The film career of Om Puri is worth more than East is East. But since East is East is the film that first introduced a new generation of film audiences in the West to Om Puri as an actor, it also becomes a blockage to his rich and varied accomplishments. Film critic and writer Aseem Chhabra has been one of the few who has noted that Om Puri did not get the recognition that he deserved for the many great performances he gave over his career. And later in his career was all but forgotten by the Indian film industry in terms of the types of roles that should have come his way.
Before Om Puri branched out as a cosmopolitan Indian film actor, it was the earlier phase of his career, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, where we find him at his most productive, creative and accomplished. It was his formative associations with Indian Parallel Cinema, particularly in the second phase when the NFDC came to fruition, which saw Om Puri emerge as a notably gifted and versatile actor. Since he understood theatre, his grasp of acting was extenuated through his command of language and capacity to bring elegance to the grimmest of roles. Om Puri also cultivated elegance to his delivery of dialogue, his reasoned, impassioned voice becoming a major feature of his performances. If we are to appreciate the genuine talent of Om Puri then his contributions to the development of Indian Parallel Cinema also need to be celebrated, revered and viewed in the same light as East is East and other American and British films that he starred in.
One only needs to return to the first ten years of Om Puri’s acting career to realise his brilliance as an actor. It was with the 1986 police crime thriller Ardh Satya in which he was the main lead that brought critical acclaim. The collaboration he formed with Govind Nihalani beginning with Aakrosh in 1980 and culminating in the seminal TV series Tamas in 1986 is a formidable actor-director partnership that often gets overlooked in the history of Indian cinema. Om Puri never really emerged as a leading man, perhaps stemming from a refusal to adopt the persona of a film star. Instead, he excelled as both a remarkably adroit character actor who was never afraid of embracing supporting roles.
Om Puri was also part of a troupe of Parallel Cinema actors who all emerged around the same time, the late 1970s, including Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil. This formidable ensemble including Om Puri nurtured an exceptional political sensibility that was reflected in their choice of films as Parallel Cinema often pointed to a leftist socio-political mode of enquiry. But being political for Om Puri was not merely a temporary state of being nor a singular reaction to the socio-political turmoil of the 1970s and 1980s in India. Om Puri remained political throughout his career, speaking out against the establishment, most recently rubbished by the mainstream Indian media for his outmoded liberalism.
As Parallel Cinema started to dwindle in the late 1980s, Om Puri, like many of the Parallel Cinema ensemble, realised (or were sort of compelled to) they had to alternate between art cinema and the mainstream to sustain their acting careers. Om Puri’s associations with British cinema stretch back to the mid 1980s when he had a supporting role in the British TV series The Jewel in the Crown. Prior to this he had also starred in the lacklustre Gandhi by Richard Attenborough. The 1994 film In Custody, starring Shashi Kapoor and directed by Ismail Merchant, seemed to point to Om Puri crossing over into potentially British and American cinema.
And it was the two films Om Puri made with director Udayan Prasad in the 1990s – Brothers in Trouble (1995) and My Son the Fanatic (1997) that finally saw him transcend his status as an Indian film actor, cultivating a broader cosmopolitan identity that put him in good standing with global cinema. Both of these brilliant films, never really talked about today, offer rare insights into the South Asian diaspora experience, exploring anxieties to do with identity, belonging and British Asian culture often glanced over in British cinema or completely marginalized. It was with East is East (overrated in my opinion) in 1999 that Om Puri achieved international recognition, a film that has unfortunately eclipsed the substantial Parallel Cinema output and also his abundant contributions to popular Hindi cinema that went before. My Son the Fanatic is the film that needs reclaiming in Om Puri’s British cinema output, as this is the performance that defined his revival in the late 1990s. Nonetheless, East is East showcased Om Puri’s brilliant comic timing, yet another dimension to his acting skills, which had been witnessed in earlier films such as Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983).
I have gathered together some writings on the films of Om Puri which in my opinion offers a glance at his Parallel Cinema output, arguably his most creative and substantial:
Ardh Satya / Half-Truth (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1983, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-18k
Mirch Masala / A Touch of Spice (Dir. Ketan Mehta, 1987, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-13J
Ghashiram Kotwal (Dir. K. Hariharan, Mani Kaul, Kamal Swaroop, Saeed Mirza, 1976, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-UY
Dharavi / Quicksand (Dir. Sudhir Mishra, 1992, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-4K
Party (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1984, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-3n
Sadgati / Deliverance (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1981, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-3n
Aghaat / Anguish (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1985, India) http://wp.me/p59VSU-ns