Thursday, December 1, 2011

Unlikely Hero: Om Puri- A Review

The book cover- quite inviting
When the subject of a piece of writing is as rich and extraordinary as the much hailed actor Om Puri, a reader's expectations from it shoot right through the sky. Not only the reader, but the writer too should feel blessed for getting a chance to take an intimate peek into his life, and winning an opportunity for leaving  a permanent mark in the literature of Indian Cinema.

Alas! This biography does nothing to enthrall the reader, or increase the esteem of the biographer, or of the subject of the biography itself. Om Puri has been one of the most admired Indian actors now since an era. His acting skills boast of an almost preternatural glow, which accord to him an immutable hallowed status in the history of not just Indian, but world cinema. He has been one of my firm personal favorites. I had, for long, been watching his movies without any specific admiration for this glorious character actor he is, but it was a chance viewing of Govind Nihalani's Droh Kaal which left me completely enamoured of both, Om Puri, and his equally talented co-star, Mita Vashisht. There after, his cameo in Gandhi, his riveting performance in East Is East and My Son The Fanatic, his brilliant cop-act in Ardh Satya and his powerful baritone- all drew me towards discovering with awe one of the finest and most consistent of character actors ever.

Naturally, I was expecting a lot from this book. Visually, it fulfilled all my expectation. Interspersed in to the biography are a large number of photos, both from Om's personal and cinematic life. Though not placed in any logical order, they still aid the reader to help translate perspectives into lucid images in his mind. As far as the story of Om told in the book is concerned, it tells you that he was a child born and brought up in extremely adverse and perverse environments. He was the last born, and one of the very few surviving children of his parents. He grew up earning his own bread from a very early age, and diligence and sobriety were permanent traits of his character, especially as far as his devotion to his art is concerned. He studied at NSD, and subsequently at IIFT- Pune, in the august company of some of India's best known parallel cinema actor and directors like Rohini Hattangadi, Naseeruddin Shah, Saeed Mirza, et al. His looks did not fit the the conventional criterion for an 'actor, villain or a comedian', thus he had to work extra hard to prove his mettle, and establish himself as an extremely bankable character actor. Today, he is well recognized face in India and abroad. In fact, the finesse he brings in each act of his got him more fame abroad, specifically in the UK, than in India. This is ironical given the fact that Om could barely speak Englisjh as a student and carried a heavy Punjabi accent when he could. He is settled at present in Bombay with his wife Nandita and son Ishaan.
With Smita Patil-the queen of art cinema, in Sadgati. His portrayal of an untouchable , Dukhi, won his instant acclaim from film aficionados far and wide.

I am late in mentioning it, but Nandita C. Puri, his wife, is the author of this book. Unlikely Hero- the title was coined by Shyam Benegal, and Nandita was the one trusted with telling Om's story to the world. I must've forgotten mentioning her, because she does an extremely disappointing job of giving words to Om's tale. The tone of the biography is patronizing, to say the least. While I wanted to read a biography, I ended up reading a critique of Om's life, which spent more time delineating on the amorous escapades of a young Om (highly interesting, if I may confess) rather than providing perspectives on Om's nuanced growth as an actor and expounding on his relationship with his art, and fellow artists. Professional relationships I mean.

Om Puri as a rickshaw puller in the City of Joy.
Nandita is 16 years younger to Om, whom she met as a reporter in Calcutta. Their love took flight there and then, as Om battled a crumbling marriage back home with Seema Kapoor. She might have been a good reporter, and this I say because even the honeymoon phase of their relationship she has 'reported', with a glaring lack of any emotional appeal to it. What she does well in the book, the only salable  attribute perhaps, is the job of peppering the narrative with inconsequential minutiae which titillate the gossip friendly nerves in the reader's system and help him keep turning pages. Two pages in the book are penned by Om's son Ishaan- but like the rest of the book, they too are disappointing, for they talk not of much else but Om's addiction to smoke.

Saving grace- the sections in the book penned down by Om himself. He reflects, albeit concisely, on each of his film projects; something which as an Om Puri fan you look forward to. Also, tidbits of a lecture he gave at Whistling Woods make for a worthwhile read. The prologue by late Patrick Swayze is perhaps the highest point in the whole biography; its appropriate placement at least helps a reader to start on a good note.

Concluding gossip- Om Puri's married life, ever since the release of this biography has been on the rocks. It has been reported, rather recently, that Om wants to divorce Nandita and return to his ex-wife, Seema Kapoor. Speculations are rife that the sleazy revelations of Om's life, which include his 'curious caressing of his maternal aunt's exposed tummy', his teenage 'deflowering' at the hands of an old 'toothless' maid, inter alia , made by Nandita in the Unlikely Hero are the cause behind Om's decision. For me, more important than this gossip is the hope that Om gets another biography to his name, which does justice to his persona as it is remembered on the pages of cinematic history.

Ishaan, Nandita and Om at the book launch. The happy family in the picture is not going through tough phase, and this very biography is rumoured to be the cause.

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