Tellingly, there are no very early pictures of Om Puri, a plain man destined to be
photographed over and over again, in the later years of his life. For that matter, as his wife
Nandita’s gritty biography reveals, he has no birth certificate either; he does not in fact know when he was born. What is clear, however, is that he was born, as his friend and rival Naseeruddin Shah once evocatively put it, “with a wooden spoon in his mouth.” And there hangs a life-story as compelling as the plots of the most powerful films Om has ever acted in.
Born in Ambala, and raised by barely educated and poor parents in a succession of dusty Punjab towns, Om’s early memories are of his hands being tied to his bed to prevent him from scratching his smallpox ulcers; of picking and eating the good bits of cheaply-bought rotten mangoes; of washing cups and glasses in a local tea stall; of going to school only at the age of eight, thanks to the charity of relatives; of giving tuitions while studying for his matriculation at a government school.
The truly inspirational part of his story is that his formidable acting talent was recognised early, and encouraged by friends and well-wishers at every stage: the Punjab theatre group director who found him the job of a lower division clerk by day, so that he could pursue theatre by night; Ebrahim Alkazi, who helped him overcome his embarrassment at his poor English skills and shine at the National School of Drama; Girish Karnad, the then director of the Film and Television Institute of India, who took him on for the acting course even when other selectors were sceptical because of his looks; Naseeruddin, in whose PG digs he stayed when he moved to Mumbai.
Be it Amitabh Bachchan’s journey from Allahabad to Mumbai via Calcutta, or SRK’s move from Delhi to the city of dreams, there is many a celebrated success story of the Outsider coming to rule Bollywood. Om’s journey, on the other hand, has been more remarkable but relatively unsung.
One only has to cast a glance at his considerable achievements to get a measure of how far the man from Ambala has travelled. Puri came to spearhead the arthouse cinema movement. Filmmakers gave him powerful roles to go with his unconventional personality and he in turn gave them all the talent he had. The result: such mileposts in the history of Indian cinema as Aakrosh, Ardh Satya, Bhavani Bhavai, Sparsh, Mirch Masala, Sadgati, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Later, when the space for parallel cinema began to shrink, Puri used his versatility to segue into mainstream cinema and be part of successful films like Maachis, Hera Pheri, Chachi 420, Dev or Maqbool. From Satyajit Ray to Mani Ratnam, the country’s most influential directors have found value in casting him. He is also one Indian actor who can truly claim to have crossed over and made a space for himself in the West without compromising on roles or films. He has worked with names like Richard Attenborough, Mike Nichols, Jack Nicholson, Ismail Merchant and Michael Winterbottom. Film critic Derek Malcolm points out that his performances in British films like Brothers in Trouble, My Son The Fanatic and East is East are in no way less significant to those in Aakrosh, Ardh Satya or Mirch Masala. A toast then to the man and his journey.