As an actor, Om Puri exuded reassuring warmth and gravitas over a long career divided between Bollywood and Hollywood.
At home, his Hindi hits included the political comedy Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), the Macbeth-inspired drama Maqbool (2003), the action romp Singh Is King (2008) and the thrillers Don (2006) and Don 2 (2011). In the United States, appearances in two Mike Nichols films – he shared a scene with Jack Nicholson in Wolf (1994) and starred with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), in which he was very wry as President Zia-ul-Haq – were among roles that followed his brief English-language debut in Gandhi (1982).
He credited his more prominent part in Roland Joffe’s City of Joy (1992), where he was a struggling farmer who befriends a doctor (Patrick Swayze) in Calcutta, with increasing his opportunities in Britain and the US.
It is for his performances in two low-budget British films about immigration and assimilation, however, that he will be most fondly remembered by UK audiences. East Is East (1999) explored the tensions between George (Puri), a Pakistani patriarch, and the family he is raising with his English wife (Linda Bassett) in Salford at the start of the 1970s. The picture was marketed as a Full Monty-style comedy about poor but happy northerners. Despite featuring gross-out humour (a frisky Dalmatian and a rubber vagina made an appearance alongside gags about bodily fluids), it took a darker turn when bumbling, well-meaning George descended into domestic violence. If East Is East felt at times like two different films welded together, it was the Bafta-nominated Puri who gave it weight and consistency. He reprised his role in a disappointing sequel, West Is West (2010), in which George returns to Pakistan with his youngest son.
Two years before East Is East, he had been impressive as another immigrant father in My Son the Fanatic (1997), written by Hanif Kureishi. He played Parvez, a Pakistani taxi driver whose open and progressive attitude towards racial integration in Britain places him at loggerheads with his son, a budding Islamic fundamentalist. The friction between them is exacerbated by Parvez’s affection for a local prostitute (Rachel Griffiths).
Puri was born in Ambala, in the northern Indian state of Haryana, the youngest of seven children of an army officer and his wife; three of his siblings died at a young age. He joined the theatre group Punjab Kala Manch while at college. “When I was doing these social plays, I felt [they were] giving words to my feelings,” he said. He insisted throughout his career on the social value of his work. “It is my first preference to do films with social significance. Art cinema has given me credibility and status as an actor, but commercial cinema has given me a comfortable living.”
He received scholarships to attend the National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India, then both based in Delhi. He made his film debut in 1976 in Ghashiram Kotwal and received acclaim for Aakrosh (1980) in which he was Bhiku, a mute murder suspect whose silence through the picture is broken by a blood-curdling scream in its final minutes. “Om had lived Bhiku’s story by the time this scene was shot and empathised with him completely,” said the film’s director, Govind Nihalani. “I just told him I did not want his expression to be either neutral or over-emotional and then left it to him. I don’t know what he did to build himself up, but Om’s screams touched me like they did each viewer.” Puri was proud of the film, and of Arohan (1983), in which he played a victimised farmer; he was named best actor in the Indian National Film awards for the latter.
His commercial breakthrough came in the tough drama Ardh Satya (1983), in which he was a conscientious young cop confronting Indian corruption. The film won him a second National Film award as well as the best actor prize at the Karlovy Vary film festival. He also appeared in its 1984 follow-up, Party.
Puri was seen by British television audiences in ITV’s The Jewel in the Crown (1984) and in the Channel 4 adaptation of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2002). He played a Hindi professor who interviews a great Urdu poet in Ismail Merchant’s In Custody (1994). His English-language films included the Michael Douglas/Val Kilmer adventure The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), Michael Winterbottom’s futuristic thriller Code 46 (2003), Mira Nair’s terrorism drama The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) and The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014), a feel-good comedy-drama about competing restaurants in a French town, starring Helen Mirren and produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey.
After being appointed honorary OBE in 2005 for services to British cinema, Puri claimed the work dried up from this country. “I thought that was a golden handshake, that we [have] had enough of you – here is your prize, now get lost!” In recent times, he mourned the paucity of complex parts in Indian cinema such as those in Aakrosh and Arohan. “There are hardly any such roles left,” he said. Asked if he hoped one of his forthcoming movies would put him back on the map, he replied: “I have not gone anywhere from the map. I am very much here.”
He had a number of films awaiting release, including Viceroy’s House, Gurinder Chadha’s drama about the last days of the Raj, in which he co-starred with Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson and Michael Gambon. The film is due for release in March.
He is survived by Ishaan, his son from his second marriage, to Nandita, which ended in 2013.
* Om Puri, actor, born 18 October 1950; died 6 January 2017
- Adapted from a tribute in The Guardian by Ryan Gilbey