The Irony and Legacy of Om Puri’s Career

Curator's Note

In an interview, Om Puri once said that no other actor can copy him. His 300+ filmography demonstrates this. The only common thread to his acting style, if he had one, was the ability to give more than one dimension to every character he essayed. When you saw Puri in a film, you got the sense that this character had a life outside of the film, an inner life you didn’t know about. This made his acting roles fascinating to watch, but also made him somewhat of a misfit in a cinema where actors build their repertoire on what is called ‘repeat value’ -- the audience knows what to expect from a star before they go to see him. Trained in acting at the National School of Drama and then Film and Television Institute of India, Puri was on a different path. Every actor is as much a product of their times, as they are of their talent. In Puri’s career, we can see the changes that Indian cinema has gone through over the years. His break in films coincided with the New Wave movement of the late 1970s and 1980s. But New Wave did not last long, and he had to look for work in mainstream cinema. Here he developed his comic timing, and ability to bring nuance to any role no matter the duration. When he was studying in the NSD, Puri had a complex about not being able to speak English, because of which he even wanted to quit. In retrospect, this is ironical, considering his career in the West, language never a barrier. It is ironical too that Puri passed away at a time when mainstream Hindi cinema has actually started changing in the way the New Wave wanted. Actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui or Rajkummar Rao, who are similar in their approach to him, now get better roles. In fact, when Puri passed away, Siddiqui said that he became an actor because of him. In my imagination, Puri is both East is East’s rigid George and My Son the Fanatic’s liberal Parvez, two opposite characters, united in his empathetic portrayal of them. In the times that we live in, where we need bridges more than walls, what better legacy is there to leave?

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