OM PURI (1950 – 2017) The Cosmopolitan-Parallel Cinema Actor

Actor Om Puri in film ARDH SATYA. Express archive photo

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 

ARDH SATYA / HALF TRUTH (Dir. Govind Nihalani, 1983, India)

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Govind Nihalani’s directorial debut in 1980 with the award winning Aakrosh (Cry of the Wounded) was inevitable. As an ace cinematographer, Nihalani collaborated closely with Shyam Benegal on many formative semi-realist critiques including Ankur, Nishant, Junoon and Bhumika. Benegal’s scepticism of social institutions and his sensitive representations of women, often victims of patriarchal oppression, would determine the equivalently leftist ideological machinations of Nihalani’s films as a director in the 1980s. Benegal tended to work with the same cast and crew for many of his early films including Shabana Azmi, Naseerudin Shah, Smita Patil, Om Puri and Amrish Puri, many of whom would be shared across with Nihalani in his own films.

Ardh Satya was only Nihalani’s third feature as a director and probably the one that he is best remembered for. It is also another key film from the second wave of Parallel Cinema. In some respects the use of melodrama which Benegal and Nihalani both relied on as a means of narrative storytelling raises the continuing question of the relatively undecided status of films like Ardh Satya; were they Middle Cinema or Parallel Cinema, or were they in fact both. Or was Middle Cinema a completely separate mode of categorisation and approach to filmmaking. Furthermore, the police/crime thriller moniker only adds to the complicated genre status of Ardh Satya. Because of this, Ardh Satya occupies a dubious status as an example of Parallel Cinema since the film has been claimed as critical to the development of the Bombay police/crime thriller. Though Ardh Satya marked a change in location for Nihalani with much of the film shot on location in and around the slums of Bombay (now Mumbai), thematically, the focus on the police as both a public institution and the officers who struggle to retain a sense of moral integrity in the face of corruption was a continuation of Aakrosh and would also signal a preoccupation with the police; Drohkaal and Dev would act as further evidence of Nihalani’s claim as an auteur of some considerable distinction.

The story of Ardh Satya, which means ‘Half Truth’, follows a young police officer, Anant Velankar (Om Puri in one of his most memorable roles), in the Bombay police department. Perceived as someone who is both upright and fair in his approach, Velankar discovers there are those who exist outside the law and have the political reach to manipulate the police for their own ends. One such person that Velankar tries but fails to arrest is Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar), a notorious local crime lord who reigns with a terrifying impunity while continuing to rule over the slum dwellers. Shetty uses his electoral support with the Bombay police and the slums to run for city council in the local elections. Velankar becomes increasingly disillusioned with the police as a potent institution for justice and his relationship with Jyotsna Gokhale (Smita Patil), a lecturer, offers respite from his doomed trajectory. Flashbacks recall Velankar growing up in a rural village in which his harsh, orthodox father, (Amrish Puri), also a police officer, humiliates his beleaguered mother. At the same time, Velankar is prevented from pursuing an ambition to become a professor, reasoning why he finds an emotional connection with Jyotsna’s intellectualism. Any attempts at Velankar confronting the lawlessness of Rama Shetty are undermined by the inherent corruption of his superiors, apathetic to the concerns of the ordinary slum dweller and more responsive to the demands of the middle class elite. Nihalani’s representation of a corrupt and complacent Bombay police acts as a wider condemnation of Indira Gandhi’s leadership and government.

Another significant element to the nightmarish tone is the substantial ideological contribution of Marathi playwright turned Indian art house scriptwriter, Vijay Tendulkar. Tendulkar was a regular collaborator with Shyam Benagal, having written the screenplays for Nishant and Manthan. The contempt for feudalism Tendulkar brought to the screenplay of Nishant is mirrored in the angry temperament of Ardh Satya. In the generational divide that opens up between the traditional values of the father (Amrish Puri) and the secular politics of the son (Om Puri), Velenkar’s rejection of his father’s marriage proposal extenuates his criticism of the way in which rural village life and its traditions simply perpetuate a status quo that aids those in positions of power, namely the ruling elite. Velankar finds it problematic to escape the shadow of his domineering father. But by taking the law into his own hands Velankar inadvertently shatters the social order, censuring his father for failing to question his own frailties as both an inadequate father and a benign police officer.

