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A tribute to Om Puri at this year’s Habitat Film Festival

The Habitat Film Festival in Delhi (May 19-28, 2017), which celebrates Indian cinema, honours the legendary actor Om Puri with a retrospective of his finest films.

art and culture Updated: May 20, 2017 08:05 IST
Paramita Ghosh
A still from Satyajit Ray’s 1981 film, Sadgati, starring Om Puri (R) and Smita Patil (L).
A still from Satyajit Ray’s 1981 film, Sadgati, starring Om Puri (R) and Smita Patil (L). (Habitat Film Festival)

Why watch somebody else’s favourite films? The Om Puri retrospective, part of the Habitat Film Festival of some of the finest pan-Indian cinema, however, does a neat cherry-pick of seven of the actor’s movies: those from his early days through his breakthrough films to international fame and respectability.

Om Puri (1950-2017), his directors say, was first and foremost, about ‘The Face’. It was his face — rather his intensity of gaze — through which the outrage of an ordinary man, at first breaking, then rebelling against the system, was first expressed on screen in the ’80s.

Puri, the son of an army subaltern, knew about lack, dead-ends and about feeling beaten. He marshalled these experiences in film after film, seven of which will be shown in the retrospective. These include director Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980) Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati (1981) and Shyam Benegal’s Arohan (1982). “He had to literally pull himself up from his bootstraps, pay for his own school, theatre scholarships, and he knew what that does to a man,” says director ShyamBenegal who directed several of his films. But there were other shades to Puri’s craft.

Puri was a consummate theatre artist and he brought a theatre actor’s temperament to the sets, says Benegal. Naseeruddin Shah, the actor with whom Puri has been most compared, was “meditative”, he says. Though both were rigorously trained in theatre, both of them had different ways of working to a part. One wishes that a film with the two of them could have been part of the retrospective. There are several — Bhavni Bhavai, Jaane bhi do Yaaron, Maqbool — to choose from.

“Naseer preferred not to be disturbed while preparing for his role. Om practised with everyone around. He even lugged cameras and reflectors for one of my film, Susman, all over Paris.... I often had to tell him ‘just concentrate on your acting, we have people to take care of such things,’” recalls Benegal with a laugh.

A still from East is East, a 1999 comedy in which Om Puri (R) plays a Pakistani patriarch raising a rebellious brood with his English wife, Linda Bassett (L). This role introduced Puri to an international audience. (Courtesy: Alamy Stock Photos)

Puri was awarded his second National Film Award for Best Actor for Benegal’s film Arohan; the first one was for Nihalani’s Aakrosh. In both films, Om Puri depicted the struggles of the Indian farmer; the latter shows the peasantry’s initial encounter with the city. “These films caught people’s eye and he began to be regarded as a front-ranking actor,” says Benegal. “The door opened for him to do other things. He didn’t have to be just a character actor.” A shocker: the year Arohan released to wide acclaim, Puri was also playing a two-bit role as Mithun Chakraborty’s (Jimmy) manager in Disco Dancer.

Puri acted in many of Nihalani’s films. He had, after all, been the lead actor in Nihalani’s debut film, Aakrosh, and his critically acclaimed telefilm on Partition, Tamas, based on the eponymous Hindi novel by Bhisham Sahni. The retrospective, in fact, opens on May 19 with Tamas.

A poster of Nihalani’s acclaimed 1988 TV series. (Courtesy: Habitat Film Festival)

Ardh Satya, also a retrospective feature, is one of the finest of their collaborations.Nihalani, who will be paying a tribute to the actor’s legacy at the festival, says Puri’s presence was such that his fellow actors sometimes filled in gaps of direction by reacting to his intensity.

Nihalani recalls one such instance when they were shooting the penultimate scene of Ardh Satya, which he says he did not know how to end. Puri, playing a righteous cop who falters and turns violent, comes to Smita Patil, his girlfriend in the movie, to confess, and she tells him the relationship is over.

“I don’t know what was going on in his mind,” says Nihalani. “But the way Om took off as he started speaking his lines, his face expressing his love, and his sense of impotency, Smita involuntarily reached out to touch his hand. But stopped short. That gesture was not written for the scene. But I kept it in the film….Om was a very intense person. And one felt that aspect of his in your own skin if you were sitting 10 feet away. Smita was reacting to that. She was deeply affected.”

A still from Nihalani’s Ardh Satya in which Puri plays a righteous cop who falters. The now landmark film won Puri a National Film Award for acting.

It was in the ’80s that Puri entered international cinema with an outstanding cameo in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. But it was East is East, a multicultural comedy of manners set in England, that made him a known face among global audiences. This film — where Puri does a fine job of playing a tragi-comic Pakistani patriarch raising a rebellious brood with his English wife — is a festival must-watch.

“To my mind, Puri’s ‘method’ was his contemplative self and naturalness. He could invoke any rasa (mood) be it hasya (comic), roudra (anger) or karuna (empathy). In a much deeper sense, he was like Chaplin,” says film historian Amrit Gangar.

You will find further details on the retrospective as well as the festival’s schedule here.

What: 12th Habitat Film Festival

When: May 19 to May 28, 2017

Where: Multiple venues, India Habitat Centre, Lodhi Road

Nearest metro station: JLN Stadium

Tickets: Entry is free on a first-come-first-serve-basis