March 30, 2020
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A Lunar Terror On Earth’s Face

Something utterly real and ordinary, and yet something volcanic. Om Puri was a scale to judge the craft of acting by.

A Lunar Terror On Earth’s Face
Illustration by Sajith Kumar
A Lunar Terror On Earth’s Face

“In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto, ‘Anyone can cook’. But only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.”

Anton Ego, Ratatouille

In the opening scene of Arohan, Shyam Benegal’s film about farmers and land reforms, a seated Om Puri—speaking now as Om Puri himself—offers a meta frame for the film, introducing the subject and some of the actors like Pankaj Kapur and Victor Ban­erjee. For this brief Brechtian gesture, Om Puri is framed against a lush field, dressed in shirt and trousers, a common Indian. He is lucid about the economic situation, the suffering of landless labo­urers, the deficiency of well-intended laws. The film that follows is a searing depiction of a jotedar’s initial subservience, followed by rebellion and a 12-year fight for his plot of land—the youthful figure goes on to be an aging, limping far­mer who wins his fight but loses his family. In what was his first national award win, Om Puri pretty much inorcises himself into the character of Hari Mundol.

Cut to 2000, and Priyadarshan’s comic caper Hera Pheri. The same Om Puri—the same face, sort of a cartographic map of a dry river bed, just broadened by age, and not without laughter lines. This time he is Sardar Kharaksingh. The turbaned man peers at Sunil Shetty, Paresh Rawal and Aks­­hay Kumar, all wearing helmets (as a disguise), and asks the village idiot question, “Why do all of you look the same?” In that infinitesimal pause he manages bef­­ore the cheesiest gag, you could hear a pin drop. And the roar of laughter coming at you.

Last year would have been 40th anniversary of Ghashiram Kotwal, Puri’s first full-length film. In these four decades, he straddled television, cinema, theatre; tragedy, family drama, comedy; commercial, art, parallel, international.... The obituaries are debating his finest performances and his good nature, but filmmakers, colleagues and friends also reminisce about the times that resulted in his best works, along with that of his contemporaries.

“With Deepti, Shabana, Naseer and Smita, it was the poetry of the ordinary face. Their fierce talent forced you to take notice. Om in Ardh Satya was like that.” ­
—Sudhir Mishra

For, back in the 1970s and the ’80s, it wasn’t just him—Om Puri did not alight on the stage as a towering, monadic figure. Incredibly, for a few years, it was as if an immense collective energy had been rel­eased. What has been called the parallel wave was like an ensemble performance where each element—directors, actors, scriptwriters—contributed to a formidable body of work. There had been luminous predecessors—the lyrical social realism of the ’50s, the clockwork-precise auteurism of Ray. All of it now seemed to come to a head—and along with Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi et al, Om Puri was an inextricable part of the cumulative wave of cinematic power that washed over filmmakers and actors for generations.

“It was a magnificent accident,” says dir­ector Sudhir Mishra, who co-wrote Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. “Often things arrive in clusters and movements begin. With Deepti Naval, Naseer, Shabana and Smita, the poe­try of the ordinary face, the heroism of the ordinary was highlighted.... Their talent was so fierce that they were noticed. Om in Ardh Satya was like that, forcing everyone to acknowledge his presence.”

“An actor is like a watch. You see the precise time, the beauty of the dial, but not the mechanism. The less you notice it, the less tick-tick you hear, the better it is.”
—Govind Nihalani

Mishra reminisces about that set of dir­ectors—the Mani Kauls and Benegals “whose cinema was of another nature”—and the set of actors schooled at NSD and FTII who came to people those films.

Films like Godhuli, Mandi, Aakrosh and Paar were getting made, hewing close to the unadorned realities of Indian life, touching on facets of society and human nature unt­ouched by the mainstream, and only through reductive tropes of melodrama if it did. This was cinema invested with a political horizon, an aesthetic honesty.