While the second wave of Parallel Cinema under the auspice of the NFDC was somewhat less angry, political and iconoclastic then the foundational years, many of the later films continued to adopt endings with a striking degree of disillusionment and fatalism, an idea of non-closure that was unconventional for Indian Cinema. Indeed what remains germane about Ardh Satya today is the urban topography of Bombay, an aesthetic motif that would leave its imprint on the Indian crime genre including Parinda, Satya and Black Friday.

Ardh Satya will be screening on Zee Classic: Sat 20 Aug 10pm

MIRCH MASALA / A TOUCH OF SPICE (1987, Dir. Ketan Mehta, India) – Tales of Resistance

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Mirch Masala, the third feature of director Ketan Mehta, opens with the choral refrain of doubt, the lyrics booming over a rustic, desolate and geometrical landscape of scorched brown, orangey earth; a Kiarostami image that possibly preludes the work of the Iranian master:

O Earth, man became your heart
Hence the world became bright
A spicy flavour added colour to the darkness

The tone of isolation segues into the opening titles unfolding against the glowing crimson red of a mirchi (red chilli), a benign symbol of colonialism brought to India by the Portuguese. The red chilli is also inherently indigenous and rural, accentuating Mehta’s repeated explorations of Indian folk culture and their associated rituals and customs, which Mehta first broached with his erudite 1980 debut film Bhavni Bhavai (A Folk Tale).

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Mirch Masala is an impressive ensemble piece with a cast of familiar Parallel Cinema faces including Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Deepti Naval and Om Puri. Ensemble cinema in India was perhaps first prompted by director Shyam Benegal as a trend in Parallel Cinema, later a defining characteristic of Parallel Cinema and the open collaboration between the director and a pool of actors. It is important to note many of these actors were not specific to Parallel Cinema and worked across theatre, art cinema and popular Hindi cinema. And they had to be in order to making a living. Mehta’s use of colour in Mirch Masala is often overlooked, and it has a palpable register. In some respects, the experimentation with colour was a notable trait of Parallel Cinema filmmakers. One only has to study the work of Kumar Shahani to be able to see how colour can be deployed both expressionistically and psychologically to delineate themes and characters. And it is the colour red in Mirch Masala, a unifying aesthetic principle, which is admittedly ritualised to take on more than just a symbolic function.

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The first introduction to Sonbai (Smita Patil) and Subedar (Naseeruddin Shah) occurs nearby a river. The fiery and beautiful Sonbai catches the eye of Subedar who approaches her for a drink of water. When Sonbai instructs Subedar to bend down and cup his hands for the water he does in a show of obedience that is suffused with eroticism as Subedar drinks sexually while looking up at Sonbai. While Mehta satirises this erotic encounter with archetypal images, the rustic belle meets the despotic colonialist tax collector, a fortuitous power relation establishes Sonbai as an unbridled force of feminist defiance. We know now that Sonbai will never give in to Subedar’s sexual advances, posing a threat to Subedar’s masculinity.

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Mirch Masala has often been interpreted as a colonial allegory and to some extent this may be true depending on how far you want to read into this perspective. Although the colonial interpretation can be restrictive, Mirch Masala works alternatively, perhaps more progressively as a tale about gender relations, specifically a feminist satire in which moments are deliberately heightened to the point of absurdity; notably the humiliation of the villagers by Subedar, played with an outright parody by Shah that sees him endlessly twirling his colonialist moustache. The totemic Subedar instructs his men to seize the land of those villagers who default on tax payments – even after Mukhiya (Suresh Oberoi), the indentured village chief has told Subedar about a poor harvest. And whatever Subedar desires he gets; he has women from the village brought to his tent so he can have sex with them but when Sonbai resists all hell breaks loose. Her protestations upset the equilibrium of power relations, an uncontested feudal sphere. As a source of patriarchal oppression, the characterisation of Subedar is grossly archetypal; difficult to take seriously, but as the film progresses Subedar’s despotism remains one facet of a much wider system of subjugation in which the village men are revealed to be an ineffectual melange of wretched patriarchy.

