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:
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.