It was the actors who made the interpretations possible. “They were all involved in the medium. They were not just concerned about their roles but the totality of films, and they never obstructed story-telling,” says Mishra. “It was wonderful to have act­ors like Om Puri, Naseer, Farooque Shaikh, Deepti, Shabana and Smita Patil...for whom films could be written,” chimes in director Kundan Shah. “That was also the time when directors and writers wrote anti-hero films. They fed off each other and together created this work.”

Differing Styles

Om Puri in Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati

Was Om Puri the best? In a parallel cinema packed with maestros revving up each other to their peak, it’s almost imp­olitic to ask the question. How does one disentangle the Om Puri-Naseer pair, alm­ost like a male Betty-Veronica dyad, for a contrastive analysis? Can one compare across genders? Across ages and genres? Across regions and styles?

One can put the unremarkable frame of a Bharath Gopi, which could build up some immense thermal energy, on the same page as Om Puri. But the tempered introvertishness of Balraj Sahni or Soumitra Chatterjee? And is it even possible to analyse an Om Puri tangentially via, say, the theatrical dyn­amo that was Sivaji Ganesan? The easy naturalism of an early Raj Kapoor, the studied gravity of Yusuf saab?

“The actor’s appearance, background can decide if he’s suitable for a role. I wanted to play Goopi and told so to Ray. But Manikda would have none of it.” ­
—Soumitra Chatterjee

Staying on the question might yield other answers—clues to crack the riddle of acting, that dark magic craft. At a basic level, the kind of persona being enacted has a lot to do with our idea of a good actor. In a longlist of best actors, it’s possible to conceive of a Sanjeev Kumar cropping up as a contender, certainly a latter-day Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui. And even an Amitabh or a Moha­nlal, who can play ‘up’ or ‘down’. But not a Kishore Kumar, that bundle of burlesque energy, despite his skill-set being apt for his requirements.

Perhaps we lean towards a strong persona when we judge actors—the Brando syndrome. Those who play light, like touch-tennis artistes, inevitably lose out. If the mascaraed pin-ups of pulp cinema—in their dancing shoes and sunflower-yellow shirts—seem to emit light, their counterparts almost absorb it into their hard, black souls. The sheer economy of the body is integral to it. The cratered face of an Om Puri, the coal-fired eyes of a Gopi, they fit right into a kind of cinema.

Om Puri in Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

It was the political context that added a whole layer of meaning to these films, says scholar-critic C.S. Venkiteswaran. “Om Puri belonged to a time when there was a sense of disillusionment with nat­ionalist, socialist ideas. The Nehruvian era was over, there was anger, radical movements were springing up, the JP movement.... Puri personifies the anger of the Indian conscience,” he says.

Interestingly, the very same factors are cited for the Amitabh phenomenon of the ’70s. But if he took his anger to a pop cat­harsis, a more unbending strain of actors cropped up, rife with the unrequited rage and doubt of the common Indian, the ordinariness of body intact. “All the films that portrayed him in his early years were built around ardh satya, aakrosh,” says Venkiteswaran. “We have this angry man, a hint of the suppressed, subaltern, Dalit in his physiognomy. He personified that. The films Nihalani, Benegal were making were suited for this persona.”

The body then is a vehicle, but also a trap for the actor. Soumitra Cha­tterjee has an interesting tale to relate. “I wanted to play the role of Goopi (in Goopi Gyne Bagha Byne) and I exp­ressed my wish to Ray,” he tells Outlook. “But Manikda would have none of it. ‘What?’ he asked me, shocked. ‘How can you play this role? You won’t even fit the part.’”

Om Puri in Roland Joffe’s City Of Joy

The tall, handsome, suave Soumitra, whom Ray had cast in 14 films, was not short of versatility—he had enough range in him to “play a young, romantic hero in the commercial space as well as a serious Ray character, not to mention the detective Feluda,” as critic Anil Grover points out. But still, Ray drew the line when it came to casting for a character required to be just short of good-looking, a rustic, naive village bumpkin with a child-like wonder. Soum­itra’s pleas that he would camouflage the ‘shortcomings’ with make-up (“I said I’d part my hair in the middle and put on a dazed exp­ression”) fell on deaf ears, and Ray hunted down someone who played the part so perfectly that Chatterjee rues he had no occasion to complain.

