Om Puri, one of India’s most celebrated actors, was found dead at his Mumbai home last week, apparently of natural causes. The 66-year-old Puri leaves behind an enduring legacy, having starred in some of Indian cinema’s most remarkable films. In his prime, Puri was among the principal actors associated with Parallel Cinema, a film movement in India that was beginning to reach a mass audience just as he embarked on his acting career. News of his death has evoked feelings of genuine sadness in India and across the world. It has also produced a certain nostalgia among those who miss the old days of Indian cinema, when some of the country’s most talented directors and actors worked together to create films of subtle beauty and sharp political resonance.
Puri was born into a working class family in Ambala in 1950. His father, a railroad employee, often struggled to make ends meet. At the age of 6, Puri started working at his uncle’s tea stall to earn some additional income. At one point he was afflicted with smallpox, the disease responsible for the distinctive scars on his face. Puri went on to study theatre acting at the National School of Drama, where he struck up a friendship with fellow actor Naseeruddin Shah. The two would eventually co-star in several films together. After graduating in 1973, Puri went to study at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, where he had a difficult time paying his tuition fees and even had to borrow a shirt from Shah to keep up appearances.
By the time Puri made his debut in 1976, Indian cinema was already moving in an interesting direction. Parallel Cinema had been around for some time, and filmmakers such as Satyajit Rai had achieved international fame. However, a notable shift took place beginning in the late 1960s, as films associated with the movement took on an overtly political character. Indeed, this was a period of heightened class conflict across the globe. In India, the working class was becoming more assertive, and strikes would regularly bring economic activity to a halt. Various leftist parties and organizations sprang up and gained an influence over the workers and poor farmers. This was the situation that lead Indira Gandhi to cynically and opportunistically adopt the language of socialism.
Against this backdrop, a new generation of filmmakers began to grapple with the major social and political issues of the day. Filmmakers such as Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Govind Nihalani and others sought to expose the ugly realities of Indian society. They were joined by like-minded actors such as Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi. Issues such as class exploitation, caste and gender oppression, communalism and religious bigotry were addressed directly and honestly. Bourgeois morality and conventions were challenged in creative and thought-provoking ways.
Om Puri quickly made a name for himself by accepting minor roles in important films. No role was too small for Puri, as long as he believed in the project. He made appearances in Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika (1977) and Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan (1978).
Puri’s breakthrough role came in 1980, when Govind Nihalani, having been impressed by Puri’s performance in Bhumika, chose him for the lead role in his upcoming film, Aakrosh (1980). The film paints a searing portrait of rural India, where the poor are at mercy of cruel and unscrupulous landlords. Om Puri stars as Bhiku Lahanya, who is falsely charged with murdering his wife after she is raped and killed by his landlord’s son. Bhiku is so traumatized by the incident that he is unable to speak, even to his court-appointed lawyer, played by Naseeruddin Shah. Despite remaining silent throughout virtually the entire film, Puri shines in the role, conveying a range of emotions using only his eyes, facial expressions and body language.
In 1981, Puri starred in Satyajit Rai’s masterful made-for-TV film Sadgati. He plays the role of a Dalit who is literally worked to death, over the course of a day, by a cold-hearted Brahmin priest. Puri is as convincing as ever, effectively portraying a forlorn and helpless man, incapable of escaping his miserable fate.
In 1983, Puri starred in Benegal’s Arohan, earning him his first National Film Award for Best Actor. In the opening scene, Puri speaks as himself, describing the plight of poor farmers in rural India and the necessity of organizing against the exploiters and oppressors. The following year, Puri reunited with Govind Nihalani, starring in the film Ardh Satya. Puri is brilliant as an idealistic police officer who eventually succumbs to demoralization and despair due to forces beyond his control.
Parallel Cinema was in decline by the mid 1980s, and Puri’s roles became less and less interesting. The collapse of the Soviet Union also had a devastating impact on the creative arts internationally. Much of the left was in retreat. This no doubt had an impact on filmmakers of the time, and films of substance were few and far between. The class struggle was over, we were told; to be replaced by the “clash of civilizations.”
During the 1990s, Puri demonstrated his crossover appeal by starring in Hollywood and British films. In 1992, Puri starred in Roland Joffe’s City of Joy, with his moving performance single-handedly preventing the sloppy and culturally insensitive film from being a total disaster.
One of Puri’s last noteworthy roles was in the 1997 film, My Son the Fanatic, directed by Udayan Prasad. Puri effortlessly plays the role of an ordinary Muslim father whose son comes under the toxic influence of Islamic fundamentalism.
While films he starred in were politically charged, Puri was not much of an activist in his personal life. Nevertheless, he did speak out on certain issues from time to time, most notably on the topic of India’s relations with Pakistan. Puri’s denunciations of nationalism and jingoism earned him the hatred of right-wing forces in India, some of whom shamelessly celebrated the death of a national treasure.
The old days of Parallel Cinema may seem like a distant memory, but the social conditions that gave birth to the movement have returned with a vengeance. The working class can and will begin to defend its interests; it has no choice. The social movements of the future will hopefully motivate a new generation of filmmakers and actors to make politically conscious films. And among their sources of inspiration will be the films of Om Puri.
Ali Mohsin is a freelance writer and activist based in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.