Unlike the early neo-realistic films which presented an idealised view of the peasant life, here he is not shown as flawless. The suppressed rage gets expressed through violence on his own wife. His wife’s molestation and suicide, and the loss in the fight for justice in court, make him kill his own sister at the end. He feels he has liberated her from the need to suffer in silence, before launching into a cry of anguish himself.

Ardh-Satya  (1983)

A subaltern version of  Zanjeer , one where the angry policeman is forced not just to battle his personal demons, but also to avenge the treatment meted out to him by the local politician. The existential angst of Anant Welankar (the lead character) is different from the pent up frustration of Vijay in  Zanjeer  in the sense that it is more social than personal. A tendency to indulge in argumentation and even violence, becoming a law onto himself rather than a guardian of the law, in response to crime ensures that unlike the mainstream angry young man, he will end up self-destructing.  

Puri brought not just anger, but quietude to the role which required him to not just kill but also reflect. There is a scene in which he reads a poem handed to him by his conscience keeper Jyotsna (Smita Patil) revealing his own hidden emotions. The poem written by Marathi poet-playwright Dilip Chitre keeps echoing in his conscience, including at the end when he is forced to kill the local politician. It makes him aware of not just his own fallibility but also of impotence. He realises that by fighting the corrupt system as a low-level cop, he is entering a  chakravyuh  (a veritable trap) where he will lose control of himself.

Ghayal  (1990)

One of the few mainstream supporting roles where Puri got a somewhat well-written character. The idealistic Anant of  Ardh Satya  becomes a mellowed down ACP Joe D’Souza, someone who sees glimpses of his own younger self in Ajay (Sunny Deol), out to seek justice for his murdered family. Instead of feeling helpless, he enables Ajay by helping him.

Droh-kaal  (1994)

The third of Om Puri’s ‘angry young man’ trilogy with Govind Nihalani, a film-maker whose career peaked with that of Puri and who can be credited with exploiting his talent to the maximum. Here his Abhay Singh is fighting an external aggressor, the terrorists. The angst in his early characters gives way to love and attachment towards the family, a factor that makes the character compromise on his integrity while battling militants.

It was remade in Tamil as  Kuruthipunal  with Kamal Haasan reprising the role of Om Puri and Arjun that of Naseeruddin Shah.

 

Dhoop (2003)

Puri played Professor Suresh Kapoor, who has lost his son in the Kargil war and struggles through the red tape to get the compensation, a petrol pump. The suffering his character undergoes chastises him but doesn’t make him cynical.

The film was referenced while sections of the media waged a war of words against Puri in 2016 for supporting Pakistani actors working in Indian cinema. He was accused of being insensitive to the armed forces.

Dev  (2004)

The Nihalani film was based on the 2002 Gujarat riots. Dev Pratap Singh (Amitabh Bachchan) plays the older version of Puri’s early-day characters, one who feels impotent at not being able to save the lives of innocent Muslims. Puri’s Commissioner Tejinder Khosla (Puri) is more of a political realist, one who sees his interests in maintaining law and order, while obeying the political bosses. Guilty of having got Dev murdered after his fight against the political aggressors in the riots, the commissioner commits suicide.

 

The character of Khosla, as the poem in  Ardh-Satya  goes, is caught between  napunsakta  (impotence) and  paurush  (empowerment). He is stuck in the middle, carrying the burden of  ardh-satya  (truth which is only partially decipherable). Not getting his answers despite being part of the system, he self-destructs, just like the other Nihalani characters.

A special mention must also be made of the films where he played characters of Pakistani origin, in films like  East is EastMy Son The Fanatic , Charlie Wilson’s War  (where he took the bold step of playing Zia-ul-Haq) and  Actor-in-Law . The last one, a Pakistani production, saw him gain more admirers in the neighbouring country.

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