By: The Cinema Cynic
On 6th January 2017, Om Puri departed this mortal realm. His last weeks and months, from all accounts were turbulent. Following the Uri massacre of 19 sleeping soldiers by Pakistani terrorists, he came under severe criticism (including from me) for his defence of the continued employment of Pakistani artistes by Bollywood and for some extremely insensitive comments on Indian soldiers.
However, unlike many of the other cinematic pontificators – who made even more asinine and hypocritical statements, Om Puri tried to make sincere amends for his insensitivity. For that touching gesture– not followed by any of his colleagues – Om Puri should be recognized. Indeed, as one of the few actors who dared to disagree with Aamir Khan’s “intolerance” tamasha, it is hard to suggest that Om Puri was anything other than a patriot. However, this is not about Om Puri the man but Om Puri the actor.
When he died, the world mourned the death of a great “Indian actor”. I beg to differ. I mourned the death of a great actor – a global thespian and cinema colossus – whose prodigious talent stood alongside the finest worldwide.
For share depth and range of skills in his repertoire coupled with the ability to move effortlessly between commercial and arthouse cinema in multiple languages – few in Hollywood can to films in anything other than English – Om Puri epitomized the artiste who was first and foremost and actor rather than a celebrity.
Om Puri’s Indian career is relatively well known – though under-appreciated it was nothing short of extensive, varied and brilliant (in multiple Indian languages). His ability to portray the poor farmer, to the honest yet abused policeman to the senior officer to the NCO and any and everything in between is the stuff of legend. Om Puri’s versatility knew no bounds and while he got many roles, Bollywood consistently made less than optimum use of his talent. His last Indian role will be in 2017s The Ghazi Attack
However, his international career was also wide and varied, and encompassed roles in television, stage and cinema. At a time when two indifferent actresses are giving themselves delusions of grandeur, it is important to remember that Om Puri was India’s International Star – acting in Canadian, British and American cinema with great aplomb and to critical acclaim.
In Hollywood, he had major roles in no fewer than seven films. Om Puri had an acclaimed cameo in Gandhi and starred in City of Joy opposite Patrick Swayze when the latter was at the peak of his prowess – with his character of Hazari Pal stealing the show with his unselfish, quiet dignity and determination. Playing alongside the formidable talent of Jack Nicholson in Wolf, Om Puri, as Dr. Vijay Alezais not only held his own against Nicholson, but the scenes between the two with riveting dialogue were incredible. In The Ghost and the Darkness he was cast alongside Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer, again at the peak of their careers, where his portrayal of Abdullah – the determined, uncompromising and capable leader of the workers being savaged by the lions – stood out for its humanizing of the nameless mass of Indian workers who received neither acclaim nor recognition for their role in building the Uganda-Mombasa railway. His portrayal of the Pakistani dictator General Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq in Charlie Wilson’s War where he was cast alongside Tom Hanks was highly effective. The 2013 Mira Nair film The Reluctant Fundamentalist saw him cast as Abu, the father of the young brilliance of Riz Ahmed who played Changez Khan. It was his final Hollywood venture, the 2014 film, The Hundred Foot Journey that marked the culmination of his successful Hollywood career where he was top-billed alongside the legendary Helen Mirren and against whom he played his role of Papa Kadam with aplomb, his talent and brilliance shining through and where he acted alongside the gifted Indian-American actor Manish Dayal who was most impressive as Hassan Kadam.
What was noteworthy of Om Puri’s Hollywood career was that none of his roles was the typically stereotyped Indian male. Whatever his character was supposed to be, he brought dignity and strength to the role and in this sense – alongside Roshan Seth, Naseeruddin Shah and Kabir Bedi – he set a standard for dignified portrayals of Indian men which Hollywood is usually happy to ignore.
In Canada and England, Om Puri’s roles were part of the successful efforts to develop a genre of “ethnic” cinema based on the experiences, novels and historical perceptions of the large Indian diaspora in those countries.
His Canadian effort, Such a Long Journey, based on the eponymous novel by Rohington Mistry, brought together the exceptional abilities of Om Puri, Roshan Seth, Irrfan Khan and Naseeruddin Shah. This film was rewarded with critical acclaim and 12 Genie nominations in recognition of its excellence (Roshan Seth winning one for Best Actor).
However, it was in England where Om Puri achieved greatness almost matching that of his Indian career. In television, he acted in such series as The Jewel in the Crown, Second Generation and White Teeth all of which were well received, the first named being regarded as an all-time classic. He branched out into science-fiction with the unusual Code 46 and comedy with The Parole Officer neither of which were particularly impressive films but their ensemble cast approach made them better offerings than they might have been. In this regard, Om Puri’s English career closely mirrored that of his Indian experience with some oddball films finding their way into his vast portfolio.
Yet it was here that he also achieved recognition for his roles reflecting the Asian – usually Pakistani/ Muslim – experience and crisis of identity in the United Kingdom. His incredible performance in My Son the Fanatic set the scene for a series of films of this genre – each of them gems of their type. His portrayal of George Khan in East is East and West is West was memorable and touched a chord with immigrants in the UK. He also starred as Ramlogan in the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of The Mystic Masseur based on V.S. Naipaul’s novel, set in Trinidad, of the same name.
For his unique contribution to British cinema, he was made an honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire. It is fitting that it is in a British film that we may see the last of Om Puri. Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House is due to be released in March 2017. Once again, Om Puri acts alongside Manish Dayal in a strong ensemble cast including Huma Qureshi, Hugh Bonneville and Gillian Anderson.
Om Puri was undoubtedly India’s real international star. No other actor has managed the variety of genres, diversity of roles, always combined with dignity of portrayal that Om Puri managed to achieve. He was a supremely talented actor and is fondly remembered as a mentor by both Manish Dayal and Riz Ahmed.
Let us forget about high-profile celebrities with their public-relations machines and ignore the servility to the West that characterizes some of our more recent pretenders to global cinema. Instead, let us celebrate the man whose acting prowess earned him accolades globally. His death has left a void in world cinema that will be hard to fill. Goodbye Om Puri, you will be missed and never forgotten.