Sunday, November 08, 2009

The full truth


When Om Puri acted as a policeman in ‘Ardh Satya’, it was the biggest turning point in his life

Photo: Om Puri with the Order of the British Empire that he received in 2004

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a windy moonlit night on the beach at Kovalam, actor Om Puri is dressed casually in a bright orange T-shirt and khaki Bermuda shorts. He has come to attend a literary festival where his wife Nandita read extracts from an upcoming biography of him.

Om is at ease, as guests mill around him, as he talks about his mentor, the director Shyam Benegal. “Have you seen Shyam’s ‘Welcome to Sajjanpur?’” he says. “It is such a wonderful comedy.” Seeing his down-to-earth manner it is difficult to believe that he is, as veteran American film critic Michael Sragow says, ‘the greatest living actor today.’

A day later, at poolside of the Taj Green Cove, smoking a Benson and Hedges cigarette with relish, Om talks at length about his life.

In the early seventies, at the Khalsa College, in Patiala, Om was acting in a Punjabi play called ‘Anhonee’. He played the role of a poor girl’s father. The landlord was trying to seduce her. Eventually, she was killed and Om has a fight with the landlord. “It was very dramatic,” he says. “I tore open my shirt.”

The judges were a couple from the National School of Drama (NSD): Harpal and Nina Tiwana. “They gave me the best actor award,” says Om. The Tiwanas invited him to join their troupe, the Punjab Kala Manch. But he did not have any free time. During the day he worked as a lab assistant in the college, while he attended classes in the evening. Harpal said, “How much do you get paid for your job?”

When Om replied that his salary was Rs 125, Harpal said he would give Rs 150. Om joined at once. “Acting was my passion, so I had no problem in saying yes,” he says.

Om remained with the troupe for three years, acting in plays all over Punjab. Thereafter, following a stint at the NSD at Delhi, he wanted to join the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune, but he had no money to pay the fees.

During this time he was acting in ‘Hamlet’ in Delhi. A junior student from the NSD, Neelam Man Singh, came to see the play along with her boyfriend, Jugnu, who was an industrialist. When Jugnu expressed admiration for Om’s talent, Neelam told him that the actor wanted to join the FTII, but had no money. Jugnu agreed to sponsor Om at Rs 300 a month.

Om managed to get into the FTII in 1974. After a month he wrote a letter to Jugnu, but no money was forthcoming. Om was in a fix. He did not have the financial resources to pay the course fees, as well as the hostel and canteen bills.

For one year he did not pay anything. Then the director of the FTII, Girish Karnad, who had heard of Om’s financial problems, offered him a role in a children’s film, ‘Chor Chor Chup Jha’, which was directed by B.V. Karanth.

Om accepted and was paid Rs 3000 for his role. With this he cleared off his debts.

Following the conclusion of the course, Om moved to Mumbai in 1976 and played bit roles, before Govind Nihalini cast him in ‘Aakrosh’ in 1981. Then came Satyajit Ray’s ‘Sadgati’, before he got the role of Sub-Inspector Anant Velankar in ‘Ardh Satya’ in 1983.

“It was the biggest turning point in my life,” he says. “When I read the script by [Marathi playwright] Vijay Tendulkar, I said, ‘Wow’. I could totally identify with the character. This is the story of not only a police officer, but of anybody who works in a government institution. The political interference, the pervasive corruption, and the way it damages the soul.”

When the film was released it was a hit. “I came into the national limelight in full force,” he says. “The film industry took immediate notice.” Several movies followed.

Om’s next big break came when he was cast as Hasari Pal, the rickshaw-puller in the Roland Joffe film, ‘City of Joy’ in 1990. Following the release, he received worldwide critical acclaim.

“It opened a big window of opportunity for me in the West,” he says. He acted in several Western films, including ‘My Son the Fanatic’, ‘East is East,’ and ‘Wolf’.

Om has won numerous awards, like the Padma Shree, the Karlovy Vary award from Czeckoslovakia, and the Order of the British Empire, which he received from Queen Elizabeth in 2004. His filmography runs to over 200 films.

Asked to explain his philosophy of life he says, “The other day a dear friend of mine passed away. As I stared at his body, a thought came to me: ‘He has two hands, two eyes, two legs, a nose, a brain, and hair. He has everything, and yet something was missing. Why is he not moving? Why is he not talking?”

Om becomes silent and stares into the distance. Then he finally says, “The spirit is missing. What is life? It is so fragile. We are at the mercy of a power in the universe. So let us stop boasting, and become humble.”

(The New Indian Express, Kochi)

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