Unlikely Hero: Om Puri
Nandita C. Puri
Publisher: Lotus/Roli, Rs 395, Pages 208
Did you know that Om Puri was enamoured of an older aunt and a house help? Or that he was turned out of his uncle’s home as a teenager for “reaching out and caressing his aunt’s exposed tummy’? Or that he was molested as a child by “an elderly pundit with a white moustache”? Did you know he didn’t know how to reverse his first car for months? Or that he still pronounces October as ‘Ak-too-ber’? Or that he snores the house down? And that when friends visited the Puri home and discussed their pet dog, Jackie, some mistook the mongrel for “Jackie Shroff, the actor”?
If you are interested in such minutiae, pick up this biography of one of India’s finest actors. But if you are looking for even bare insights into how Puri became the performer he is and some of his sterling works with leading filmmakers — Shyam Benegal, his mentor, Govind Nihalani and Satyajit Ray, among others — don’t even bother.
Puri’s life is an uplifting story of a man who beat poverty and other odds to become India’s first truly successful crossover actor, doing films with stars such as Jack Nicholson and Tom Hanks. His roles in Govind Nihalani's Aakrosh as a mute tribal falsely accused of murder or a policeman in Ardh Satya beaten back by the system remain among the finest performances on Indian screen.
But sadly Puri gets little justice from his biographer who’s also his wife. If the aim was to write a warts and all biography, this is a catastrophe. Especially grating is a much-publicised chapter on Puri’s love life facetiously called ‘That’s Amore’. Here she writes about two women, among others, whom Puri had relationships with: an elderly aunt, “dark, greying, with a toothless grin, always dressed in half-torn salwars”; and a stinking house help with a “dark and voluptuous matronly appearance”.
Patronising in tone, this biography is an example of how anything should not be written. Treating Puri as a country bumpkin who never really grew up despite his undeniable talents, the author’s condescension peaks when she writes about the time the couple chat about things. “Om listens to me mesmerised as I talk about varied topics from scientific theories to Beethoven and I have realised over the years that he is a quick learner,” she writes. Breathtaking.
If that was not enough, she says she remembered Puri as a “horrific, pock-face” in a film she’d seen when she was asked by her editor to interview him — their first meeting.
Unlikely Hero reduces Puri’s life to a series of shallow vignettes of his growing up years and work, peppered with vulgar tittle tattle. The only redeeming features are some interesting early pictures of the actor, but even those are sometimes debased with captions like, “Ever the paramour of at least two women at a time, Om Puri strikes a mischievous pose”. There’s a nice essay by Naseerudin Shah who says that movies would have found Puri even if he had still been working with State Bank of Patiala. Apart from such minor digressions, the book is a literary burlesque, and does sheer injustice to a great actor.