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This is a film that also details the oppression of women and the collective stance of female defiance at the end is a culmination of the cruelty catalogued along the way including the village chief Mukhiya who spends his nights with a mistress, ignoring his wife, Saraswati (Deepti Naval) and children, the beating a father gives to his daughter (Supriya Pathak) for desiring a young man, Mukhiya’s removal of his little daughter from school (enrolled as a progressive feminist choice by Sarswati) and Subedar’s sexual harassment of Sonbai.

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Two notable male exceptions exist though. Masterji (Benjamin Gilani), a disciple of Gandhi who is mocked for his Swadeshi beliefs, tries to rally the village, arguing they should partially resist the demands of Subedar but it is a failure predicated on Mukhiya’s resentment about Masterji’s intellectualism. In contrast to the non-violence of Masterji is the physical interventionism of Abu Miyan (Om Puri) the noble watchman heroically guarding the spice factory and women sheltering inside. In a lonely act of defiance Abu Miyan extols:

Not one of you is man enough to help this woman. ‘I’d rather die than take part in a criminal act. Go and tell Subedar there is still one man left in this village. He isn’t young; he’s an old man. But as long as he lives, tyranny will not win

Although Abu Miya’s martyrdom leads to an open revolt amongst the women in the courtyard of the spice factory, attacking Subedar with swathes of red chilli powder, there is an ideological suggestion that non-violence has its limitations when dealing with a system of patriarchy and colonialism that is so entrenched. And while the women at the end don’t directly resort to the physical violence of Abu Miya, the use of chilli powder to blind, impair and subdue Subedar is doubly ironic. Since red chillies were a colonial idea, ideological inversion explicates anti-colonial sentiments that fall in line with the Swadeshi beliefs of the Masterji.

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When Sonbai flees and takes shelter in the spice factory amongst the other female workers, she indirectly creates a collective, which is depicted tentatively since the solidarity amongst the women is undermined by internal bickering. Outside of the gates of the factory, Saraswati, plots against her husband, bringing together the women in the village to help Sonbai. And when Mukhiya with the men from the village marches to the spice factory with a final ultimatum from Subedar, they are stopped prematurely by a protest organised by Saraswati including other women. The protest is non-violent, the banging of pots and pans, instruments of domestic servitude, are inadvertently transformed into a chorus of female resistance, the din from the protest articulating an unheard rage of tyranny captured vividly in the figuration of Deepti Naval’s rebellious gaze.

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At the end when Subedar orders his men to break down the door and enter the factory by force, Abu Miyan is shown reading Namaz, and abruptly Mehta frames the struggle as essentialist, masking over a complicated ideological bind that may seem officious when simplifying the struggle as a battle between the forces of good (religious sentiments) and evil (colonial brutes). Nonetheless, Mehta does not allow this romantic ellipsis to distract from the final shot, an epic freeze frame of a defiant Sonbai, looking at us with an indescribable fury as a swathe of red chilli powder wafts through the air like some supernatural entity. This has now become an iconic moment in Indian Cinema, potently encapsulating a history of gender oppression.

