One of the greatest actors Indian cinema has ever seen, Om Puri, was born today in Ambala, Haryana. If not for his untimely death on January 6 this year, this legendary thespian would have been 67 today. Although he owed his rise to arthouse cinema, he was far from limited to it. He shone everywhere and as everybody. Om Puri may be gone but the stellar works that he has left us will remain a very solid evidence of his presence, if not in body then in spirit. Let us have a look at why this everyman, with a deep, gravelly voice and a rough, pockmarked face that exuded gravitas, matters and will continue to matter for generations to come.
Om Puri showed that to be successful in cinema you did not have to conform to the stereotypical ‘chocolate-boy’ look. With his dominating screen presence and mastery of the art of acting, the audience hardly noticed that this man was so different from what they were used to. If Nawazuddin Siddiqui is able to become a star today, then at least a part of the credit goes to Om Puri.
One of the most memorable short roles Om Puri played was in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. His cameo came towards the end when he appeared before Gandhi and confessed to killing a Muslim child as revenge. Om Puri, then a younger man, gave a look for his character that was wild-eyed and pained. As a man who, in momentary bloodlust, has bashed the head of a child to the wall really must look like, guilt-ridden, confused and angry at himself.
Om Puri straddled the two forms of cinema – parallel and mainstream – with uncanny ease. He was perfect both in ordinary Joe roles in Indie films and also larger-than-life figures in commercial films. Compare his performance in Govind Nihalani’s 1980 film Aakrosh to his performance in Singh is Kinng. You can hardly believe both characters are played by the same man, so immersed Om Puri used to be in his roles.
While Om Puri may have been inimitable on the screen, he was also not afraid to express what came into his mind. His candour was surprisingly refreshing especially when you consider that he belonged to an industry where hypocrisy reigns supreme and when speaking publicly celebrities more often than disgorge what their PR agents tell them to instead of actually expressing their opinion. Om Puri was different. He spoke on every issue that was plaguing the country – be it beef ban or his support of Pakistani actors coming for work in India that riled many in the right end of the political spectrum, Om Puri never pulled any punches.
Another thing that comes to mind when you think of Om Puri is his sheer versatility. He could do anything. Just like he did successful and acclaimed roles in both parallel and mainstream cinema, he also slipped into different genres easily. You can see him doing comedy as a rustic in Malamaal Weekly, and you can also see him playing a ruthless terrorist in Kurbaan. Listen to him narrate one of the best classic Doordarshan shows, Shyam Benegal’s Bharat Ek Khoj, with the feel of somebody who has been doing it his whole life. Om Puri was like that.