Om Puri (1950-2017) was one of India’s most versatile actors, appearing in over 300 films. He starred in mainstream commercial Hindi films as well as working with notable art film directors, including Satyajit Ray, and was one of India’s major overseas stars. He was awarded a Padma Shri in 1990 and an OBE in 2004.
Puri was born to a Punjabi Hindu family in Ambala: his father worked in the army and also the railways but when he was sent to prison his wife and children fell into dire poverty. Puri worked through school, managing to study theatre at National School of Drama in Delhi. It was there he met Naseeruddin Shah, who encouraged him to join the Film and Television Institute of India.
Puri was one of the major actors of Indian ‘parallel’ or ‘middle’ cinema in the 1970s. This cinema, typified by the work of Shyam Benegal, ranged from art to more popular styles, but in a more realist form featuring well-defined characters rather than heroes played by stars. From his first film, the Marathi Ghashiram Kotwal (1976), Puri soon worked with the major directors of this cinema, not least Govind Nihalani, for whom he played a ‘tribal’ man in Aakrosh (1980) and an idealistic Mumbai police officer in Ardh Satya (1982), the latter winning him the National Award as Best Actor. Another of his greatest roles was as the crooked builder in Kundan Shah’s satire Jaane bhi do yaaro (1983).
Puri took many roles as a character actor in mainstream Hindi cinema, including Disco Dancer (1982), and worked in many lowbrow comedies too. He acted in films made in other languages, one of his big hits being the Kannada film AK 47, where he played a police officer.
Puri had one of the greatest international careers of an Indian actor. In Merchant-Ivory’s In Custody (1994) he played the journalist who interviews the poet Noor (Shashi Kapoor). He also acted in Hollywood films, notably City of Joy (1992), and played Pakistan’s General Zia ul-Haq in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.
He became a familiar face in the UK, acting in serials such as The Jewel in the Crown as well as in British films. He gave a superb performance as the migrant Pakistani father who cannot comprehend his Westernised family in East Is East (1999), bringing humanity and expression to what might have otherwise been a one-dimensionally monstrous figure.
Om Puri was never typecast but he often played stern and intimidating figures, so unlike his modest and quiet off-screen person. He was by no means conventionally good looking – his face was scarred by smallpox and he had a large nose. Yet his expressive face was mesmerising, able to emote while barely twitching a muscle. He leaves a large oeuvre and has set a high benchmark for Indian actors to follow.