At Idea Exchange, actor Om Puri, an FTII alumnus, didn’t mince words while speaking on the current row, Indian politics, money in parallel cinema and porn ban
Manoj More: Why is the FTII deadlock refusing to end?
Ideally, the appointments at educational institutions like FTII should be done by academicians only. I feel, a committee should be formed with members like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Jahnu Barua, Mani Ratnam, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Ketan Mehta and other senior artistes. While the government can suggest a list of names, committee members can select suitable candidates for positions like chairman and members of FTII Society. I strongly feel that every chosen member of FTII Society should have in-depth knowledge of cinema because FTII is not just catering to the film industry as it exists. The aim is to improve the standard of Indian cinema; to make films not just for entertainment but with social messages. For instance, years ago, there didn’t exist a concept called ‘art films’ but filmmakers as Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, V Shantaram and Mehboob Khan would make commercial films, that were socially-relevant, had songs and entertainment factors too.
Manoj More: Does that mean Gajendra Chauhan is a misfit?
I haven’t done an in-depth study of Gajendra Chauhan. I don’t have any personal grudge against him. As I said earlier, I feel the government should make a committee of established artistes. A meeting should be called wherein the selected candidates of the government (including Chauhan) should sit and answer questions posed by committee members. Students are not wrong in their demands. But they are wrong in assuming that the selected candidates are not efficient. Another suggestion that I have given to the students (Puri visited FTII for four days during his visit to Pune) is that they should allow Chauhan to take the position at least for six months. Time is running out; three months have passed. I told them that if the government is being adamant, why are they banging their heads against the wall? I feel they should try selected candidates for six months and see their performance. If they are not satisfied, they can launch a strike after six months with proof of poor performance.
Sunanda Mehta: Are you suggesting this because three months have passed and the strike hasn’t resulted in any solution?
Yes. And also because I feel students should not waste their time in strikes, and instead, focus on studies. Not sure if it’s true or not, but I have heard that the concept of strike in Japan is different than in India. For instance, if a shoemaker is on strike, he will make just one shoe of a pair so that their boss cannot sell it. Similarly, students shouldn’t allow the strike to affect their studies.
Partha Biswas: Do the students have the right to select their teacher?
Would you ask a Geography teacher to teach Political Science? Students are not being unfair when they are questioning knowledge on films of the selected chairman and FTII Society members. But at the same time, they are also assuming a lot of things. Having interacted with the students over the past four days (Puri was in Pune from September 11 to 16), I have observed that they are very bright because of the kind of world cinema they watch. That’s the reason they are questioning the credentials of Chauhan and other members. They don’t want to select their teachers but they want to select those who will make policies for them.
Manoj More: The way you are talking to students, will you do the same with the government?
If the government invites me for a meeting, I will go.
Sunanda Mehta: What would have been your stance if you were a student today?
Given my family’s financial condition, I couldn’t even afford to go to FTII. With my kind of background, I would have been more keen on finishing the course and get some work. I’m sure there must be many such students right now in FTII. There is a possibility that some of the students must not be of the same opinion of those who are at the forefront of the strike.
Anuradha Mascarenhas: Don’t you think right-wing ideologies are being forced upon in each and every sphere including FTII? The recent victims being Rajnikant and AR Rahman.
If you mean BJP and RSS by right-wing, then it is bound to happen; the whole country has voted and elected them. They are in majority, one can’t help. But Congress, who ruled for years, isn’t controversy-free either. Why are we assuming that RSS and BJP are bad. They may not have done anything good but they haven’t even done anything bad. As far as Rajnikant and AR Rahman are concerned, I don’t think anyone can harm them. Rajnikant is God. Earlier also, various groups such as VHP had tried forcing their ideologies, but it didn’t work. Why are we so scared? We should not react unless anything is done.
Partha Biswas: What are your views on various bans introduced by the government like beef and porn ban?
There’s nothing wrong in banning porn. Nearly 70 per cent of Indians are uneducated. When you are showing them these things, all that you are doing is excite them, tempt them. One can’t do anything in the name of freedom. Why dress up and come out? Why not roam around without clothes if you are so free. Do you know that when foreigners come to India, they dress up in a sober manner because it’s India. Another thing that I feel is prostitution should be legalised in India to reduce rapes. There are a few places like Kolkata and Delhi, where it’s legal, but we need to make it legal across the country.
Anuradha Mascarenhas: Can you recall your days at FTII?
I have stayed there for two years in the early 1970s. There was a strike launched during our days too by some senior students. Students protested against direction batch students who would sign non-acting students as actors for their films. Their argument was what is the use of learning acting if they are not going to get work in films made at the institute. How and when the strike ended is something I don’t remember, but it wasn’t as long as the existing one.
