The urge to become an actor came when Ambala-born Om Puri was still an adolescent, but his close relatives as well as friends discouraged him, saying that it would be a futile exercise for him.
It was mainly because in his childhood Puri had suffered from smallpox that had left his face pockmarked with deep pits. But, undeterred by these nay-sayers, Puri pushed ahead and attended classes at National School of Drama in Delhi in 1973 where Naseeruddin Shah was his classmate.
In the 1980s and early 90s Puri was mostly seen in art movies directed by Govind Nihalani and Shyam Benegal. Other stars who were then often seen with him in such films were Amrish Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, and Smita Patil. These films brilliantly showcased Puri’s huge talent and versatility.
Here are some films in which his performance made people sit up and take note of his greatness as an actor. One of his early films in which he proved himself an accomplished actor was Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh (1980).
In the role of Lahanya Bhiku, a young Adivasi farmer who has been falsely accused of killing his own wife (Smita Patil), Puri’s performance left a deep and lasting impression on the cinegoers’ minds. Throughout the film Lahanya Bhiku hardly ever speaks, and it is only his face that expresses the depth of his agony and acute suffering.
He knows that he is the victim of an unjust and unfeeling system under which the wicked and the crooked thrive while the poor and innocent people like him suffer endlessly.
Aakrosh was a landmark film in the life of Puri as an actor. The film won many Filmfare awards. Puri won the National Film Award for Best Actor. Aakrosh also won many Filmfare Awards.
The short film Sadgati (1981), based on a short-story by Munshi Premchand, and was directed by Satyajit Ray for Doordarshan. Puri in the role of a dalit named Dukhi gave a tear-jerking performance in it.
Abysmally poor, Dukhi is treated like dirt by upper caste Hindus of his village. He wants to marry off his daughter who is still underage, and therefore goes to the village pundit to request him to come to his house to perform a pooja and name the auspicious day on which the marriage ceremony should take place.
The well-fed but arrogant-looking village pundit (Mohan Agashe) says he has no time to visit the home of a dalit. But when with folded hands Dukhi repeatedly implores the pundit for this favour, the latter agrees somewhat reluctantly.
But he extracts a price for this favour by callously asking Dukhi to first perform some menial household tasks for him. One of these tasks is to chop into small pieces a huge knotty log of wood.
Dukhi had left home in the morning without eating anything. On an empty stomach, he starts striking the log with an axe but without any effect. The log is as hard as granite.
A flurry axe strokes drains out all the energy of the starving Duki. But he persists in his task. And as he goes on repeatedly striking the log with his axe, he suddenly collapses on the ground and dies. Puri shall be long remembered for his heart-rending tragic role in this film.
In Ardh Satya (1983), directed by Govind Nihalani, Puri was seen as a conscientious police inspector who is up against a corrupt system under which the nexus between politicians, cops, and a mafia don is thriving unchecked. As an honest police officer, Puri fights against this corrupt system almost single-handedly.
The mafia don Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar) is used to treating police officers of his area as his personal retainers, so he takes it for granted that Puri, the new police officer of his area, would also be subservient to him.
But soon this mafia don learns that this police officer is no pushover. Puri gave such a power-packed performance in Ardha Satya that he won the National Award for Best Actor for it. The film also won many Filmfare Awards.
Shyam Benegal-directed Arohan was another important film in which Puri gave an unforgettable performance. It is the story of a poor village farmer named Hari Mondal who, along with his family, lives in a remote Bengal village.
How the callous-hearted village landlord exploits Hari Mondal and destroys his family life by depriving him of his legitimate rights as a farmer is the main thread of the entire storyline.
In this film too Puri touched the viewers’ hearts with his outstanding performance. He again won the National Award for Best Actor for this film. Arohan, a landmark film of the early 1980s, won many other awards.
In the 1990s, Puri’s versatility as an actor was manifest in many films. So far people had seen Puri mostly in tragic roles. But now they were to see another facet of his unique personality as an actor, and that was his huge talent for enacting comic roles.
In Jane Bhi Do Yaaron, Chachi 420, Hera Pheri, Weekly, O My God, Singh Is Kinng, Mere Baap Pehle Aap and many other films, Puri was at his hilarious best.
Puri’s mettle as a great actor was recognised even by foreign filmmakers. He was seen in many British and Hollywood films for which he was acclaimed by film critics.
Notable among these are his British films, My Son The Fanatic(1997), East Is East(1999), and The Parole Officer. His Hollywood films are, City Of Joy, Wolf, and The Ghost and The Darkness. In 2007 Puri appeared as General Zia-ul-Haq in Charlie Wilson’s War.
Puri’s repertoire is indeed large. He has worked not only in Hindi, English films but also Punjabi films. His role in the Kannada film A K 47 (1999) earned him rave views. It was a big commercial hit. Puri used his own voice for the Kannada dialogues in this film.
Apart from films, he acted in some TV serials which are remembered even today. He was simply a laugh-riot in the TV serial entitled Kaakka Kaheen (1988), in which he was seen as a paan-chewing Bihari. In the serial Tamas (1988) based on a novel by Bhisham Sahni and directed by Govind Nihalani, Puri was again at his best in a tragic role.
In this serial he appears, like millions of others, as a victim in the dark days of the Partition riots that engulfed the whole of Punjab in 1947. At the time of his death on 6 January 2017, Puri was working in a Marathi film.