Most of his Bollywood career comprises a set repertoire – the bald, unconscionable don, the brutal policeman, the lecherous, covetous zamindar, or the ruthless politician.
But Amrish Puri always brought different shades to their rendition, and with his booming baritone, smouldering gaze, and imposing presence, he could stand his ground against stalwarts like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan.
But Amrish Puri (1990-2005), whose 90th birth anniversary is on Wednesday, was always more than what he seemed. For starters, though he gave the impression of a towering stature, he was not really that tall – standing just 1.75 metres, or 5 feet 10 inches (for the record, Dev Anand was roughly 1.79 metres tall, Dilip Kumar was 1.78m, while Amitabh Bachchan is 1.88m tall).
And then, despite two elder brothers being established actors — the avuncular Chaman Puri and the versatile Madan Puri as well they being first cousins to late singing superstar K.L. Saigal, he was a very late entrant to Bollywood — with his first appearance coming only in 1970, as a small-time hoodlum in “Prem Pujari”, with just one key dialogue, “Ham Christian hai”, as he balks at committing a particular crime. Success came even later.
In fact, Puri, who held a full-time job in the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation after his initial foray into films came a cropper, spent more time carving a niche on stage, especially under the redoubtable Satyadev Dubey. He even won the Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1979, much before he emerged as a recognisable face in Bollywood.
However, during the 1970s, he was a regular feature in the parallel/alternate cinema, being seen in classics of the genre like “Shantata! Court Chalu Aahe (Silence! The Court Is in Session)”, the 1971 Marathi film version of Vijay Tendulkar’s play; Shyam Bengal’s “Nishant” (1975), where he plays the influential and manipulative village jagirdar; Benegal’s “Manthan” (1976), where he is the wily and exploitative businessman Mishraji; and “Bhumika” (1977), where he plays rich businessman Kale, who offers the heroine (Smita Patil) a pampered – but restrictive – lifestyle.
Though he had started getting some meatier roles in Bollywood — the man reading a horror novel in the train in the cult horror flick “Jaani Dushman” (1979), “Chann Pardesi” (Punjabi), “Qurbaani” (all 1980), “Vidhaata” (1982), where he held his own against a star cast comprising Dilip Kumar, Sanjay Dutt, Shammi Kapoor, Sanjeev Kumar, Madan Puri and Suresh Oberoi — his rise to fame came due to Hollywood.
As the sinister Thugee high priest Mola Ram in Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984), Amrish Puri proved he could hold his own with the who’s who of Hollywood too.
It also made him aware how a shiny bald pate added to his screen looks. However, he would occasionally don outlandish wigs like as megalomaniac super-villain ‘Mogambo’ in “Mr India” (1987) – which cemented his reputation as a Bollywood villain to look out for, and had a full head of hair in many other outings.
The rest of his Bollywood career is too well known to recount – the crooked, scheming lawyer in “Meri Jung” (1985) and then in “Damini” (1993), the rapacious landlord in “Waaris” (1988), the ruthless police inspector in “Dayavan” (1988) and “Batwara” (1989), over-the-top villains in “Tridev” (1989) and “Saudagar” (1991), the kind-hearted patriarch in “Ghatak” (1996) and “Virasat” (1997), and the NRI father who sticks to Indian traditions in “Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge” (1995) and “Pardes” (1997) – among others.
On his 90th birth anniversary, let’s see half-a-dozen of Amrish Puri’s lesser-known, but no less spectacular roles.
“Hulchul” (1971) – There have been few films in Bollywood with such an innovative comedy-thriller by O.P. Ralhan, where the hero (Ralhan himself) and his girlfriend (Helen) hear a Mahesh Jetley plotting with his paramour to bump off his wife. They dig in deeper and uncover three Mahesh Jetleys (Prem Chopra, Madan Puri, Kabir Bedi), all in unhappy marriages.
Our hero-heroine’s plot to find the guilty one lands them in hot water and the matter reaches the court. Here, it is the Public Prosecutor (Puri) who solves the convoluted problem.
“Vijeta” (1982) – This film dealing with adapting to a career in the Indian armed forces, the IAF in this case, and the discipline and commitment the training demands is possibly one of the best war films to come out of Bollywood.
Puri was not playing an IAF officer for the first time, having donned the uniform in “Hindustan Ki Kasam” (1973), but in his role as Chief Instructor, Group Captain Varghese, he proved a natural. And then as teacher of the protagonist – who has fallen for his daughter – he would set the template for this particular situation.
“Tamas” (1986) – Based on Bhisham Sahni’s 1974 Hindi novel dealing with the breakdown of human relations and the unconscionable violence that the Partition brought, this Govind Nihalani TV film, which evoked chills among those who had experienced the time, has Puri as elderly Sikh community leader Teja Singh in a communal-violence stricken town.
Though he only comes onscreen midway, the image of him majestically striding into the gurdwara and among the congregation to the solemn strains of shabad “De Shiva Var Mohe”, paying obeisance to the Guru Granth Sahab, and then picking up a sword, delivering an impassioned address to the assembly on how they should gird up for the situation, will forever remain etched in the minds of the viewers.
As he finishes, the shabad “Jo Lare Din Ke Het” underscores his message.
“Bharat Ek Khoj” (1988-89) – This Shyam Benegal TV series is an insightful, and panoramic view of centuries of Indian history and culture and has appearances by many leading Bollywood actors, such as Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, and Irrfan, who was still to achieve prowess then.
Puri appears as Hasan Raza Khan, an old, capable and loyal state functionary of the Nawabs of Bengal, in episode No. 39 “Company Bahadur”, where he has to negotiate a tightrope between the demands of the British and the cupidity of his own compatriots. That shot of him calling his fiercest enemy an “ahmaq” with his usual ferocity is priceless.
“Haatim Tai” (1990) – It is very difficult to leave a mark in a fantasy film where the magic and enchantments, via special effects, will entrance the viewer more, but Puri does this in the second retelling of the legendary Arabian Prince, who was renowned for his generosity and altruism.
As the Prince quests for answers to seven questions to resolve the tangled lives of his friends as well as his own, Puri as the magician Kamlaq, whose catchphrase is “Jinn Jinn Jinn du Jinn Daara”, emerges as the final obstacle to a happy ending.
“Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda” (1992) – Up to his usual lechery and crooked ways, Puri, as Maheshar Dalal in this Shyam Benegal-helmed story of the narrator’s life and loves, nails the rhythms of small-town/mofussil life perfectly. And his trademark dialogue to women — how he can sell even the ‘kajal’ from their eyes — does more to reveal his nature and intentions than anything else could.
Google Doodle, however, paid him the ultimate compliment. Along with a Doodle on his 87th birthday on June 22, the caption read: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again — and you might end up like Indian film actor Amrish Puri, who overcame an early setback on the way to fulfilling his big screen dreams.”
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])