NEW DELHI: Om Puri, whose haunting eyes and deafening silence captured the history of violence endured by an ordinary tribal in Aakrosh (1980) and whose portrayal of an upright cop simmering with coiled rage in Ardh Satya (1983) vaulted him to the pantheon of Hindi cinema’s finest performers, passed away on Friday. He was 66.
The Ambala-born actor died following a heart attack “around 6-6.30am” at his residence in Lokhandwala’s Oakland Park. “He was lying on the kitchen floor,” his estranged wife Nandita told news agency PTI. He also leaves behind a 19-year-old son, Ishaan.
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With Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi, Om Puri was part of the Fab Four considered the pin-ups of parallel cinema in the 1970s and ’80s. His pockmarked face and lean frame challenged and redefined the idea of a male lead. His early award-winning performances in Shyam Benegal’s Arohan and Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh were marked by a hitherto-unseen intensity that had the critics in swoon and the audience in awe.
Several stellar acts also came on the small screen, notably Satyajit Ray’s TV film Sadgati, Nihalani’s Tamas and Benegal’s seminal Bharat Ek Khoj, where he notably played the 13th century Delhi Sultanat ruler Alauddin Khilji and 16th century Vijayanagar King Krishna Deva Raya II. Basu Chatterji’s biting political satire Kakkaji Kahin underlined his flair for the funny, first unveiled in the classic feature, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron.
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Over the years, Om Puri not only made a seamless transition to mainstream Bollywood (Ghayal, Pyaar To Hona Hi Tha, China Gate, Mrityudand, Chachi 420) but also became one of the most recognizable Asian actors in British cinema (My Son the Fanatic, East is East) and Hollywood (City of Joy with Patrick Swayze, Wolf with Jack Nicholson, to name just two).
That he had a 2014 box-office smash, The Hundred-Foot Journey, with Oscar-winner Helen Mirren, is a tribute to his durability and the space he had carved out for himself.
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Swayze, co-actor for the much-talked but little-watched City of Joy, once said that Om Puri at least deserved an Oscar nomination for his performance as the rickshaw-puller Hazari Pal. “As an actor he has such diversity and depth. You look into his eyes and you read volumes,” wrote the Hollywood star in the foreward of Unlikely Hero, a candid biography penned by Nandita, a former journalist.
Not all roles in Hollywood were as substantial; The Ghost and the Darkness and Charlie Wilson’s War (where he played Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq) being two apt examples. But his ouvre abroad only serves to underline the actor’s long journey from an impoverished family in hinterland Punjab to one of India’s most feted actors ever.
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The biography reveals how at the age of seven, Om Puri washed cups and glasses at a tea shop while his father was in prison, how he gathered coal that fell from passing trains for fuel at home and how he took tuitions to support himself after being thrown out of home.
As a child, Om Puri wanted to be a soldier but was gradually drawn towards acting. Impressed by his performance in a Punjabi play, Anhonee, in college, the respected Harpal Tiwana invited him to join his influential theatre group, Punjab Kala Manch, where he took his first serious steps in learning the craft. He was paid Rs 150 per month; part of his job involved fetching eggs and babysitting.
It was a struggle, both social and financial: From overcoming his complexes for not being good at speaking the English language at National School of Drama to gathering funds to sustain himself at Film and Television Institute of India.
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But after Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980) and Ardha Satya (1983), arguably the biggest success in the history of alternative cinema, hit the theatres, his hard times were over.For Om Puri, the real challenge probably lay in finding avenues of creative satisfaction as New Cinema slowly ebbed away. This led him to act in dozens of indifferent movies, making many of his fans wonder why the actor of Mirch Masala, Dharavi, Gandhi, Bhavni Bhavai and Bajrangi Bhaijaan, was also working in Bin Bulaye Baraati.Perhaps the scars of the impoverished past remained with him. Perhaps he just loved work. To the actor’s credit, he often managed to rise above the script’s mediocrity.In recent years, Om Puri dabbled in politics, occasionally putting his foot in the mouth. In 2011, he described MPs as “anpadh (illiterate)” and “ganwar (rustic)” during Anna Hazare’s hunger strike at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan drawing howls of protest. He apologized later. The actor also engaged in a slanging match with a television news anchor over soldiers killed in terror attacks.He will, however, be remembered as a consummate actor. As his friend Naseeruddin Shah wrote “in appreciation” in the biography, “The story of Om Puri is in fact every struggling actor’s fantasy: That a thoroughly ordinary guy can get ahead with nothing but good talent as a godfather, hard work as insurance and the best of intentions as guide.”