“The craft of acting is not simply about expressiveness or even ability,” says Soumitra. “Good acting is not the same as versatility. As far as acting is concerned, there are limitations. The actor’s appearance, social, cultural and economic backgrounds all decide whether or not he will suitably portray a particular character. Ray was extremely meticulous about casting. Identifying the right actor for the right role was crucial for him.”

Om Puri, of course, had no lack of versatility. “One could cast Om in a comedy,” says Kundan Shah. “People were surprised when I cast him in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, but I had seen him performing in a Moliere play—a comedy that required tremendous energy.” In fact, when the gut-wrenching realism of parallel cinema hit everything like a tornado, there were also nifty, light-hearted essays coming out of those very same stables—movies like Chashme-Buddoor, Katha, Angoor, and often peopled by the same bunch of actors.

Studies In Method

Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi in Goutam Ghose’s Paar

One could say some of the personnel did not entirely live up to the ‘versatile’ tag as they, inevitably, dabbled in mainstream. Naseer was perhaps never as natural there as Om Puri—even Smita seemed to go through the motions. On the other hand, in the hands of good directors, mainstream actors have often given rem­arkably good accounts of themselves—say Mithun Chakraborty in Mrinal Sen’s Mrigaya, Shatrugan Sinha in Goutam Ghose’s Antarjali Yatra, and Mammooty in Adoor’s Vidheyan. Sometimes, even good directors do not ensure a proper development of talent. As Venkiteswaran points out, “Amrish Puri had the opportunity to work with the same directors, he had the same kind of talent as Om Puri, but he was typecast. The industry did inj­ustice to Amrish Puri’s talent”. (There have been other failures on that side too, like in Rituparno Ghosh’s sundry experiments with Bollywood personnel.)

For an actor, it is not enough that he or she delivers a powerful performance in one kind of cinema. The parameters of conviction, versatility and ‘effortlessness’ must apply across genres. And yet, str­esses Soumitra, “a good actor and a versatile actor is not one and the same thing. You can be good and yet not be able to play some roles depending on factors like whether you look the part, have the correct diction.” If even the kind of roles can’t be always compared, what then would mark out quality in that craft? “A good actor is one who can bring something new to a character, an element not explored in the past perhaps, an unusual trait,” he says.

“For me, complete naturalness and truth is a hallmark of a good actor,” says actor-dir­ector Lillette Dubey, who spoke of how Om Puri and she finally acted together in a film, A Million Rivers, after wanting to do so for many years. She has a set of criteria. “One shouldn’t see the acting, the craft should not be seen. Look at actors like Bill Nighy and Judy Dench—truly effortless. Actors should also enjoy the process. Om was like that, straddling comedy, absurd, tragedy, emotional. His performances were so truthful and honest. Audiences instinctively know honesty.”

Govind Nihalani, who directed Om Puri in his iconic Ardha Satya and Aakrosh, ref­ers back to the whole universe of aesthetic production in which acting is born. “An actor’s performance—whether cinema, TV, stage—can’t be taken in isolation,” he says. “Though there is no definition of acting, just like literature, it is a response to the times. The whole cumulative process plays a major part. The director visualises and the actor interprets that vis­ion, creating the given character. The ability to translate that understanding is crucial—he or she is the carrier of the writer/director’s vision.”

Bharath Gopi in K.G. George’s Yavanika

Nihalani has an effective metaphor for ‘good acting’, echoing Lilette’s ideas. “An actor is like a watch. You see the precise time, you see the beauty of the dial, but you don’t see the mechanism within. The less you notice the mechanism, the less tick-tick you hear, the better it is.” And he spies that quality beyond the usual crop. “Look at Dilipsaab. He did light roles, he also did Mughal-e-Azam. Om Puri too was like that,” he says. “Another actor whose tick-tick can’t be heard is Rajnikant. His style is totally his and has an organic personality. He makes outrageous action sound organic and real. Even Deepika and Konkona are smooth in their craft. Jaya Bachchan is so natural. So were Dimple, Amitabh, Naseer.”

