Police uniforms have always fascinated me
And Om Puri has adorned them in several of his films including the forthcoming Solar Eclipse where he plays TG, the First Director of Intelligence from independent India. The multi-starrer has an eclectic cast from across the world that includes Stephen Lang, Luke Pasqualino, and Nasser among many others. For Indian cinema, he is an actor you cannot slot. If you‘ve seen him in Aakrosh addressing socially relevant cinema among many other lms across ve decades, he has also been a fleeting part of Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra’s Mirzya. While we enjoyed watching him squabble with Helen Mirren in the Steven Spielberg-Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake produced A Hundred Foot long Journey, he is now gearing up for his new lm Solar Eclipse that is produced by a Dubai-based production house Nugen Films. Om Puri has stood his ground and poise across the industries he has worked – this includes Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Pakistani, Marathi, Bengali and English cinema as well. Manju Ramanan caught up with the legend on Solar Eclipse and his take on formula films and working across several lm industries.
From Ghashiram Kotwal to today, theatre talent has dominated good cinema. Do you agree?
Yes right from the 60s’, when cinema came into existence, theatre artistes have been part of the silver screen. Except for the presence of the camera in films, all other elements have been borrowed from the stage. Indian theatre did have classical music and dance that was intertwined with the narrative on stage. When cinema became successful, businessmen realized that it is a great avenue to make quick money and that is how cinema became bigger and more commercial.
You are global, yet a very local Indian voice. When you work across genres and nationalities and languages, what stays, what doesn’t?
I have had no barriers from the beginning and right from the start of my career in crossover cinema, I have never been discriminated upon. I have always been treated as an equal. But I am glad that whatever I have done has become a reference point to others. In City of Joy, the director Roland Joffe was looking for an Indian talent and gave me a nice small part. My role had meat – it was nearly the parallel role to Patrick Swayze in the film. I got a lot of good press abroad. What struck me then was the precision at which Hollywood worked. If they showed a wound one day, the next few days, the wound would be shown the way it looked in real life. The way it would change colour or shape or how it would harden. I am glad today, we employ the same technique to some Hindi movies.
Om Puri with Stephen Lang
Do you see Indian cinema and literature usually going back to 1947, the freedom struggle and Mahatma Gandhi for inspiration when they make a period lm? How is Solar Eclipse different?
We have such rich literature and history in our country, 2016 and we are hardly using it. Solar Eclipse is a story never told before. It is about how the assassination of one of India’s biggest leaders was known much before he was killed – A fact similar to what is said about Abraham Lincoln. The state machinery that knew that the deed would be committed could do nothing to stop it. And that is the story of this film and it does draw parallels between the two countries. Some of these young filmmakers are incredible.
Do you believe that history told from the peripheries make for better stories?
Yes, the main narrative needs to be challenged. Stories can no longer be narrated from the perspective of the ruler. The peripheries also come alive with their version of their narrative. In Solar Eclipse for instance, there is a scene between my character and Sardar Patel’s character where there is an interlude about security issues during the prayer meeting at the temple precincts. These conversations are hardly seen in mainstream historic cinema. Why just this film, there are so many films across the board that talk about the small events behind the big events be it 9/11, the Mumbai attacks etc. These are the stories that need to be told too.
A multi-star cast and a film that has parallels with American history, how do you see Solar Eclipse in the world cinema scenario?
Abraham Lincoln and Mahatma Gandhi are people the world knows and reveres. So, this angle that the film deals with will be a fresh perspective. Cinema is a great medium to depict the history and if a film is based on fact and history, it adds to a new meaning of the expression. The songs and the narrative are in sync.
Are films made at the editing table as is also popularly believed?
The filmmaker sees the film in his vision first and then that translates into what he does on the floor. Though there is a belief that many films are made on the editing table, and quite a bit of it is true too, the soul of the story has to stay. That is what makes a film.
How many languages do you speak? And how do you manage multilingualism?
Punjabi is my mother tongue and I speak Hindi, English, Urdu, Bengali, and a bit of Marathi. But I have acted in Malayalam, Kannada, Telugu, and Gujarati cinema as well. While I dubbed in Kannada as well, Telugu and Malayalam have been tongue twisters.
Your role in Mirzya came as an introduction and then there was no further progress to the character?
That is my association with the director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. I was with Gulzar saab when we were shooting for a project in a forest kind of an area and I spotted a man in a bicycle-selling rusk. For a Punjabi, rusk is delicious with a cup of tea. Over tea, I asked Gulzar saab how many stories was he doing, he said 13 and I said I wanted to do them all. He said he wouldn’t mind but the roles were small. I said I have no problem; I’ll do the part. Similarly, I didn’t mind the size of the role in Mirzya. Even in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag I could have done any part, but I chose mine. For Mirzya, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra came home personally and told me that he wouldn’t take no for an answer.
What is the difference in film making that you see today?
Solar Eclipse has talent from 35 countries. We don’t usually see that happen in a film from India. Ten years ago filmmaking was a different ball game. It is different now. There is more discipline today. We have bounded scripts. At one point of time none of us knew the climax of the film and it was hidden till the last moment so that it wouldn’t get leaked. Now we have laws to prevent disclosure. We receive a full script before we say yes ornotoafilm.Atonetimeit took over a year to complete a film, today we are able to complete everything in six months.
At one point in time people wanted to show magic onscreen – “look at the car flying! Look at the man bashing up so many people!” Today that unbelievable stuff is trying to be more reasonable. There are 10-12 filmmakers in Hindi cinema who are making sensible films. I don’t look at cinema as pure entertainment. Cinema to me has a social responsibility as well. There are many meaningful films today, but no hard-hitting films. The stories are good, the acting is good, the cinematography is good but the Shyam Benegal kind of cinema is missing.
How do you see music evolve today?
The 60s’ was a golden period of cinema. You had Bimal Roy, V Shantaram, Raj Kapoor and others who took subjects that were current but socially relevant as well. The topics reflected the times – transition from villages to cities, casteism, social responsibility, songs and dances that had meanings and carried the narrative forward, script was not imposed and never out of the way. They were so poetic; the music was so melodious. Today it is noisy and dance numbers and titillation. The whole idea of most filmmakers is to earn money. It is like a business of selling soap. I hope and wish that at least 30 percent of cinema today focused on art and that is not a big thing to ask for. Small budget films don’t get screens if a blockbuster is on its way. How will it thrive? But change is happening slowly and it is great to see that.