A Glance through the long list of Om Puri’s films and TV works is enough to tell us about his remarkable journey and broad range. He was one of the pillars of the new wave, and also one of the initial actors of that stream to work for mainstream Bombay cinema. He played all kinds of characters on screen and on television. In his oeuvre, we find films of many Indian languages, and there are Pakistani, British and American films too, also one in French.
The serious police officer of Ardh Satya can play the menacing villain of Narsimha and the comic Ahuja of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron with ease. Some of the best works of Indian Television, Bharat Ek Khoj, Tamas, Kakkaji Kahin etc. have his footprints. His talent was duly rewarded in the forms of many national and international awards as well as with enduring respects of audience. Om Puri’s deep voice accompanied by the intensity of his acting left a lasting impact. His distinct tone has been employed in numerous commentaries and voice-overs.
It is often discussed that what would have happened of the new wave Indian cinema without him and Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Amrish Puri, Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Recently, responding to a statement of Shah saying that he has learnt a lot from Om Puri, this veteran actor remarked with a certain grace that Shah has a large heart. He never shied away from the fact that want of money forced him to do commercial cinema. However, one cannot deny that he made mainstream cinema a bit richer with his immense and varied talent.
All his directors and co-actors have testified that Puri was a natural actor and could play any role without effort. His teachers at National School of Drama and Film and Television Institute of India must be proud of his accomplishments. As we know, the new wave was a result of the collective passion of its participants. Om Puri always extended his support and skill to advance this cinematic movement. He used to say that his best roles paid peanuts. Filmmaker and writer Rani Day Burra has written about the early years of Om Puri and others in this tradition when they used to live together at Burra’s house in Ganga Vihar near Marine Drive, Mumbai. That commune is a testimony of the creative camaraderie of the FTII graduates of 1970s who shaped and altered the course of Indian cinema. Om Puri prominently features in this.
In recent years, his health issues and domestic problems impacted his creative engagements negatively, but he continued to work. His passionate takes on contemporary issues often landed him in controversies, but he kept on.
A small town boy without a ‘look’ made it big. He will continue to inspire generations of actors and others to achieve big with determination and dedication. But, in his life and death, there is another important lesson to learn.
Reacting to his death, filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt has remarked: ‘Things had gotten a little dark as he entered the autumn years. He lost control of his personal life and that’s when they say that he gravitated into the quagmire.‘ His artful skill and mastery was somehow distorted by his emotional problems. That led him to heavy drinking and nasty acts. While cherishing his life and work, we must promise that we will never ignore such things in ourselves and in others. Let us listen to his intense recitation of Dilip Chitre’s poem ‘Ardh Satya’.