Om Puri - Actor, Ambassador and propogator of Humility & Charity
Text By Ashanti OMkar
Photos by Akin Falope
Veteran actor, Om Puri, comes to us with his latest offering, Piyush Jha’s Bi-lingual, 'King of Bollywood' (featuring British Supermodel Sophie Dhal and distributed by Velocity Entertainments), a spoof on typical Bollywood movies, all culminated into one hilariously comedic 'Bollymentary’. With over 130 films to his credit, from art style movies, to TV series to major commercial blockbusters, mostly on the Bollywood side, Om has been also in some classic English movies, like Ghandhi and East is East, which have got him an enormous amount of critical acclaim, all over the world, making him one of the most recognisable Asian faces around.
This jewel, an ambassador for Indian acting all over the world, had humble beginnings, born on the 18th October 1950, in Ambala, Punjab, in a village and brought up in Patiala, where the rural milieu was part and parcel of his life, Om went to college, studying a BA in Political Science and utilising his talents in college plays, teaming up with a couple who owned a theatre group, honing his immense skills in plays of social relevance. “Although an Indian Citizen he was created and invested, Officer of the Order of the British Empire, OBE (Honorary) in 2004 for services to The British Film Industry.” (Source, IMDB).
The OBE was indeed a real honour for this modest actor, who is a realist to the core, hard working and very much a family man. He reveals fondly, about his wife Nadita and 7-year-old son, Ehsaan: “I have 1 wife (laughs) and my son, who mean the world to me. My wife is a journalist and writer, who has a book of 9 short stories in English, coming out shortly and my son, who has joined me on most of my film shoots, up until recently, as he has started schooling full time – both of them give me full support and love, not to mention I give them as much of my time as possible, especially my son, who I feel must be exposed to everything possible, so he can make the required choices in life, as he sees fit.”
About his longevity on movies and motivation, he says: “I am not from a rich background and when I first arrived in Bombay, with no illusions whatsoever of being a hero – I mean look at me; I faced real struggle, hence I have a real need to balance the commercial aspect of movies for the money with the art house, which I simply love doing, where my 1st decent break came in the form of ‘Arohan’ in 1981m which bagged me a National Award that year. In 1983, when Aadhi Satya came out, it turned out to be an offbeat box office hit, bringing me another National award – this is what gave me the ultimate confidence to carry on – I felt extremely encouraged and although I am not a greedy person, I never take on too much at a time, I also need to feed my family, so I take on roles in commercial films, and as I am not planning to retire in the near future (why should I, as I get older, a whole new genre of roles come to me), I keep a level head on my choices of movies, like ‘King Of Bollywood’, where I play KK (Karan Kumar), an aging, over-the-top film star, who simply won’t give up (even though his films have been flopping for years, but he continues to have a barrage of Asian female fans around the world) and continues to act with young heroines – it is simply a satire, a comedy that encapsulates the spirit of Bollywood in it’s cheesy entirety, giving a glimpse of what really happens behind the scenes, a story that all those in the cinema world will surely relate to.”
Continuing on the ‘King of Bollywood’, Om Ji tells us: “Sophie Dhal has a substantial role in the movie, where she is a documentary maker, who has Indian roots (through her Grandmother’s husband, who was Indian), she has grown up watching KK’s movies and alongside her ‘un-seen’ camera man (Jonathan), captures the full and hilarious going’s on in KK’s life, finding love with his son and ending up in the dysfunctional world of Bollywood. Meera Syal plays very comical cameo role in this film and what I can say is that the film was great fun to film, where I had numerous costume changes and it was a role that I relished playing. ”Opening ‘King of Bollywood’, at the ‘Bite the Mango’ film festival was also an absolute privilege, the experience I thoroughly enjoyed to the core.”
