Om Puri’s brilliance can be summed up in one scene from Govind Nihalani’s hard-hitting drama Ardh Satya (1983).
As Anant Welanker, a promising young man who is travelling in a bus, Puri tries to confront a fellow passenger who tries to touch Jyotsna Gokhale (Smita Patil). He does this without wanting to be seen as over-protective of Gokhale.
Many actors wouldn’t be able to portray the many shades of expressions Puri brings out in this scene.
In a film industry known for its obsession with near-perfect faces and bodies, Puri’s success seems like a metaphor for winning against the odds.
He was one of the 16 FTII graduates who decided to do a film on Vijay Tendulkar’s marvelous play, Ghasiram Kotwal, in 1976. This turned out to be the beginning he was looking for.
In a couple of years, Puri and his NSD partner Naseeruddin Shah, along with the likes of Amrish Puri, Smita Patil, Pankaj Kapur and Shabana Azmi, became pioneers of the parallel cinema movement in India.
Directors such as Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul and Kumar Sahni, who decided to drift away from escapist Bollywood, engaged these actors to achieve the unthinkable when stars such as Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan were on top of their game.
Bhumika (1977), Aakrosh (1980), Aarohan (1982), Ardh Satya (1983): in film after film, Om Puri was turning into the perfect representation of a common man on the silver screen. This was the time when the government had a strict control over media, and celluloid representation of marginalised sections was limited to them speaking in an alien language and singing around fire in funny attire. Mainstream filmmakers couldn’t differentiate between a dalit and an adivasi.
Thanks to Puri and his co-actors’ efforts, cinema had a better reflection of the social injustices.
Puri’s foray into comedy as a shrewd businessman Ahuja in Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983) brought out a completely different side of an otherwise ‘serious’ actor. Years later, the West witnessed the same in East Is East (1999).
His ability to switch from one dialect to another made him a favourite with Hollywood filmmakers who wanted to explore South Asia. His grip over diction and Urdu made this look easier than it actually was.
The ‘90s saw him getting into character roles that were taller than the heroes. Be it in Narsimha (1991), Droh Kaal (1994) or Maachis (1996), he excelled in every part.
This was in addition to films like Chachi 420 (1997) and Hera Pheri (2000), in which he explored purely comic opportunities.
However, in the last couple of years, Puri was in the news for the wrong reasons. B-grade films, divorce and nasty comments against soldiers tarnished his tall image.
But all said and done, Om Puri was that one commoner who dared to bring a change through his acting in cinema. And for that, we will keep going back to his films, and in the process, to the man he was.