Om Puri’s resonant baritone has been burnished by the smoke of a million cigarettes. His speech patterns are those of a college-educated artist-intellectual. ”People say to me that they are amazed at the mixture I have in my career,“ says the craggy 50-year-old character actor, savoring the breeze from the beach at an outdoor hotel table in Santa Monica. ”I do Indian art films, and I do films abroad, and I also do Indian commercial films.“
Although he still lives with his family in Mumbai (Bombay), Puri has lately become an emblem of the global Indian diaspora, in British pictures like Udayan Prasad‘s My Son the Fanatic and in the Canadian production Such a Long Journey. And he has already won praise in the United Kingdom for his ferocious star turn as the repressive Pakistani owner of a Salford fish-and-chips shop in Damien O’Donnell‘s East Is East, which opens here this week. You get the impression that Puri would feel poised and comfortable just about anywhere on Earth.
In the 1970s, Puri was a serious-minded young drama student in Delhi, a devotee of socially committed theater who tended to dismiss all movies as corrupt. But because he wanted to make his living as an actor, without a day job, he found himself ”drifting“ (his word) toward the burgeoning Indian art-film scene. By the mid-’80s he had become an icon of the New Indian Cinema, working nonstop in pictures by Mani Kaul, Shyam Benegal and Ketan Mehta. Because these art pictures were the only Indian movies widely distributed abroad, Puri‘s work actually attracted more attention in the West than at home. With key supporting roles in Gandhi (1982) and The Jewel in the Crown (1983), he joined the select company of Indian actors working regularly in international films.
Success in the world of Indian commercial cinema (”Bollywood“) came to him almost by accident. Puri played an idealistic cop battling corruption in Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (Half Truth, 1983), and the violent social-protest film became a fluke hit — without a single song-and-dance number. Rather than parlay his new celebrity into the hero persona of a tough crime fighter (”I had no desire to become a cult“), Puri pursued the more interesting career path of the chameleon character actor, becoming revered for his versatility. He estimates that 30 percent of his work now is in splashy Bollywood films, lip-synching to playback songs.
Puri brings the same powerful instrument to all his roles: the gorgeous, rumbly voice, the powerful physical presence. As often as not, though, he acts against his imposing image, leaving his raw power to simmer beneath the surface — as the gentle scholar in Ismail Merchant‘s In Custody, or as a happily assimilated London cabdriver, in My Son the Fanatic, who locks horns with his grown son, a rigid Muslim fundamentalist. In East Is East, the balance is practically reversed: Puri’s George Khan is a traditionalist father riding herd on his uppity Westernized offspring with an impenetrable, irrational stubbornness that is by turns comical and terrifying.
Puri‘s seemingly limitless flexibility as an actor has deep roots; he manages to find (or to create) something recognizably human even in the most outwardly monstrous characters. In George Khan he finds a kernel of fear, the anxiety of the besieged outsider. ”Some people who are financially and socially insecure are afraid to move away from traditions,“ says Puri. ”They cling to whatever is left that is familiar. He is not a big mind, George. He has a tiny little mind. He knows he cannot argue with his children — they are much too bright for him. He gets scared and feels that the only way he can control them is by force.“ In the end, Puri says, after his children have summoned the courage to stand up for themselves, George is beginning a new chapter in his life. ”He will not change overnight. That would be too much to expect. But there will be a certain amount of growth. From now on he will be a gentler, quieter man.“