One of his next ventures, in his words: “an yet unnamed Punjabi film, shot in Vancouver, which features the wonderful Bhangra superstar ‘Gurdas Maan’, the young actress Gulpan and Gulshan Grover in an unusual, un-villainous role.” He also expresses his views on his choices between Bollywood and Hollywood, being one of the few Indian actors to cross both East and West successfully: “I won’t say that I have never done bad films, because I have and it is to do with the money aspect, but as long as the story is good, both Bollywood and Hollywood have appeal to me. Venturing into mainstream cinema with films like ‘Parole officer’ and doing art movies like ‘Brothers in trouble’ and ‘City of Joy’ to working with Ismail Merchant on ‘Mystic Masseur’ – I have had really good characters to play. Having worked with Indian greats, like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen have given me scope to play a variety of characters in both worlds, so I would say that depending on the characters and the financial aspects, I can’t make a distinction on my preferences, as I have and continue to enjoy both.”
On the current state of affairs in the Bollywood film and music industry, Om Ji has some very strong opinions, which he articulates: “It is a period of introspection in Bollywood, right now. With lots of films flopping and the realisation that big star does not necessarily equal big money, in terms of returns of investment. The industry is churning out over 1000 films a year, most of which are love stories with no substance, which have the same theme, told over and over again, in the same fashion – very little is new, things are rarely fresh anymore and although technically, Bollywood has advanced in many ways, the substance is still lagging behind. With the event of the Internet and availability of International media, the audiences are asking for more, they are fed up of repetitive films, no matter how glossy the advertising is. The younger generation of directors are realising this, but have to work extremely hard to raise the bar, so that we can really compete on an international level, where the films will make a real impact on world cinema. I had a part in Mani Ratnam’s ‘Yuva’, an excellent idea, but the loss in returns, in my opinion was the huge star cast, instead on banking on his excellent storytelling skills and using a fresh, young set of actors. I have much respect for Mani Ratnam, the man behind such greats as Roja and Bombay, who has definitely set a standard in International movies, to parallel Western production values. In terms on music directors, I would say that I have no particular preference, but I favour greatly, old songs. I take around a small music player and listen to Indian Classical, folk, Western Classical and vintage Bollywood – even at breakfast, when I am abroad, this is something I do. In terms of new music, I loved AR Rahman’s ‘Chotti Chotti Aasha’ from Roja; the sheer simplicity of the tune and beautiful instrumentation caught my ears in a big way. This is the type of gentle song I like.”
Om Ji also was passionate about his free time and charity work, which he fits into his heavy schedule, “In terms of free time, I could be termed the perfect house husband. My passion is cooking; I find it extremely calming and therapeutic, making everything from Rotis, to Paratas to Vegetable dishes. I prefer vegetarian food, with the occasional delve into fish and very rarely eat meat – unless of course, there is nothing else to eat and then I eat anything! I also spend some of my time gardening and fooling around with plants. In terms of charity work, it is something I try and devote my efforts to, as I feel every one who can give something, has a duty to do so, for those less fortunate. Most recently, Richard Gere’s Brother approached me to help with the AIDS awareness in Calcutta, where I worked on BBC Asia, anchoring a show in aid of this. I support World Vision and also Nethralaya, which provides eye operations to children in Chennai. Of course, to be honest, charity is tax exempt, which also is a definitive incentive to give generously.”
A charming and brutally honest man, who has most certainly captured the hearts of men and women alike, Om Puri Ji is a gem of a man, in my opinion and he closes with his message to his UK fans: “My first trip to the UK, was in 1984, where I arrived with just a passport in my hand, as Indian’s did not need visas, and vice versa, for the British to visit India. I was so very nervous, and felt a sigh of relief when I was allowed into the country, as I was travelling from winning an award in Czechoslovakia, saying I was an actor and not at all looking like one! I felt threatened by the skinheads and felt very much an outsider, at the time. These days, the atmosphere is very much different, with so many cultures being embraced by this country. When I arrive at airports, so many people recognise me and I feel very proud to have such fans, who are so very kind to me. I would like to tell all the NRI’s as we like to call you all, that it is very important to respect the British (and the other persons) culture. If you give them respect, they will give respect back to you, like with my son, I give him respect, though he is so young and in return, he has learnt to be respectful to all his elders. All said and done, you have been embraced by this unique land and respecting the laws of the land are paramount. Tolerance is extremely important to everyone’s health!”
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