(Sanjay Joshi, Convener, The Group, Jan Sanskriti Manch and of Cinema of Resistance, remembers Om Puri. Cinema of Resistance plans to organise screenings of Om Puri’s films and has appealed to people to come forward to host such screenings.)
In the 1970s and 1980s the National Film Development Corporation- aided production of films in Hindi by directors like Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Tapan Sinha, Kumar Sahni, Mani Kaul, Avtar Kaul, Basu Bhattacharya, Prakash Jha, Ketan Mehta, Sayeed Mirza, Kundan Shah, M Sathyu, Mrinal Sen, Sagar Sarhadi, Muzaffar Ali, Pradeep Krishan and others resulted in the birth of the so-called ‘New Wave’ in the Hindi film world. I use the term ‘so-called’ for this New Wave because contrary to the mainstream Bombay cinema it was unable to develop either its own independent market or its own distribution system. The whole ‘wave’ was dependent on the State, therefore it sank into oblivion when the state withdrew its support.
Be that as it may, this wave did give much that was new to Hindi cinema. Apart from the young directors, a team of very talented script-writers and technicians was working to build this wave; a new kind of acting was also hugely responsible for the common people’s recognition of this new cinema. Along with Amrish Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Amol Palekar, KK Raina, MK Raina, Sadhu Meher, Anant Nag, Farooq Sheikh, Benjamin Gilani, Mohan Gokhale, Surekha Sikri, Uttara Bavarkar, Neena Gupta, Sulabha Deshpande, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Supriya Pathak, Ratna Pathak Shah, Suhasini Mulay, and Deepti Naval, one actor who most strongly influenced this stream of cinema with his style of acting was Om Puri.
Om Prakash Puri was born in 1950 in a very poor family in Ambala. His childhood resembled that of Maxim Gorky and Charlie Chaplin to a certain extent. Like Gorky’s father, his father was also rather irresponsible. Due to his domestic circumstances Om did small jobs even in his childhood and was well schooled in the University of the World. Jobs like washing vessels in a dhaba helped to make him the actor that he became. Since he always nurtured the dream to be educated, he could get admission into the National School of Drama in the 1970’s. This proved to be a milestone in Om’s life. Here he not only got teachers like Ibrahim Alkazi but also co-students like Bhanu Bharti, Bansi Kaul and Naseeruddin Shah. His association with Naseer was life-long and both not only learned much from each other but also acted together and complemented each other very well on screen. The NSD gave them the art of acting and confidence but also familiarized them with national and international traditions which they got an opportunity to develop further during their studies at the Pune Film Institute.
Unlike his close friend and classmate Naseer, Om Puri mostly confined himself to acting in films. Almost immediately after the completion of his theatre and film education, he started getting important roles. In 1979 he landed an important role in the Marathi feature film Ghasiram Kotwal based on Vijay Tendulkar’s play and directed by Hariharan and Mani Kaul. 1980 was special for Om Puri as an actor, when two significant films. Bhawani Bhawai and Aakrosh were released at the same time. The former was a Gujarati film directed by Ketan Mehta and the latter was Govind Nihalani’s first directorial feature film venture compactly scripted by Vijay Tendulkar. Both film-makers gave Om Puri many important roles in their future films.
Apart from Ghasiram Kotwal and Aakrosh Om Puri lived many small and big roles in Hindi, English, and various Indian languages during the course of his 45 year-long film career. After Aakrosh his performance in New Wave films like Aarohan, Godhuli, Gandhi, Bhumika, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai, Bhawani Bhawai, Sadgati, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Ardha Satya, and Mirch Masala; he has also received accolades for his roles in mainstream films like Chachi 420, Maqbool, Narasimha, and Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
If we were to select any two of his most significant films, perhaps Aakrosh and Ardha Satya would be counted as the two films which established Om Puri as an actor. The vast range of his acting in these two films not only established him as an actor in Hindi films but also established the New Wave as a genre of cinema to be reckoned with. Both films are based on scripts by Vijay Tendulkar and both have been directed by Govind Nihalani. The ending and philosophy of both films were problematic. Yet, both films are successful in conveying to us the voice of the adivasi and the anger of the common man which had so far been depicted by Bombay cinema only as farcical melodrama or accompanied by distorted facts and absurd arguments to misdirect the viewer.
Om Puri is also special as an actor because unlike most actors of his time he did not get stereotyped in any role but played many roles in a life-like manner. In this matter the only exceptions are Naseeruddin Shah, Sadhu Meher and Smita Patil who can stand beside him as portrayers of such a range of roles.
The greatest renown in Om Puri’s career came through the foreign film City of Joy, which possibly played a role in his being conferred with Britain’s highest civilian honour, ‘Order of the British Empire’. But the even higher honour he received during the shooting of this film is one for which perhaps all artistes yearn. The story goes that during the shooting of this film Om was sitting at a roadside tea stall to have a quiet cup of tea, where other rickshaw pullers (like the role he played in the film) often sat to have tea. As he was sipping his tea, people started whispering that this looks like Om Puri. After a while Om Puri himself spoke to the people and introduced himself. The most interesting part of the story is that as Om was leaving the tea stall, he heard people talking among themselves and sympathising with him saying, “See what bad times the poor man has fallen upon; poor thing is now forced to pull a rickshaw.”
We shall perhaps remember Om Puri best for his uncanny ability to internalise the roles he played among the common people and make them identify with the characters. How many films he worked in, how much he earned, what his private life was like, all these will be forgotten with time; his portrayals will be ever remembered.