With his richly reverberating voice, Om Puri is pure dynamite in his trademark angry roles in films such as Aakrosh and Ardh Satya, But even in his most subtle characters, this legend overpowers the silver screen with charisma and energy.
By SHOMA A. CHATTERJI
Here was a man no one would call good-looking in the cinematic sense of the term. In an era ruled by smashing and dancing heroes like Jeetendra and Rajesh Khanna, Om Puri was not typical Bollywood material. But what he had were a voice that could bring a catch in your throat and an acting genius that would make dancing around trees what it really was ? lame!
A star was born when audiences were left speechless as his raw anger swept the screen in his debut film, Aakrosh. Now, with two decades of powerful performances under his belt, Om has made himself synonymous with good acting not only in Bollywood, but in Hollywood as well.
During his early days in the film industry, stardom in Bollywood was more about looks rather than about acting. Om, on the other hand, was a product of Delhi's National School of Drama and a graduate of the FTII, Pune. In one of his early interviews, he had observed, "The industry did not know how to react to me. ?Yeh kale kalaute ko kya den?' (What roles should we offer this [ugly fellow]?!) they wondered. They would offer me roles such as the villain's sidekick."
The ?kaala kalauta' is now an attractive and distinguished veteran. His thick mane of hair is almost all white though he has just switched over to a tint that rests well on him. The skinny frame that suited him so well in Aakrosh and Ardh Satya has now put on considerable flesh, perhaps not all in the right places. Even so, the man single-handedly brings credibility to any film he associates himself with.
Apart from the National Awards and many others, Om Puri has now been bestowed with the prestigious "Order of the British Empire" (O.B.E.) for his rich contribution to the British film industry. "I am very happy and grateful. I have been working [in British films] for the past 10 years. It is generous of them to give me this honor even though I am not a citizen," was his spontaneous response about the honor.
He began his forays in international films with Richard Attenborough's Gandhi and followed it up with City of Joy, Jewel in the Crown, East is East, Wolf, and The Ghost and the Darkness, to name a few.
Responding to the query about what made him choose the uncertainty of the acting as a career, he says, "I got seriously interested in the stage while I was in college. Studies took a backseat and graduation only meant the B.A. tag. I had to work for a living to finish college and changed jobs when my boss refused to let me go away for a stage play. My friends rallied around whenever I needed help. But the struggle was worth it because it gave me a sense of self-worth, of happiness, of achievement."
Om has fond memories of his stint at the NSD. "The three years at NSD were the most constructive years of my life. I was exposed to the best in theatre. The discipline, the hard work, the systematic manner in which we were taught, made it an unforgettable experience. I discovered the tremendous potential of cinema as a medium here. My inhibitions disappeared and so did my obsession with myself."
How would he define himself as an actor? Om smiles widely, and modestly concurs that he considers himself a reasonably good actor. "I choose to be as versatile as I can, because I believe that any actor must be conditioned to play all sorts of roles. There are some roles that are closer to your personality than others. The characters that are closer to the real you are quite easy to enact. Roles that are far removed from your personality need to be really worked at very hard. I find dialogue-centric roles easier to perform. Roles like the one I did n Aakrosh are both demanding and challenging to live up to."
He admits that he is very discriminating in accepting roles. He says he avoids roles and films that are reactionary. But is careful to add, "My use of the word ?reactionary' please note, is purely in its artistic and creative sense and not in any communal or political sense."
In elaborating on what he likes about working in Western films, Om says, "You cannot begin to imagine the perfection they try to achieve. For East is East, we worked with language trainers who taught me the precise nuances that should come into the kind of English spoken by my character ? a Pakistani Muslim who lives in the UK, is not highly educated and is fiercely possessive about his roots. I am learning all the time [in these films]."
He enjoys being in the limelight but also finds it too interfering at times. "An actor is constantly under the pressure of being watched and scrutinized all the time. I often find this an encroachment into my privacy. There are minor things like being photographed while you are in the middle of a meal. It sometimes makes you feel threatened. Then there are old friends you would like to retain your friendship with, but who begin to react to your success and hold themselves back. But there is a sense of thrill and enjoyment too, especially when you are not made to feel the pressure like when you are working in the southern parts of the country," he says.
At the onset of his career, few would have predicted that this guy with a pockmarked face would have to head off to far corners of the country to seek obscurity. But then only Om could lend so much oomph to the silver screen ? making obscurity itself obscure.
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