KOLKATA: Om Puri (1950-2017) broke every rule in the book that demands that a career in films makes it mandatory for a man or woman to be handsome/beautiful.

Om was far from handsome because he had a generously pock-marked face, the remains of a severe attack of small pox that killed six of his seven siblings and forced his mother to keep him tied to his bed because he wanted to scratch his scars.

The Ambala home was really poor but this young boy managed to rise above his poverty too and equipped himself with a college degree while also pursuing training in theatre.

He also broke the bastion of being among the smooth-talking, shrewd and attention-seeking actors who acted as well off screen as they did on it. He was an actor only when he faced the camera as a film actor or an audience when he was performing on stage.

Believe me, there is really a chunky slice of audience that waits for a film starring Om Puri. In an era ruled over by smashing heroes from Jeetendra to Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna, through younger actors like Rishi Kapoor, Shahrukh Khan, Salman Khan and Anil Kapoor on to the third generation with Hrithik Roshan and Akshay Kumar, it was not a smooth ride for Om Puri to establish himself.

The Queen bestowed him with OBE, one of the most distinguished titles one can get. By the time he passed away in Mumbai, alone and forlorn in his loneliness, he had journeyed within films for nearly four long decades picking up awards left, right and centre that included several Filmfare Awards including one Lifetime Achievement Award, two National Awards, one BAFTA award, the Padmashri in 1999, and Lifetime Achievement Award International Film Festival of Prayag in 2015.

After graduating from Ambala, he joined the National School of Drama in Delhi where Naseeruddin Shah was his classmate. Shah egged him on to join FTII, Pune after NSD where Shah had taken admission. Puri did take admission but was not at all happy with what was taught there. Besides, he was constantly under pressure for lack of money and had to pass his handkerchief around to pay his fee. Some arrears still remain which Puri laughingly says he did not pay later too because he wished to remember this as his prank.

Director Gurinder Chadha who directed him recently in the English film Viceroy’s House (one of Puri’s last film not released yet), remembers the actor as “an incredible international star who shone in Indian, British and Hollywood films. As one of the most talented and versatile actors of his generation, he showed in his characters how similar we all are – how human and imperfect – and in so doing changed the way we think about race and representation. He put a human face on a label and showed we all want the best for our children and families.”

Interestingly, Puri’s debut was in the Marathi film version of Vijay Tendulkar’s famous play Ghasiram Kotwal in 1976 directed by J. Hariharan and Mani Kaul along with 16 graduates of the FTII. It is a daunting task to pick out the best among the plethora of films he has acted in with that pock-marked face in place, never rectified through extra make-up or rendered correct with cosmetic surgery.

He was among the first choice for the first decade of his career as an actor for any character that suited that pock-marked face with its rich baritone. Yet, he could easily strip himself of that deep baritone when the character did not have a single dialogue to mouth.

Two of these films are Aakrosh (1980) directed by the then-debutant director Govind Nihalani who till then, was cinematographer for Shyam Benegal’s films and Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, where, in a 90-second appearance, he played a father who has just lost his son and is brought to Gandhi who was then on fast.

Satyajit Ray picked him to play the untouchable Dalit in his telefilm Sadgati based on Premchand’s famous story just as naturally as Sudheer Mishra choice him for that wonderful role of an ordinary taxi driver who lives in Dharavi. And where he builds all his dreams around his fantasy created around the star Madhuri Dixit in Dharavi, or, in Mrityudand directed by Prakash Jha where he plays the low-profile, low caste family retinue who finds himself emotionally and physically involved with Ketki, the family’s elder daughter-in-law.

If Gulzar’s Maachis brought out the anger of an undercover leader of a rebel political organization, then Jag Mundra’s Shoot on Sight brought out the evil underpinnings of a fundamentalist Muslim priest who preaches the language of hate and killing mercilessly to his congregation in London.

In Kundan Shah’s cult classic Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983) he portrayed Ahuja, a corrupt builder in the most comic way possible who forgets to take off his dark glasses while performing in an impromptu staging of Draupadi’s vastra-cheeran scene from the Ramayana!