Mirch Masala will be screening on Zee Classic: Sat 23 July at 10pm

SADGATI / DELIVERANCE (Dir. Satyajit Ray, 1981, India) – High and Low


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pikoo (1980) and Sadgati (1981) were short films Ray directed for television, marking his shift into the 1980s and both acting as precursors to his 1983 full length feature Ghaire Bhaire. Whilst Pikoo was made for French television, Sadgati was based on a story by writer Prem Chand whom Ray was familiar with from his adaptation of The Chess Players and funded by Doordarshan, a new state run television company. I have yet to see Pikoo and have read from Andrew Robinson’s book that it is a film about the gaze of an innocent. I hope I can see it on a good print one day. Sadgati, translating as Deliverance, lasts for fifty minutes and contains very little dialogue yet is as accomplished and powerful as his masterworks including even The Apu trilogy. The story is located in rural India in a small village and concerns the relationship between a lower caste tanner Dukhi (Om Puri) and a Brahmin Priest Ghashiram (Mohan Agashe). Before his daughter is married, Dukhi needs the approval and blessings of the Brahmin Priest to set an auspicious date but when Dukhi goes to ask Ghashriam to come to his house for the ceremony, the priest takes it upon himself to exploit Dukhi’s predicament by forcing him to complete various chores. Having instructed his wife Jhuria (Smita Patil) and daughter Dhania to anticipate their arrival with food, Dukhi complies with the orders of his master, the Brahmin Priest. He begins by sweeping the outside of the house then lifting sacks of wheat but when it comes to the ardous task of chopping firewood, Dukhi comes undone.

However, Dukhi’s sorrows are made much worse when Ghashriam catches Dukhi asleep in the afternoon sun exhausted from fatigue and hunger. Incensed by Dukhi’s apparent insolence, Ghashriam berates him and forces him back to work. In one last moment of desperation Dukhi attempts to chop the wood but having had nothing to eat all day and suffering from an illness, Dukhi falls down dead. Panic sets in for Ghashriam as the removal of Dukhi’s body becomes imperative if the high caste villagers are to carry on as normal but none of them can touch the body as this would mean becoming contaminated in some way. Ghashriam sheepishly pleads to the lower caste workers to remove the body but they ignore his command in light of another fellow worker who was witness to the painful destruction of Dukhi. Such are the horrors brought on by village orthodoxy, Dukhi’s corpse becomes a symbol of rural depravity and the caste system. When Jhuria discovers her husband is dead she breaks down and mourns his loss but even she cannot move his body. Finally, to avoid being directly implicated in the death of Dukhi, Ghashriam using ropes, and using a stick to touch the body, drags the corpse away from the village, dumping it in a field of rotten carcasses. In a final act of vitriolic caste politics, Ghashriam decontaminates the ground upon which Dukhi died and corpse lay with droplets of holy water.

What is brilliant about Ray’s approach to the story is that it all plays like a piece of silent film. Unfiltered, prolonged and detailed throughout, the neo realist tone is poetically evoked by the incredible rhythm of the narrative over which Ray has terrifyingly precise control. Whilst Ray was critical of what he saw as a New Indian Cinema in love with European art cinema, the work of Shyam Benegal was one film maker that impressed Ray in many ways especially his command of actors that included Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil with whom he would also collaborate. Ray has said himself that his early films were not political and whilst he was one of the first Indian film makers to turn the lens on the imperfections and wonders of village life, Benegal’s rural trilogy beginning with the seminal Ankur in 1974 offered a somewhat radical politicisation of rural cultural values. In many ways, Sadgati should be viewed as a reply by Ray to his contemporaries at such a particular moment in time, proving quite brilliantly that polemicizing such political discourse did not necessarily equate to great storytelling and cinema.

I got the distinct impression whilst watching Sadgati that Ray was inadvertently responding to the directors of New Indian Cinema as if to articulate his own vehemently angry and outspoken ideological position on the politics of rural India. Ray had originally intended to make a documentary on the issue of child labour but was met with opposition from the government which was trying to actively discourage and effectively prevent film makers from representing such deeply important social issues like poverty on screen. Sadgati was a response, small scale though, to such critics alike and the fact it was filmed in Hindi for a television audience seemed to suggest Ray was reaching out to a much bigger audience. Interestingly, all three of the main leads including Om Puri, Smita Patil and Mohan Agashe were all regular collaborators with Shyam Benegal and their collective presence offers a concrete link to such cinema. Ray takes a very visible observational approach to the action and the camera rarely moves, resulting in a stillness that complements the slow and at times languid pace of village life. Sadgati is available on DVD in the UK as part of a 3 DVD set released by Artificial Eye.