The driver assigned to chauffeur Om Puri was taken aback. It was past 9pm and the Bollywood star, who was in Jharkhand in eastern India, for a film shoot, was outside the driver’s room asking if he could be taken to a convenience store.
‘Don’t bother taking the car. I can ride pillion on your scooter,’ the award-winning actor told the driver. And so the duo set off into the night, Om chatting with the driver like he had known him all his life.
The actor may have won a clutch of national and international awards, but he is known to be down-to-earth, never forgetting that he was once a six-year-old who washed tea glasses at a roadside eatery in Punjab. ‘Those were tough days,’ he says.
Now, though, Om is overjoyed. His latest film, the Konkona Sen Sharma-directed A Death in the Gunj, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and opened last month’s Mumbai Film Festival, to rave reviews. ‘I could not attend the premiere in Toronto but it feels very good to receive appreciation. It gives me the strength to do better,’ he says.
What draws him to sign a film?
‘I don’t look for the length of the role, but I look at how much it will contribute to the theme or the story. I see whether it will create some impact. In the film Gandhi, for instance, I had just one scene. I’ve had just one or two scenes in many films but people still remember those scenes or the impact they had.
‘The second thing I want to know is who the director is. There are times you have to compromise because you do not like the story, but the money is important, too; you have to work for the money so you tend to compromise. But I always concentrate on doing good work; work in good films, do the kind of work I am known for. Having said that however; I cannot say I have never compromised in my career.’
Though a lot of theatre actors thumb their noses at commercial cinema, Om believes in striking a good balance. ‘I have done commercial as well as art films. I am happier while doing an art film; but it’s not like commercial films haven’t given me happiness too. For instance, I enjoyed doing Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Malamaal Weekly, Chachi 420, Singh is King. There are a lot of films that are commercial, purely entertaining, not reactionary. These films may not have a social message but they have good humour. We need both kinds of films: the ones with social messages and those with pure, clean entertainment. Entertainment is part of our lives but it shouldn’t be cheap and low grade. The humour should not hurt anyone but everyone should be able to laugh at it.’
What kind of films does he enjoy doing?
‘The kind of films I love are not being made as easily these days. And if they are, the budget is so low that they cannot afford to spend on the publicity that is required; so people don’t get to know of such films. For example, I did a film called Project Marathwada, which was taken off the screens within a week. Such films do not get any support.
‘Our audience is now used to these OTT promotional activities. Millions are spent on publicity, which smaller films cannot afford.’
Which movie would you rate as your best?
‘To choose a favourite from over 300 films is difficult. Ardh Satya was the perfect film and I was flawless in that. Then there is Aakrosh, Samajh, many more. But even today, if I look at Ardh Satya, there’s absolutely nothing I can change in it.’
Om credits his training at the National School of Drama in Delhi as well as Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India for his entry into films. ‘My five years in NSD were very intensive. I’ve learnt that if you work hard with total passion and commitment, you will be successful. How successful you become also depends on your luck. I have earned less money but more credit and respect mainly because I never put in less effort for any film be it a small or big banner. I am happy about the fact that tomorrow, if I leave this world, at least 20-25 of my films will be archived. And the coming generation who studies film will see some of my work and have some lessons.’
Although Om is not fluent in English, he managed to cross the international barrier with ease, starring in British films such as My Son The Fanatic, East Is East and The Parole Officer. In fact, his impact on British cinema has been so immense that he was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2004.
Aside from British cinema, Om has worked extensively in Hollywood as well. From City Of Joy opposite Patrick Swayze; Wolf alongside Jack Nicholson and The Ghost and the Darkness opposite Val Kilmer, to the 2007 release of Charlie Wilson’s War alongside Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts – in which he portrays Pakistan’s dictator General Zia-ul-Haq.
Recently, Om also stared alongside British actress Helen Mirren in The Hundred-Foot Journey. And though he was somewhat shy of working with her she put him at ease with her amiable personality. ‘We had great fun working together – even waltzed together when my dance skills are not the best!’ Despite his immense popularity Om believes he does not fall into the ‘star’ category.
‘If I also got Rs50million-100million [Dh2.7million-5.4 million] then I’d be a part of that category. But with my meagre earnings all I can do is live a life of one who belongs to an upper middle-class family. But I don’t regret it. I don’t feel the need to own a luxurious car or a bungalow; I am happy with whatever I have – the love I get from people. I feel good when people throng at an airport to tell me I did a good job in a film.
‘Had I done more commercial films, then maybe I’d also be a star,’ he says with a laugh.
The simple pleasures of life give Om satisfaction when he is not working on a film. ‘I am a good cook and that’s my hobby. I cook for the few close friends that I have. I also love gardening.’
Om is also very clear about how he would like to raise his 18-year-old son Ishaan. ‘I want to give my best to my son. But I will never impose my views on him. I may argue with him, tell him what is right according to me but the final choice will be his. I assist him with whatever institution he wants to join; I will explain to him according to my own experience but this is how I look at this profession of a parent,’ says the twice divorced Om – his former wives are Seema Kapoor and Nandita Puri.
So what are his views on the new crop of actors in Bollywood?
‘Every newcomer must first complete their education, because if they fail in this industry, they need to have something to fall back on. Secondly, you need patience on this track. Some may achieve success quickly, but that again is luck,’ he says.
Om has a lot to be excited about. He recently made his Pakistan debut with Actor in Law, a film that went on to be a major blockbuster. ‘It was a very good script with a strong social message. And I have immense respect for the talent of all those who were involved in the film, be it the actors or those behind the camera.
‘By Pakistan standards, Actor in Law was a big budget film. It was shot entirely in Karachi and I went there for the promotion as well.’
Not one to rest on his laurels, Om is now looking forward to the release of Shenbaga Kottai, a Tamil remake of Malayalam film Aadupuliyattam.
‘As an actor I am perennially looking for ways to explore my potential,’ he says.