Director Sandip Ray agrees. “The craft of acting is essentially talent at the very rudimentary level,” he told Outlook. “But what is crucial thereafter is how the actor interprets particular roles, bringing his own intelligence and powers of observation to inform the characters. Om Puri did not just possess talent, he did a great deal of homework on each and every role, diligently studying types, examples, role models.” Sandip “had had the privilege of having experienced Om’s dazzling talent”, not just in his own productions but also in his father’s Sadgati. “He was one of the most intense and conscientious actors I have ever worked with,” he says.

Goutam Ghose, who directed Om Puri in Paar, recalls how he sent out an SOS to the actor during location shooting in a village when a local resident he had initially roped in to play the part ditched him. “Om immediately took a flight out of Mumbai, arrived and immersed himself in studying the character by spending time with the villagers.”

Hollywood actor Patrick Swayze, with whom Om Puri did City of Joy, based on the Dominique Lapierre novel, had fam­ously remarked that he deserved an Oscar for his role of a rickshaw-puller. Indeed, Om Puri is supposed to have studied the character so deeply and conveyed it so credibly that during shooting on the streets of Calcutta, he was often mistaken by people to be one.

“He is an examplar of the craft of acting,” Sandip Ray reiterates, pointing out that his involvement did not end with the performance. “Just a few days before his death, he had called me and expressed concern that Target (in which he directed Puri) had not been released yet. I am completely stunned by his sudden death.”

Nihalani also emphasises Om Puri’s other quality—that of “putting everything into it”. “Employing accent, sense of comic timing, good range—and it was all heart, came from inside him. The actor’s personal nature shines through, his honesty, compassion, empathy comes across.” For Venkiteswaran, one key asp­ect was Om Puri’s voice. “He had great control over his modulations. Even his silence in Aakrosh becomes unbearable, it is so intense, even though he does not speak out. That is a rare kind of talent.”

The parallel cinema movement had run its course by the 1990s. Socialist-era government funding dried up, liberalisation unlocked desires around consumption—instead of the hard Indian outback, one got endless foreign locations. That was a wasted phase for the Om Puri generation. “Mainstream industry did not exploit their potential—that’s sad but they paved the way for today’s experimental cinema,” says Mishra.

That is, the genre of film noir that has emerged in the last decade or so, which partly derives from the old genre, at least in terms of acting methods—the films of Vishal Bharadwaj, early Ram Gopal Varma, Dibakar, Anurag Kashyap have brought forth a new wave of talent. In Bengali too, there’s new blood invigorating its own new wave. “Jisshu Sengupta and Abir Mukherjee are excellent actors,” observes Soumitra.

Even a strain of the old spirit survives, aspiring to purer arthouse. Actress Nan­dita Das, whose film on Manto had Om Puri in a key role, says, “Mrinal Sen, Adoor, Benegal wanted to tell stories differently. Stories of ordinary people, with­out the trappings of mainstream cinema. Om Puri, Naseer et al opened the doors for us, for more real performances.”

From Salman Khan to Shabana, there wasn’t a cinema person who did not lam­ent Om Puri’s untimely death. “Vacuums and voids are indeed created with the passing of great talents. I know I will have to forego the urge to make some films because of a dearth of an actor like Om Puri,” says Sandip Ray. But Venkiteswaran has an interesting coda on the Om Puri-Naseer crop. “They are the last generation of actors who are pre-digital. They belonged purely to celluloid. You did not need to photoshop them. They performed with their bodies, it was real. We don’t know if it’s Aamir Khan’s body or if it’s photoshopped in Dangal.”

By Prachi Pinglay-Plumber and Dola Mitra with Minu Ittyipe

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