Anuradha Mascarenhas: You are doing a Marathi film now. What is your view on the decision of showing Marathi films at multiplexes?
It’s impractical. If you are so much in love with Marathi cinema, show them on television. Go to the mall where a Marathi film is running, you will hardly find 10-15 films. The films go off the screen in a week’s time.
Nanda Kasabe: How far has the Marathi film industry evolved?
Just like Malayalam films, Marathi films are very rich and have evolved a lot over the past few years. A lot of meaningful films are being made.
Aashay Khandekar: Tell us about your journey in films?
When I entered the Hindi film industry, I had absolutely no hope from commercial cinema given my looks – a lanky man with big nose and face full of marks left by smallpox. I didn’t even approach anyone. The only person I met was Shyam Benegal. I didn’t run around with my portfolio from office to office. Then I started teaching in an acting studio because I wanted a job. I opened a theatre group called Majma, where I started doing plays in the evening. Filmmakers Shyam Benegal, Kundan Shah and Govind Nihalani would come to see the plays. And that’s how I started working in their films. After working in art cinema for 8-10 years I realised that I didn’t have my own house.
Garima Mishra: How challenging was this transition from art films to formula films?
Professionalism is something that I maintained throughout, be it art films or commercial. Whenever a ridiculous scene was narrated to me, I tried to make it as natural as possible. For example, when Priyadarshan called me for the film Hera Pheri, I knew it was a small role. Though my lines were originally in Hindi, I decided to give it a touch of Punjabi. That affected the overall humour.
Garima Mishra: But of late, you are being seen only in commercial movies. Do you miss working in parallel cinema?
In fact, I have been doing a lot of parallel cinema but those filmmakers can’t afford publicity and nobody gets to know about them. For instance, I recently did a film ‘Miss Tanakpur Haazir Ho’. It’s such a brilliant film based on a true story and is a satire on the judiciary system. But there was not a single poster or hoarding of it anywhere. Then there was a film called Jai Ho Democracy; it’s such a positive film and touching just like Bajrangi Bhaijaan. The plot is very interesting, a hen enters no-man’s land. While Pakistanis say it belongs to us, Indians say its ours. That didn’t work. Then I did Rambhajan Zindabad, it’s been pending for years.
Sunanda Mehta: Tell us about your experience of working in ‘The Hundred Foot Journey’?
It’s a very charming film, shot in the south of France. While I had begun shooting the film, Helen Mirren joined after three days. I remember, during the shoot of The Hundred…. there was a lunch break and we all were sitting and someone said that Helen has arrived. She got up with a plate to serve food, I went to her and went down on my knees and said “Your Highness, please accept your slave”. She picked me up and hugged me.
Nisha Nambiar: After that you were offered a lot of international films.
I have worked in nearly 25 international projects so far. Recently, I have been offered one American film and two British films. The one made by Gurinder Chadda has a lovely script. I’m playing a blind freedom fighter who goes blind in prison. The film is set in the years just before partition, so there’s Nehru, Mountbatten, Sardar Patel, Jinnah and so on. In between all this, the film has a love story between a Muslim girl and a Hindu boy.
Garima Mishra: How different is the work culture as compared to the Indian film industry?
They are much more professional and have a great sense of punctuality, nobody comes late to the set. It’s not like India, where people use traffic as an excuse to come late. There in abroad, they even maintain details of hours and minutes you are to be picked up; In India, you will often find people saying things like, ‘Yaar mere mama ki ladki ke exam ho gaye hain, usse costume mein laga do na’. Yet, there has been a lot of improvement in India. Earlier, the story used to be there, but not the script, and the climax was told only while shooting so that no one could copy it. These days, even the smallest budget film has a bound script. Slowly, we are reaching international standards. Earlier, I remember shooting in places that were around a dirty drain and people would sit nearby and eat. Now, even for junior artistes proper facilities are in place. Technically, we are improving a lot but subject-wise, there’s a lot of room for improvement.
Garima Mishra: You worked in some very good TV serials like Tamas, Bharat Ek Khoj, Kakkaji Kahin, Katha Sagar and so on. Are you consciously staying away from television now?
I can’t work in saas-bahu serials. Gone are the days of such serials. Yes, if I am offered a good and meaningful role, I will surely do it.
Anuradha Mascarenhas: Nana Patekar has been doing a lot for farmers. Do you also plan to get associated with any social cause?
I feel small farmers who own land less than five acre, should be insured by the government. So if at all there is a drought or flood, the farmer can be paid an amount which he would have otherwise earned through his crops. If there has been no drought or flood, then the farmer can pay the insurance amount for getting the risk covered. I don’t know if it is practical but my understanding says that it can be worked out for farmers.
Transcribed by Garima Mishra