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The Ascent of Om Puri

If you want to know Om Puri, the great Indian actor who unexpectedly died last week at the age of 66, start with "The Ascending Scale."
Mayukh Sen
Om Puri, the veteran of Indian cinema who died on Friday morning at age 66 of an unexpected heart attack, received two National Film Awards, the highest honor an actor can receive in India. The awards are not without their controversies, as one may suspect from awards that are doled out by the national government of India. They have sometimes been accused of favoring Hindi-language films at the expense of regional cinema. As far as Indian awards bodies go, though, the National Film Awards exhibit remarkably prudent taste more often than not. The first of Puri’s National Awards was for Arohan (The Ascending Scale, 1982), by director Shyam Benegal, while the second came for Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (Half Truth, 1983). 
In the days since Puri’s death, there has been justified focus on his work in Ardh Satya. It gave Puri one of his most definitive roles, and the film was his passport to mainstream stardom. The role of Anant Velankar, a low-level cop entangled in a corruption case that eventually poisons his moral compass, had been written with Amitabh Bachchan, the imperious and gravelly-voiced titan of Bollywood cinema, in mind. Bachchan had essayed similar, less challenging variations of that role in Bollywood the decade prior, when he came to typify Bollywood’s angry young man. He ended up turning down the role.
“Amitabh Bachchan is a great actor, and I am thankful that he refused Ardh Satya,” Puri would say of Bachchan’s decision. It is difficult to imagine what Bachchan’s portrayal would have looked like when confronted with Puri’s subdued, introspective work. Back then, Puri was the antithesis of Bachchan, with a face more open and expressive than Bachchan’s would ever become. This performance represents the essence of Puri as an actor and, more generally, the cinema he would come to represent: a realist cinema with roots firmly planted in soil, a tonic to Bollywood’s occasional predilection for fantasy. 
India loves its cop movies, so it’s not terribly surprising that there has been such a fixation on Ardh Satya following Puri’s death. But this has come at the expense of his work in Arohan, which is rarely discussed in critical considerations of Puri’s career—even, it seems, in death. It’s somewhat understandable why this has happened. Arohan’s thematic and narrative concerns lack the widespread appeal that Ardh Satya, a cop drama with an artful bent, inherently has. 
It’s still perplexing that this performance hasn't merited rigorous consideration, though, especially considering the cachet of a National Award. Funded by the government of West Bengal, Arohan opens with Puri, out of character, addressing the audience for five minutes about the context of the film. We are told the film is meant to document the impact the Naxalbari (Maoist insurgence) movement in the Indian state of West Bengal on destitute farmers over a ten-year period beginning in the 1960s. This device foregrounds what will follow, a social realist drama about a poor, gullible land tiller, Hari Mandal (played by Puri), who becomes the reluctant poster child of the burgeoning Naxal resistance. He gets swept into a decade-long court battle with the landowner whose property he farms, played by Victor Banerjee (the lead in David Lean’s A Passage to India, also seen in Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire). Though he emerges victorious, it comes at great personal and material cost to him.
At this point in his career, Puri, 32, was a slight, wiry man. His face was, quite literally, scarred by a bout with smallpox in childhood. These pockmarks gave him a worn, bruised quality that lent itself perfectly to this role of a man tossed around by circumstance. Hari Mandal has been swept along with a political movement that tells him he is being empowered, and he is doing his best to believe that. Puri wears a mask of suspicion and hope throughout this movie, and his natural register of reticence constitutes its own kind of actorly alchemy. This makes the cumulative effect of his eventual losses later in the film crushing.
In the 1980s, Puri formed something of a quartet with actors Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, and the late Smita Patil (she died in 1986 at the age of 31 following childbirth) to represent parallel cinema. All of these actors were graduates of the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India in Pune (FTII). A degree from FTII was the badge of an actor’s talent and training that precious few actors in commercial Hindi-language cinema had. Shyam Benegal, one of the progenitors of the New Cinema movement in India (a more concentrated offshoot of the parallel cinema movement), directed these actors to some of their strongest work, from Shabana Azmi in Ankur (The Seedling) in 1974 to Smita Patil in 1977’s Bhumika: The Role. These actors came to embody the parallel cinema of the late 70s and early 80s, rarely consumed by the vanity or self-consciousness that characterized Bollywood acting in the period.
Few would contest Puri’s greatness, but in the wake of his death, it feels as though his greatness has come with an asterisk. Some obituaries read as lamentations for the absence of a potential, ultimately unrealized career rather than appreciations for the one he had. These narratives follow a similar template: As Puri’s gifts matured and deepened, the roles and movies he got offers for couldn’t keep up with him. His features would widen as he aged, giving him a more static nucleus of identity. Puri himself professed that he “didn’t have a conventional face” that made him difficult to cast later in his career. These looks doomed him to be ghettoized as a character actor in popular Indian cinema, playing fathers or uncles.
What’s resulted, then, is a phenomenal difficulty for Indians in articulating the importance of Om Puri when speaking to the outside world. Which of his movies does one cite to a non-Indian? The Hundred Foot Journey, the Helen Mirren cooking movie? City of Joy, Patrick Swayze’s Kolkata travelogue? Wolf and Charlie Wilson’s War, two of Mike Nichols’s less distinguished works? Some have written of him as if he were a crossover star, which is factually untrue. Puri himself admitted that this element of his career never materialized. “Though I have never really performed for awards, it was this once that I expected at least an Oscar nomination,” he wrote of his work in City of Joy. “For once I dreamt of having a parallel career in films outside India, but it was not to be.” Indian critic Aseem Chhabra, writing in BBC, claimed that Puri himself even confided in Chhabra that he lamented he never became as famous as Robert De Niro or Dustin Hoffman.  
There is nothing sadder than knowing that Puri himself measured his career against American goalposts like de Niro or Hoffman. The standards that forced him to determine his worth against Western analogs seem to persist today. The fixation on this false equivalency, even in his death, seems founded in a deeply entrenched insecurity about Indian cinema’s worth in the landscape of world cinema, an insecurity that hasn’t subsided in recent years. This points to the peculiar, and stifling, way Indian cinema has been institutionalized in the Western imaginary. Casual cinephiles default to names like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen to assert the brilliance of Indian cinema outside of Bollywood. As those men are further lionized, names like Benegal’s fall further to the sidelines, waiting to be “discovered” anew or rescued by a benefactor like Scorsese from obscurity. Performances like Puri’s in Arohan—or Azmi's in Ankur, or Patil’s in Bhumika—fall along with them. Arohan, available in 14 chopped up but subtitled parts on YouTube, should be more widely seen than it has been outside of India and its diaspora. The film augured the arrival of a major cinematic talent that Puri would prove tirelessly over the course of the next three decades. If you want to know Om Puri, begin with Arohan. 


Om PuriShyam Benegal
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