Abbu Miyan, the doddering old watchman of the red chilli factory where all workers are women in Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala can easily be counted among Om Puri’sbest performances ever. But if that be true, then what about the dedicated cop Abhay Singh in Govind Nihalani’s Droh Kaal whose job comes with a death warrant attached as he was to enter the terrorist group and catch the leader disguised as an ‘insider’?

What about the photographer in Shyam Benegal’s Mandi where he slips into the brothel at any hour of the day or night to click dirty pictures of the inmates to sell them at a high price at the bigger bazaar? Instead of evoking hate or disgust, the character triggers laughter and empathy specially when he falls in love with one of the girls and plans to elope with her.

What about Woh Ladki which perhaps did not have a theatrical release in which he portrays the corrupt and diabolically evil politician who hatches a plan to have his illegitimate daughter killed when she threatens to betray him in public?

When he broke through the cliché underdog stereotype, his works are no less as impressive than they were in the off-mainstream films. Examples are just too many to mention. The sly police officer in Dev who is the mastermind behind the killing of his close childhood friend Dev is quite a match for Bachchan who plays Dev.

He would often say, “I try to be as versatile as I can. I believe that all good actors must be conditioned to play all sorts of roles. There are some roles that are closer to your personality than others. The characters that are closer to the real you, are easy to enact. Roles that are far removed from your personality need to be really worked at very hard. I find dialogue-centric roles easier to perform. Roles like the one I did in Aakrosh are both demanding and challenging to live up to. But Ardh Satya was no less a challenging test for the versatility of an actor. You will not find anyone imitating my style of acting because I really do not have a style to speak of. I do not mind others imitating me at all but it is not possible because my characters and films demand completely different portrayals that cannot be boxed with a single actor or his mannerisms.”

In recent times, he has regaled the audience with his performance in films like Malamaal Weekly, Shrimati 420, Miss Tanakpur Haazir Ho, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, OMG - Oh My God, Agneepath, Don 2 – The King is Back, Dabangg, Billu, Singh is King, Aan-Men at Work, Hera Pheri, China Gate and a host of others. The international map is also flush with films featuring the versatile Om Puri. East is East, A Million Rivers, The Hundred-Foot Journey, West is West, Charlie Wilson’s Way, The Parole Officer, The Mystic Masseur among many others which most of us have never seen because they are English-language films not generally popular with an Indian cast in India.

In an interview to this writer on a film that was not released, he lamented that “since the 1990s, very few socially relevant films are being made. We do not have films like Aakrosh or Ardh Satya any more. I played a fundamentalist maulvi in Jagmohan Mundra’s Shoot on Sight. It is loosely based on a real incident and think it has some social relevance. But such films these days are few and far between.”

He was candid about the discriminations in payments senior actors received when compared with those of big stars in the industry yet did not criticize the fact that in a star-ridden industry, veteran actors like himself would never command a remuneration that was more than a fraction from what the big stars earned.

“There are not many roles written for older actors and it gets difficult to get exciting roles today unlike the West. where roles are written for older actors. Films are made on them, including love stories. But that is not the case here. They (filmmakers) take stars. I am not a star... Not commercially at least. I have been a wonderful actor, but not a commercial star. I have never received even Rs one crore for a film, I get Rs 40-50 lakh only, or Rs 15-25 lakh," he said without rancour or anger.

It is sad to reflect that just a few weeks before his sad demise on January 6, Om Puri found himself at the centre of several controversies for his comments on very sensitive issues such as the BJP-Muslim debate, the way to come out of this area of conflict and his comments on the Indian Army.

A similar lack of political sophistication in public space was seen earlier during the release of Om Puri :Unlikely Hero (Lotus-Roli Books, 2009) by his second wife Nandita Puri, a journalist. Om Puri broke down while talking about how the true incidents of his life narrated in the book were what he had told his wife in complete faith. And these were not only used without his permission, but also stood as threats to the women themselves as their real names were used by Nandita.

Initially, he was furious with her for betraying his sexual encounters but later, he broke down in the presence of son Ishaan.

However, filmmaker Chadha might want us to think differently about Puri. Writes Chadha, “Given that we were both from the Punjab and the end of the Raj had a profound impact on our families which is the main backdrop of my film The Viceroy, we shared a passionate belief that we are all brothers and sisters, and in a world driven with the politics of division and hatred, we wanted our film to celebrate tolerance and the triumph of the human race.”