Counted among one of the most versatile actors, Om Prakash Puri would have been 70 today had it not been for his untimely death in the year 2017. He shone everywhere he set his foot on, even in the commercial cinemas or independent or art films.
With a grave, deep manly voice, Om Prakash Puri owned every frame he was portrayed in.
Om Puri became an example of the fact that to be successful in cinema, you need not have to conform to the stereotypical ‘chocolate-boy’ charms.
He is best known for his author-backed roles in films like Aakrosh, Arohan, Ardh Satya and television films like Sadgati and Tama and also light-hearted roles in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Chachi 420.
He had various collaborations with director Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani.
Om Puri also appeared in non-Indian productions in the United States and Britain.
Puri was awarded Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award of India, in 1990.
In 2004, Puri was made an honorary Officer of the Order of the British Empire.
Om Puri was born in Ambala in a Punjabi Hindu Khatri Family. Coming from an underprivileged background, his father was put behind bars on allegations of theft of cement when Puri was barely 6 years old.
To make ends meet, Puri’s brother, Ved Prakash Puri, worked as a coolie (railway porter) and Puri worked in a local tea shop, did odd jobs and collected coal from nearby railways tracks to support his family. He continued studying while working.
After his primary education, he joined the National School of Drama in Delhi to study theatre acting.
In an interview, Puri recounted his family was so poor that he did not have a decent shirt to wear when he joined FTII.
According to Naseeruddin Shah, who was his fellow batchmate in the FTII, Puri was disappointed by his education at FTII, and also was unable to pay tuition fees. When he became well-known, the institute followed up the debt of Rs 280, which Puri refused to pay due to the “impish thrill” of owing them money.
Puri’s debut was in Chor Chor Chhup ja, which was a children’s film. To make ends meet during this time, he also worked at the Actors’ Studio.
Subsequently, Puri worked in numerous Indian films, as well as many films produced in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Puri made his debut in the mainstream films’ genre in the 1976 Marathi film Ghashiram Kotwal, which is based on a Marathi play of the same name by Vijay Tendulkar. It was directed by K. Hariharan and Mani Kaul in cooperation with 16 graduates of the FTII.
He has claimed that he was paid “peanuts” for his best work.
He was critically acclaimed for his performances in many unconventional roles such as a victimised tribal in Aakrosh (1980), Jimmy’s manager in Disco Dancer (1982), a police inspector in Ardh Satya (1982), for which he got the National Film Award for Best Actor.
In 1999, Puri acted in a Kannada film A.K. 47 as a strict police officer who tries to keep the city safe from the underworld, which became a huge commercial hit. Puri’s acting in the film is memorable. He rendered his own voice for the Kannada dialogues.
Puri made a cameo in the highly acclaimed film Gandhi in the year 1982, which was directed by Richard Attenborough.
In the mid-1990s, he diversified to play character roles in mainstream Hindi cinema, where his roles were more tuned to mass audiences than the film critics.
He came to be known internationally after starring in British films like My Son the Fanatic (1997), East Is East (1999) and The Parole Officer (2001). He even appeared in Hollywood films including City of Joy (1992), Wolf (1994) with Jack Nicholson, and The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) opposite Val Kilmer.
In 2007, he appeared as General Zia-ul-Haq in Charlie Wilson’s War, which stars Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
In 1988, he received critical acclaim for his performance in Govind Nihalani’s television film Tamas which was based on a Hindi novel of the same name.
He played comic roles in Hindi films like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro which reached a cult status, followed by Chachi 420 in 1997, Hera Pheri in 2000, Chor Machaye Shor in 2002, Deewane Huye Pagal, Chup Chup Ke, Kismat Konnection and Malamaal Weekly in 2006 and OMG Oh My God in 2012.
He also played noteworthy roles in commercial Hindi films. Puri was seen in the role of Mohammad Ali Kasuri in Road to Sangam in 2009.
He has also worked in some episodes of the TV series Aahat during the second season which was aired between 2004 and 2005 on Sony channel.
In 2014, he appeared opposite Helen Mirren in the comedy-drama The Hundred-Foot Journey. At the time of his death in January 2017, he was working on the Marathi film, 15 August Bhagile 26 January.
Several of his completed films including Viceroy’s House and Tubelight were released after his death in 2017.
Five noteworthy movies that made Om Puri immortal
Om Puri has earned his fan following with his performances in art as well as commercial movies. Just like he did successful and acclaimed roles in both parallel and mainstream cinema, he also slipped into different genres easily.
You can see him doing comedy as a rustic in Malamaal Weekly, and he was equally credible as a ruthless terrorist in Kurbaan. He may have been inimitable on the screen; he was also not afraid to express what came to his mind. His candour was surprisingly refreshing.
Here are five films starring Om Puri that have set a benchmark in Indian cinema.
Aakrosh, which was the debut film of ace director Govind Nihalani, won 1980 National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi and several Filmfare Awards. It was based on the corruption in the judiciary and victimisation and suppression of underprivileged.
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983)
The 1983 film introduced the genre of dark satire in Bollywood. It revolved around rampant corruption in politics, bureaucracy, media, etc and also featured Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapur, Satish Shah, Satish Kaushik and Neena Gupta. Om Puri played the role of a builder, Ahuja in the movie.
Tamas is a 1988 period television film which is based on the Hindi novel of the same name by Bhisham Sahni (1974). It won the author the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1975.
Set in the backdrop of riot-stricken Pakistan at the time of the partition of India in 1947, the film deals with the plight of emigrant Sikh and Hindu families to India as a consequence of the partition. It was first shown on India’s national broadcaster Doordarshan as a mini-series and later as a one-off four-hour-long feature film.
At the 35th National Film Awards, it won three awards including the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration. In August 2013, it was shown on History TV18 as a series.
Chachi 420 (1997)
Chachi 420 (transl. The trickster aunt) is a 1997 Indian Hindi comedy film, co-written, produced and directed by Kamal Haasan. The film is a remake of the Tamil film Avvai Shanmughi (1996) which was inspired from the Hollywood film Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).
It was the first film directed by Kamal Haasan who also starred in the film playing double roles. Box Office India certified the film as a ‘Hit’ as it netted ₹11.42 crore (US$1.6 million) from North Indian region.
Directed by legendary director Satyajit Ray, Sadgati was primarily made for TV. The 1981 film was based on a short story by famous writer Munshi Premchand. Om Puri played the role of a poor village shoemaker. Ray called this drama of a poor Dalit “a deeply angry film […] not the anger of an exploding bomb but of a bow stretched taut and quivering.”