Updated: January 7, 2017 5:09:51 am
SOME FACES are made to tell stories. Om Puri possessed a mien so ordinary that it was extraordinary: except for a slight hook at the end of his flared nose, and the deeply cratered cheeks which he never bothered to hide, he was someone you’d pass by without a second glance. But if you managed to hold his gaze — amused, aware, warm — you would know instantly that this was a face made to put on other faces. And become the story.
Whether it was the sublime drunk Ahuja in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, or the poor-oppressed-man-on-the-run in the tele- series Tamas, or the poet- inspector Anant Velankar in Ardh Satya, his most excellent turns as Pakistani-residents-in-UK — Parvez in My Son The Fanatic, and George Khan in East Is East — the black-tongued-cop-cum-witch Inspector Pandit in Maqbool, as well some of his later roles in which he bothered to do a little more than just show up, like the Maulana Saheb in Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), Puri lifted each film he was in.
Like his contemporary, Naseeruddin Shah, with whom he didn’t work as much as he should have, (Hindi cinema, post the significant ’70s, sank into a quagmire, coming up for air only occasionally, and didn’t have the sense to pair these two terrific actors except sporadically: in Maqbool, the two give a relaxed masterclass on how to ace both the part and the scene) Puri also did a bunch of a no-account films in order to keep busy.
But even in these films, there was always a giveaway: a few days back, I was struggling to watch a film whose awfulness beggars description, but because it had a voice-over by Puri, I managed to sit through some of it. He was, in fact, quite the voice-over king, and lent his “buland awaaz” to many films.
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Ironically, it was with a film which kept him silent almost all the way through that he made his mark in Hindi cinema. And that was Aakrosh (1980). That debut feature by Govind Nihalani became an instant classic in the way it nailed class and caste oppression, and threw up a lead performance which exploded off the screen: Puri plays a tribal accused of killing his wife, and he spends nearly the entire film staying mute, letting his wounded eyes do the speaking.
In an outstanding early scene, Naseerudin Shah, as the defence lawyer, asks Lahaniya Bhiku to tell him what happened, digging for detail. The camera is tight on Puri’s face. His silence stretches, both telling and implacable, and then there is a twitch in his cheek. Just a tiny little thing, and it breaks your heart.
This is a man who has lost his voice because he cannot express his anguish. And Puri makes of him a man who speaks for generations of his kind, who have nothing to say because there is nothing left to say. It is the kind of searing performance which leaves you speechless. And never leaves you. Om Puri became, from then on, an actor to watch, and not just in India. He became known internationally much before it was fashionable to be so: in his quest to go West, Irrfan Khan was treading in the well-worn steps of Puri and Naseer, as well as, to some extent, Shabana Azmi.
These themes had only just started appearing in Hindi cinema in the ’70s, carving out a parallel stream of films buoyed by a new breed of politically conscious directors and actors. Apart from Nihalani, there was Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Kundan Shah, and they all set about creating cinema the country had never seen before.
It helped that they had the actors to fulfill their vision: Naseer, Shabana, Smita Patil, Puri and their contemporaries became the vanguard of that movement, and gave us film after film which borrowed from the headlines with an evangelical zest which deserted Hindi cinema after the ’70s. It says something about the passion that true actors possess that they never deserted their post: they kept working.
In the many years of his acting career, Puri made scores of films, some surpassing mediocrity, some scintillating. He struggled with personal demons, and reported bouts of alcohol excess. But when he switched it on, you couldn’t take your eyes off him.
How do you react when a brilliant performer like Puri dies with such shocking suddenness? With profound sadness. And an emptiness. Because an actor of his calibre is hard to replace.
As I write, those immortal lines from Ardh Satya come back to me, in which Puri intones in that distinctive gravelly voice: “ek palade mein napunsakta, ek palade mein paurush, aur theek taraazu ke kaante pe ardha-satya.” Death, even for an actor ever prepared, is the only truth.
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