When I heard about Om Puri's passing, the first things I thought of were two still images involving important films of the 1980s parallel movement: films that couldn't possibly be more dissimilar in tone, though both dealt with social injustice, were constructed out of raw anger, and released in the same year.
One image is an Ardh Satya poster that the writer and artist Manjula Padmanabhan gifted me, a lovely drawing of Puri's weary, haunted, expressive face. In the actual film, Puri never looks disheveled and unshaven like he does here: his character, the conflicted policeman Velankar, is always neatly turned out, even when locked in battle with private demons. But the drawing – its dark strokes casting shadows across his face and exaggerating the lines on his forehead – has a poetic rather than literal realism, and is perfect for character as well as actor.
The other image is a droll one, a behind-the-scenes companion piece to a funny film. Between shots on the Jaane bhi do Yaaro set, Puri – as the corrupt and blustering Ahuja – takes a nap, a cloth draped over his head making him look a little like the burqa-wearing women in one of the film's most frenetic scenes: except for the minor detail that you can see his thick moustache and the dark glasses covering his eyes, and you can almost imagine hearing Ahuja's snores (as guttural as his speech).
These are two very different Om Puris. Velankar in Ardh Satya is, of course, his emblematic role, and one of a few times that Govind Nihalani cast the actor as the everyman who becomes the voice of conscience, standing silently in the shadows, eyes blazing occasionally, struggling as much with his own helplessness as with the unfairness of the world, speaking up or taking action when it becomes too hard to bear: Velankar strangling the villainous Rama Shetty in a burst of anger; Lahanya Bhiku killing his own sister to "save" her at the end of Aakrosh; Avinash giving the activist-socialites a minor tongue-lashing in the magnificent chamber drama Party.
Jaane bhi do Yaaro's Ahuja belongs in another universe from these films (I can picture the somber mise-en-scene of Party or Ardh Satya being irrevocably disrupted if this crass, drunk man were to barge into them!), but Puri threw himself wholeheartedly into a part that required him to chew up the scenery, and showed a talent for comic improvisation that not many up to that point suspected he had. Behind-the-scenes stories suggest that this solemn, earnest-looking actor was one of the very few crew members who "got" the film's tone early on; who understood that JBDY wasn't just something as high-sounding as dark satire, it was inspired lunacy, tonally all over the place, a crazy gamble that, if the film got lucky (and as we know, in the long run it did) might strike a deep chord with audiences.
Behind-the-scenes stories suggest that this solemn, earnest-looking actor was one of the very few crew members who "got" the film's tone early on; who understood that Jaane bhi do Yaaron wasn't just something as high-sounding as dark satire, it was inspired lunacy
Sometimes, he was one step ahead of the madness. Wearing goggles on stage during the famous Mahabharata scene was his idea, and it took even director Kundan Shah by surprise. "You guys are fooling around too much," Kundan growled, so Puri promptly put on his Serious Actor cap and explained the "logic" behind his suggestion: "Look, this is a high-stress situation where everyone is running around trying to find this corpse. In all the confusion, Ahuja puts on the Bheema costume and walks on to the stage, but he forgets to take off his dark glasses. Isn't that plausible?"
That these two roles taken together point to the actor's versatility goes without saying. But I think there is a related observation to be made – namely, that Puri's unexpected flair for absurdist comedy is linked with the qualities that often made him such an effective sutradhar or anchoring figure in a film. His voice ensured that he was a great narrator: I vividly recall a sound-and-light show at Port Blair's Cellular Jail a few years ago, stories about freedom fighters being taken across the "kaala pani" related in Puri's resonant, dignified voice. But as an actor, there was also an ability to participate in events and to seem detached from them at the same time.
You see this in Ketan Mehta's masterful Bhavni Bhavai, where Puri, in addition to playing a straight narrative part – as a distraught lower-caste father whose son may be in peril – also played the old bard whose song (about social change coming in increments, like a slowly flowing river) punctuates the story. Or his role as the old gatekeeper – a gatekeeper of civilization, one might say, keeping the barbarians out – in Mehta's Mirch Masala. Or Shyam Benegal's TV series Bharat ek Khoj, where he served as narrator but also movingly played such characters as the dying Duryodhana.
There is an oft-repeated criticism of the "parallel films" of the 1970s and 80s: that here were well-intentioned, bleeding-heart stories about oppressed and marginalized people being told by filmmakers and actors who were leading relatively cushy lives, often at a vast remove from what they depicted. ("I used to feel, why are these people sitting on Malabar Hill and making films about the starving peasants of Bihar?" the plain-speaking Naseeruddin Shah told me once.)
The most conscientious filmmakers, such as Benegal and Nihalani, were always aware of this paradox and even tried to address it in their work. And it is here that one sees the value of someone like Om Puri – an intense, eloquent presence who could convincingly play a helpless union leader or an exploited victim, but could be equally effective standing on the outside, providing commentary.
In Party – a film that can be viewed as a sort of confessional about the hypocrisies of armchair activism – the tone becomes edgier when Puri's character enters the party, quite late in the narrative: he is the one who raises uncomfortable questions about the self-delusion of urban activists, about whether art can be kept separate from politics; he is the one who reveals the truth about what happened to another reporter named Amrit, who took the hard route of leaving the city and engaging with exploited tribals in their own space.
Or there is one of my favourite opening sequences in any film, the witty meta-scene that opens Benegal's Arohan. Here, Puri, introducing himself as Om Puri, first speaks about the story they are trying to tell – about the exploitation of the farmer Hari Mondal – and provides context about the period and setting (rural Bengal in the 1960s, overrun by Naxalbari). He then introduces the other cast and crew members – standing around on location, laughing, chatting, smoking – and then slips into the part of Hari. It is as if the film is showing us its hand, saying: look, we'll do our best, but there are things we can't possibly know, so we may as well start by breaking the Fourth Wall and admitting to artifice. And Om Puri was the best person to anchor this scene – one could never doubt his sincerity, even when he was presenting himself as a Mere Actor.
It is a bit sad to realise that much of Puri's best work was done between 25 and 35 years ago, that few roles in the final years did him justice. But those films are still around, and many of them – the ones we think we are familiar with, as well as the ones like Aghaat, Arohan and Bhavni Bhavai, which have yet to find the wider audiences capable of appreciating them – bear rediscovering; they are just as vital today as they were in their time. Much like the man whose hesitant voice and flashing eyes helped make them so memorable, they belong to us all. Or as JBDY's Ahuja might slur, "Yeh films aap akayle ke nahin hain. Hum sab shareholder hain."