Om Puri brought utmost conviction to every character he played. He can be said to be one of the pillars of the art-house movement in Hindi cinema. His forte was to bring out the pain and the angst of the common man without taking recourse to melodrama. He could convey more by a subtle gesture than others did with reams of dialogue. On the occasion of his birth anniversary, we pick up a list of his best art films down the years…
Ghashiram Kotwal (1976)
Director: K. Hariharan, Mani Kaul, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Kamal Swaroop
Cast: Mohan Agashe, Om Puri
Om Puri made his debut with this Marathi film. It’s an adaptation of Vijay Tendulkar’s play of the same name. The noted playwright himself wrote the screenplay. Parallel cinema movement was at the rise at the time and the film was an experiment in collective filmmaking. It was produced by YUKT Film Cooperative, a 16-member collective consisting mostly of graduates of the Film and Television Institute of India. It had four directors, each of whom directed parts of the movie. The period satire, set during the time of the Peshwas, commented on the atrocities committed by those in power when the power goes to their head. Om Puri was praised for his realistic portrayal of the ‘outsider’ who becomes the Peshwa’s pawn.
Director: Govind Nihalani
Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Amrish Puri, Om Puri
This was the debut film of director Nihalani. In most of the film, Puri doesn’t utter a single word but relies on his expressions to bring out grief, angst, anger, pain. He plays a lower-caste man who is unjustly jailed for a crime he didn’t commit and has seemingly gone speechless due to the misfortunes that have fallen on him. It’s only when, after killing his own younger sister in order to save her from being made a plaything of the powerful, that he screams and screams at the end, finally giving vent to his pent-up feelings.
Director: Shyam Benegal
Cast: Om Puri, Victor Banerjee, Pankaj Kapoor
The film was a critique of the zamindari system which was used by the landowners for aeons to exploit poor labourers. Even when the government passes laws which favour the farmer who tills the land, those with the means and the muscle continue to torment the poor. Om Puri played one such poor labourer who had to forsake his rights to the land when he borrowed money from his rich landlord (Victor Banerjee). His younger brother leaves for Kolkata and becomes a goon, his aunt and niece too are swallowed by the metropolis. After years of struggles and litigation, he does get his rights back, but by then it’s too late.
Ardh Satya (1983)
Director: Govind Nihalani
Cast: Om Puri, Smita Patil, Amrish Puri, Shafi Inamdar, Naseeruddin Shah, Sadashiv Amrapurkar
There is a scene in Ardh Satya (1983), where Om Puri recites Dilip Chitre’s Ardh Satya poem to the woman he loves, Smita Patil. The scene starts on a buoyant mood but as the actor goes deeper into the poem, his expressions change. The poem brings about the mindscape of Abhimanyu as he enters the chakravyuh and the Puri subtly brings out the anguish of his character who is battling his own chakravyuh… In a short span, he manages to lay bare the whole scope of the character he essays. Filmed in a single long take, it’s possibly the best example of an actor showcasing how a minor thing can change a character in the blink of an eye. Puri played an honest cop disgruntled by the system. He falls prey to the clutches of politicians and his conscience pays a price for it. How he comes out of the moral dilemma forms the crux of the film.
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983)
Director: Kundan Shah
Cast: Naseeruddin Shah, Ravi Baswani, Bhakti Barve, Satish Shah, Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur, Satish Kaushik, Neena Gupta
It’s one of those movies that make you stay rooted to your seat every time it comes on TV. It was a serious critique of the socio-political state of our country and yet kept you in splits from the first frame till the last. Much like George Orwell’s Animal Farm or more to the point, 1984, it was of the time and also way ahead of its time. Shah was aware that not only the Big Brother is watching us, but it’s also turning a blind eye to atrocities as well. Professional photographers Vinod Chopra (Naseeruddin Shah) and Sudhir Mishra (Ravi Baswani) discover upon enlarging one of their photos that they have captured the murder of Mumbai’s Municipal Commissioner D’Mello (Satish Shah) by an unscrupulous builder Tarneja (Pankaj Kapoor). Their world turns topsy turvy after this discovery and the film ends in a free-for-all climax that’s probably one of the best endings to a comedy ever filmed. Puri played a corrupt builder Ahuja in the film and was a hoot as black glasses clad Bheem. He was known as a serious actor till then but gave evidence that he could mould himself for a comic role too.
Director: T.S. Ranga
Cast: Om Puri, Smita Patil, Nana Patekar
The film was a clarion call against the practice of forcing young girls into becoming a Devdasi. In a remote village at Karnataka-Maharashtra border in India, the poor residents follow Devadasi tradition and these girls are exploited by the rich men in the society. Bhashya (Om Puri), a labourer and his wife Hanumi (Smita Patil) lead an attempt at revolting against the practice and the film follows their perilous journey where they face hurdles all the way. Both Om Puri and Smita Patil were praised for their realistic portrayals in the film.
Director: Govind Nihalani
Cast: Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Bharath Gopi
The film throws light on the exploitation of factory workers. It shows how the workers are weighed down by the twin yokes of management and union workers. Labour unions battle with each other and the capitalists take advantage of it. Om Puri delivers a phenomenal performance yet again as an honest and upright union leader whose resolve gets tested when other leaders, utilising unfair practices, try to sway the majority of the workers towards them. South actor Bharat Gopi too acted well in the film, as did Naseeruddin Shah. The film made people aware of the true facts about trade union politics.
Director: Sudhir Mishra
Cast: Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, Madhuri Dixit, Anil Kapoor
Taxidriver Rajkaran (Om Puri), an inhabitant of the Dharavi slum, takes recourse to daydream as an escape from his harsh, mundane life. His frustration takes a toll on his marriage. His wife Kumud (Shabana Azmi) works at a garment factory and takes care of their son. She’s satisfied enough with her life and this only further exacerbates things for Rajkaran. Rajkaran’s happiest moments are when he dreams about a mysterious woman (Madhuri Dixit). His frustration and despair lead him into difficult situations and things suddenly spiral out of control.
In Custody (1993)
Director: Ismail Merchant
Cast: Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, Sushma Seth, Neena Gupta, Tinnu Anand
Deven (Om Puri), is a poorly paid, badly treated professor of Hindi. He loves Urdu poetry. When a friend (Tinnu Anand), the publisher of a journal devoted to Urdu culture, suggests that Deevn should interview Nur Shahjehanabadi (Shashi Kapoor) the man widely regarded as the greatest living Urdu poet. Deven embarks on a journey to interview his idol. He finds Nur living in a crumbling Bhopal haveli with his two wives Sushma Seth and Shabana Azmi, who are at war with each other. The younger one, Shabana, also writes poetry and wishes to be taken seriously as a poetess. The obese Nur is surrounded by sycophants who feed off him. Deven alienates his own wife (Neena Gupta) and kid pursuing his dream. The film is a critique on the dying Urdu culture in India and was Merchant’s debut feature as a director.
Director: Govind Nihalani
Cast: Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Ashish Vidyarthi
DCP Abhay Singh (Om Puri) and DCP Lodhi (Naseeruddin Shah), send in two men as undercover officers to infiltrate terrorist camps. Their identities are known only to them. Commander Bhadra (Ashish Vidyarthi), gets caught and is in police custody but is able to mastermind the running of his operation even from jail. He even coerces Abhay into helping him. Abhay is forced to Shelter two terrorists in his house. Later, both he and Lodhi make the ultimate sacrifice to keep the identities of their informers a secret. It was a gripping political drama toplined by some fabulous performances.