Remembering Celebrated Indian Actor Om Puri, Star Of 'East Is East'

Jan 13, 2017
Originally published on January 14, 2017 12:58 pm
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Om Puri, a celebrated Indian actor who appeared in more than 300 films, died of a heart attack last Friday at his home in Mumbai. He was 66. Puri gained critics' attention in the 1980s when the Indian New Wave cinema focused on the country's social inequality. He was best known in the West for the British film "My Son The Fanatic," in which he played an emigre whose son has become a Muslim fundamentalist, and "East Is East," in which he played a Pakistani cab driver in north England trying to raise his children with Pakistani traditions.

He also had a small role in "Gandhi" and starred with Tom Hanks in "Charlie Wilson's War," playing the president of Pakistan. Puri was one of nine children born to a junior railway officer in northern India, but only he and one sister survived into adulthood.

Terry spoke to Om Puri in 2000.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

You made about a 130 films in India. That's a staggering number of films. Tell me - tell me what the production schedule is like that would enable you to make so many films.

OM PURI: Well, India is the largest film-producing country in the world. I mean, it's a huge country with 900 million people and about 23 different languages. And the main national language is Hindi. And, I mean, I work mostly in Hindi films. So for an actor, it is not a big deal to do, you know, 130 films in 24 years. There are actors in India who really overwork too much. And they may be in their mid-60s or something, and they may have done 350 films.

(Laughter) You know, it's just quite - you know, for example, if you - if you have a major part, if you are playing a central part, then maybe you'll be required for eight weeks to finish the film. And in some films, you may have a smaller part, which means you may be required for three weeks or four weeks. So easily, you can do five, six films in a year.

GROSS: What are some of the typical roles you've played in Indian movies?

PURI: Well, I have been mostly associated - my early career, for about 10, 12 years, I have been with the art cinema, which is a cinema which is socially relevant which talks about the social issues, social political issues, etc., which is small in nature, which is small in budget, also, whereas the commercial cinema is huge - big, big cameras, big money.

Art cinema gave me respect, credibility, status and gave me opportunity to travel all over the world because those films went to all kind of festivals all over the world, whereas commercial cinema gave me a standard of living back home. So I am - part of my work, which is about 35, 40 percent, is commercial cinema, which essentially is an entertaining cinema and what we call escapist cinema.

GROSS: What are some of your impressions of the differences for an actor making a Western movie compared to an Indian film?

PURI: The major difference in India, particularly in commercial cinema, is the fact that the films are not shot at a stretch. They are shot in bits and pieces. You shoot for a film for 10 days, and then you don't shoot for that film for three months. Then you shoot for 20 days. Then you don't shoot for that for maybe six months, which is a very erratic way of working really, whereas...

GROSS: That sounds really odd.

PURI: Sorry?

GROSS: I said that sounds really odd because first of all, your body can change in six months and second of all...

PURI: Yes, and it does. It does, you know. But people try and, you know, say, for example, they will keep the same haircut for every role they play, you know, the commercial actors. And they will try and keep their same weight, but a lot of times, if the film gets delayed, which it does actually - you know, normal Hindi commercial film takes one and a half year to - it can go up to three years. So in three years, people do change. People put on weight. People - you know? So that's a major difference, really. Another peculiar thing which is quite funny is that commercial cinema does not give you a copy of a script, unlike the art cinema in India. They tell a story. And they tell you your character. But you don't have a copy of a script in your hand.

GROSS: So how do you learn your lines?

PURI: You get it on the same day when you go for filming. You'll get it on the same morning. So no homework is expected from an actor.

GROSS: What's the rationale behind that?

PURI: Well, rationale is that they are not ready with their script. In fact, when they ask me in India, you know, what is the difference between shooting in the West and East and here? - I say, well, they work on a script for two years. And then go ahead and shoot the film within six months. And that's it. And you work here for two months on a script. And then go on shooting for three years.

(LAUGHTER)

PURI: But, Terry, let me tell you. The thing is they feel very insecure - the producers. That is why they don't give you a copy of the script - because they all get worried that somebody else will steal their subject.

GROSS: Oh.

PURI: We don't have a serious copyright, et cetera. So, therefore, they don't reveal their script. They would have a copy of the script. But it will be with them. And they never reveal the climax of the film until the end. When they're almost done with the entire film, then they go and shoot the climax because they feel that some other producer or director will steal their idea, and they won't have the novelty.

GROSS: Now, you've been making more movies in England. I imagine one of the obstacles you're up against is trying to find good roles for an Indian actor.

PURI: Yes.

GROSS: My guess would be there aren't a lot of them.

PURI: Yes. I wouldn't say there are a lot of them. And that's why I'm not leaving my ground.

GROSS: Right.

PURI: That's Bombay, you know?

GROSS: Right.

PURI: So whenever I have an opportunity because I've been enjoying the work in the West - and I hope I do find, you know, roles like - in the past, people who had faces like me, like Mr. Anthony Quinn, who has been my favorite, and also Omar Sharif, who would look like an Arab. And I hope that I do have interesting parts - not necessarily major roles but interesting characters. I'll be happy enough to work in those.

GROSS: You said that people like Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif have faces like you. What kind of face do you have?

PURI: I think - well, I essentially have an Asian face and a gypsy face. I could be from Arab. I could be from South America, parts of South America, you know? So it's not necessarily an Indian face. It's a rustic face. It is - it's not, you know, traditional, good-looking chocolate face.

GROSS: What does chocolate face mean?

PURI: Chocolate face means well-chiseled, beautiful, you know, everything proportional. I have a big nose - big, fat nose. And I have pock marks, which is - which - I mean, I got it when I was about 5, I think. I had smallpox.

GROSS: You had smallpox?

PURI: Yes. I had smallpox when I was about 5.

GROSS: And that scarred your face.

PURI: Yes.

GROSS: Wow. Do you have a lot of memories of when you had smallpox?

PURI: I think I had been even smaller than that. The only image I do remember that - my mother used to tie me to the cot when she had to do some work. She used to tie me so that I don't scratch. She used to tie my hands to the cot.

GROSS: Did you...

PURI: That image I do remember.

GROSS: When you were growing up with the pock marks left from smallpox, were you very self-conscious about that as a kid?

PURI: I was, to be honest. You know - and I was to look at films, et cetera. And that is why - perhaps, one of the reasons why I didn't go directly to cinema. I went into theater. I thought, I don't have the right kind of a face for the theater. Still, I was exposed to world cinema, you know, when I saw, you know, the international cinema or cinema of Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. Then I saw that, you know, oh, well, there are faces like me in these films. And since I was only exposed to the commercial Indian cinema, you know, which had - most faces were chiseled - what we called chocolate faces.

GROSS: Were you worried about the close-ups, too?

PURI: Then - yes. Then my taboo really sort of broke. And I started to think in terms of - then, you know, I was no longer self-conscious. And today I'm not. In fact, when I came to Bombay, some of my senior friends did suggest to me that I should go in for plastic surgery. I said, no. I will not fool around with my body. I will play - you know, I will accept whatever nature has given me. I mean, I couldn't imagine myself going through plastic surgery and looking at myself. You know, where has the person gone with whom I had lived for 50 years or 35 years?

GROSS: (Laughter) Exactly. Exactly.

DAVIES: Indian actor Om Puri spoke with Terry Gross in 2000. He died last Friday in Mumbai. He was 66. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the German comedy "Toni Erdmann." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAVI SHANKAR'S "TALA-TABLA TARANG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.