Films | Artist Interviews | OM PURI – India’s Finest Actor

OM PURI – India’s Finest Actor

Posted by barkha on September 15, 2011 | No Comments

The best person in their craft does not need time to establish their identity and prowess. One moment is good enough. A single appearance by Om Puri convinces the audience of the class of this actor. And it is not about the banner, the build up, the dialogues, and all the external factors, it is about the most basic factor, the skill in the actor. He will get your attention doing a street play in a crowded junction and he is not an attention seeker, he is merely going about “his training.”

He has trained to be an actor, he has perfected his training to become the best of the best. Here is catching up with the legend:

What inspired you to act in KHAP?
The subject matter. Honor killings are a big issue. Recently the Supreme Court has instituted capital punishment, for those indulging in Honor killings and even instituting it. But the issue of the Khap panchayat and honor killings continue and really have no place in the 21st century. So anytime an important subject such as this is presented to me, it does excite me, as a performer. There was also this filmmaker, Ajai Sinha, who had sold one of his apartments, an office and put his personal money on the line because he wanted to make this film. The script and the topic, even more than the length of my role inspire me most. In fact if it is a script narration on a current topic, generally by the first para of a narration, I am pretty sure I figure out the topic and ask the filmmaker to save the narration since I am on board because of the topic.

What makes you one of India’s finest actor?
Like any other skill, a lot of training has gone into it. I come from a small town in Punjab and I have been trained at the National School of Drama, one of the finest institutions of acting. Then also put in time in the FTII, when they used to have an acting program. Naseer was my batchmate in both instances. There was also the struggle. I got my first big break in Aakrosh, at the age of 31. But it was my training that helped me in that film, to get noticed. Filmmakers such as Ray and Sen immediately noticed me and from there it took off. The first house that I built from the savings, was for my brother. I was only able to buy my first apartment in Mumbai in 1984. So the drive to be good at my craft was not immediately driven by money, but more a desire to become good at what I do. In fact for some of my finest performances in movies like Ardh Satya, Sparsh, Aakrosh, etc I have been paid sums like Rs 500, Rs 25000, etc, because the budget for these films were minimal. Also the hard work. In one of the films, Aakrosh, I had to play a tribal and since I am naturally fair skinned, to get into the character I stood in the sun for 15 days, to get a natural tan.

How do you balance between doing commercial Bollywood and smaller, arthouse films?
As long as I can, I will always do some films each year, where I believe in them. Money will not be the consideration. Then to balance out life, I have enough Bollywood folks offering me good roles, so I will continue doing those too. In fact even in Bollywood films, the work or roles that I get to enact are very satisfying as an actor, in me and it is not about the length.

You have acted in Indian, US and British cinema. Share your experience with our readers.
And I have enjoyed all. Again it is not the length of the role. In Wolfe I had just one scene, but it was with Jack Nicholson and I did all the talking. When we were promoting City of Joy in Australia, the late Patrick Swayze remarked to the audience that “If Om Puri does not get an Academy nomination for this role, I am going to kill someone.” That was so gratifying. The British Government has awarded me the OBE, when I am not even a British citizen or resident and have a mere 5 year history of work to show for that. To do a Charlie Wilson’s War and play the part of Zia Ul Haq, what more can an actor ask for. In fact I was joking with the director that the next time around he should make a full biopic on Zia and cast me.

Staying with British Cinema, how did a Mumbai based Punjabi, play the North British Asian, as Jimmy Mistry’s dad, to such perfection in East is East?
There is a very distinct difference between how English is spoken in London and in North England. So when we were to film in the North, they had an accent coach for all the British actors but none for me, since the director felt that my character should have limited knowledge of English. The human in me reasoned, “Om Puri you are a Pakistani immigrant who has built a life and business in the UK driving a cab, as in my character in the film, so obviously you should be able to speak some tuti phuti English and who did you learn that from….Ah from my British wife in the film.” So I spent the next day asking the actress who would play my wife to speak to me as she would to her husband. We Indians are very practical people. I took down what and how she spoke to me and give it a “Pakistani North British” tone and that formed my accent and words as George Khan in East is East.

Is there a director in Om Puri?
Directing actors is not a problem. Directing a camera I don’t know fully. I am learning, but not quite there as yet. Some days I am attracted to that but then there is enough work coming as an actor and as long as the body can hold up I will stick to acting, but yes, directing does fascinate me. I am 62 now and I will continue to learn more about camera angles!

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