“I have no regrets at all. I have done quite well for myself. I didn’t have a conventional face, but I have done well, and I am proud of it. I have been in the film industry for 35 years, and everyone, including the spot-boys, will vouch for my character”, tweeted Om Puri, two weeks ago, as he reflected on his career that had spanned the better part of four decades. No one else could have summarised his life and career in better words because when all is done and forgotten, Om Puri would always be remembered as the guy who stood by his beliefs through all odds; his belief in good cinema, in humanity and in setting the benchmark high for the generations of actors to follow. His contributions have been recognised by the Indian Government with a Padma Shri in 1990 and an OBE in 2004.
After completing his education at the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, and the National School of Drama, Om Puri started his cinematic journey in 1976 with Marathi cinema. It did not take Puri long to establish himself, for within a few years he started getting wide recognition for his acting talent with films like Arohan (1980), Aakrosh (1980) and Ardh Satya (1983) coming his way. The two national awards he won for Best Actor (for Arohan and Ardh Satya) further cemented his place among the torchbearers of the great art cinema movement. This was the time when Om Puri, Naseerudin Shah, Smita Patel, Shabana Azmi, Amrish Puri and a handful of other star-actors experimented with new subjects and presented a brave, new face of Indian cinema. This was also the time when Om Puri starred in one of my personal favourites, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, a satirical comedy with an ensemble cast including Naseerudin Shah, Satish Kaushik and Satish Shah. The film looked at the corruption within the different arms of the state as well as the media and became a fine example of the kind of work that Puri aspired to put his name against.
Puri, who was born in Ambala in the state of Haryana, was one of the most successful actors to emerge from India as he established a name for himself and his craft in Hollywood, Pakistani cinema and most notably British cinema. Through the 1990’s Om Puri became a go to actor with a reputation for giving top notch performances, with landmark films like City of Joy (1992), Wolf (1994) where he starred with Jack Nicholson, My Son the Fanatic (1997) and of course, East is East (1999), the cult classic that made Puri’s character, George Khan, a household name. As Mr. Khan, the Pakistani immigrant married to a British woman, with a family of seven kids, all struggling with their mixed-ethnicity identity, Puri portrayed to perfection a man torn between his roots and his family’s aspirations. In 2007’s Charlie Wilson’s War which also starred Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, he played General Zia-ul-Haq to much critical acclaim. Puri’s last major work in the west was The Hundred Foot Journey where he played the lead role opposite Dame Helen Mirren.
Closer to home, Om Puri has been one of the most esteemed icons of Indian cinema. Over the decades, he has been a part of some of the biggest films in memorable roles that have stayed with audiences long after. From Chachi 420, to Maachis, Maqbool (the Hindi adaptation of Macbeth), Dev, Don, OMG: Oh My God! and Bajrangi Bhaijan, Om Puri was such a versatile actor that he never struggled to remain relevant.
In Pakistan, the actor got rave reviews for his performance in Actor In Law, one of the country’s biggest commercial hits of 2016. During the film’s promotional tour, I was fortunate enough to have the privilege of interviewing him. I remember that he was extremely fatigued, having been in and out of interviews and been on the road, and yet he did not let that come in the way of a great conversation. He was gracious and full of stories about his time on the film set and his journey thus far. I sometimes feel that the roles he was offered in the latter part of his career could not do justice to his talent. When I put it to him, I did not notice even a trace of regret. He said he followed a simple principle in life that he applied to his career as well – ‘do your best with the opportunities that you have, and just remember that at the end of the day, being a good person and being truthful to yourself and your work is all that counts’. As he narrated anecdotes from the first time he travelled abroad to shoot to the time that he had street food in Pakistan, I could see that here was a man who had led his life on his own terms and yet managed to share so much love with those around him in both his professional and personal life.
What I remember most fondly about that day is his vivacious laughter. His humility and frankness in answering my questions and breaking into a Punjabi joke and then moments later confirming if I could actually understand the language, almost made me forget that I was speaking to Om Puri, the legend. In that conversation, he was just a man sharing his life’s experiences and thoughts about what he loved the most: his craft. We parted with a promise to sit down again when he would be promoting his next movie. When I heard of his demise this morning, I could not hold back the tears for I knew what I had missed out on. I will be watching some of my favourite Om Puri clips today, as I try and make sense of the loss. I pray that he may rest in peace; his will be a legacy that will not be forgotten for a long, long time to come.