Is Om Puri our greatest living actor?

A wide-ranging chat with the Indian screen superstar.

Published April 6, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

He can veer from menace to tenderness in milliseconds, and though he's physically compact, he has, as one of his directors put it, "screen presence for miles." His name is Om Puri. He's been a dominant big-screen presence in his native India for two decades, and his recent English-language films have awakened Western critics to a talent that equals or surpasses that of Morgan Freeman or Al Pacino.

What Faulkner saw as the center of true literature -- "the human heart in conflict with itself" -- is at the core of Puri's acting. His broad, expressive face is like a relief map of discordant emotions. Even when he plays a cameo, as he does in the current "Such a Long Journey" (an exquisite Canada-U.K. production filmed in Bombay), he digs into a character's internal contrasts. As a secret agent's trusted lieutenant, he makes us confront the honor as well as the ruthlessness of military loyalty.

In Udayan Prasad's "My Son the Fanatic" (released here in 1999) and Damien O'Donnell's "East is East" (which opens here April 14), he plays parallel Pakistani patriarchs: a cabbie in a contemporary British midlands city in "Fanatic" and a fish-and-chips shop owner in 1971 Manchester in "East." Transcending class and ethnic stereotypes, Puri turns embattled fathers into figures as robust, funny and poignant as the immigrant parents in American melting-pot fables by Clifford Odets or Mario Puzo.

Critic Armond White contended that the best performance of 1999 was Puri's in "My Son the Fanatic" -- "hands down," he wrote acidly, "but not in a culture that only celebrates white actors." More likely the culprit was not racism, but low profile. Released as alternate programming in the summer of "The Phantom Menace," this tale of a liberal grappling with his son's Muslim fundamentalism and his own love for an English whore never achieved the American following it deserved. That neglect may be remedied now that the film has been released on DVD and videotape. At the end of "My Son the Fanatic," when Puri's cabbie tells his son, "There are many ways of being a good man," it both summarizes this great phase of the actor's career and registers as a found piece of profundity for our multicultural age.

In "East is East," Puri triumphs in an even more difficult role. He brings out the humor and humanity of a tin-pot household tyrant named George Khan, who is trying to force his English wife, Ella (Linda Bassett), and their children into following the ways of his Old Country: Pakistan. Part polyglot urban comedy-drama and part generation-gap fable, the film has been a huge success in England, and is competing against "American Beauty," "The End of the Affair," "The Sixth Sense" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" for best picture in the British Academy Awards. (The winners will be announced Sunday.) Puri is up for best actor. The imposing Puri looked right at home amid the swanky surroundings of San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton, where I spoke with him during a recent visit.

It must have been a challenge to play, virtually back to back, characters who are so alike yet so dissimilar as Parvez in "My Son the Fanatic" and George Khan in "East is East."

It's true. Both share almost the same background. Both are working class. Both had an upbringing conditioned by traditions. Parvez falls in love with an Englishwoman; George Khan has married an Englishwoman. But Parvez is an absolute liberal, a modern man who can assimilate himself into any given set of circumstances. George Khan is still struggling -- limited in his outlook and slow in his growth. Parvez can articulate himself, his emotions and ideas. George Khan can't. He can use only one language, the fist, to nail his children down and to convince them of what he believes is right.

One thing that's admirable about "East is East" is that it doesn't soften him -- it goes so far into the abusive side of his character that it shows him hitting his wife. But you still think of him as an interesting and at times sympathetic character; you can still enjoy being with him.

You point out the challenge, absolutely. The script, honestly, does not support him and is not sympathetic to him. The first time I read the script I thought that he was a very negative person -- a brute. He is authoritarian and ill-mannered. He does not use civilized behavior to control his children. But when I read it a couple of more times I started realizing that this is not a one-dimensional character. One thing struck me -- really hit me. I said to myself, "He's been married to Ella for 25 years. And this woman is not meek and timid. She is a tigress." Like at the end: You see how she stands up and fights this conventional Pakistani couple to defend her family, her children and her honor. She gives it to them. She's not going to take anything lying down.

What is the truth here? I started digging until I could say, "This script is just one slice of George Khan's life." He has not been like this all his life. He's been warm to his children. He's brought them up, and been a hard-working man. He's not self-indulgent. He doesn't drink, he doesn't go around after other women. In that sense, he is very simple. The film begins at a joyous moment. The family is happy. The father is proud that his eldest son is getting married. But when that eldest son runs away from a traditional marriage ceremony in front of the entire community -- that is a big blow to him. He is totally scared, because he feels that all his sons are going to do the same. He goes and shares this dilemma with the priest in his mosque, because he is genuinely worried about his children.

That's when he decides to rule with the fist. When he hits Ella, his wife -- I think this is the first time he actually hit her. He may have had disagreements or arguments with her. He may have left the home in a fit. He may have broken a glass. But he never, before this, hit her personally. Because they also have so many wonderful moments.

I love the scene when he announces that he's bought a barber chair!

It could have been played straight, matter-of-fact. George could simply say, "I bought this chair because it was not expensive." But the way we played it we made it into a little love scene, which ends with them on the chair virtually making love. This is what I wanted to emphasize. Not that I wanted to make a noble or a saint out of him. But at the same time I thought it would not be fair if we didn't give him his due. People should be able to peep into his background. People should see this little man with all his frustrations and difficulties and complexities -- they should be able to see him complete. Yes, at the end of it, when all is said and done, nobody would justify his means to achieve his goal, or the manner in which he brutalizes his wife and children. But I wanted to bring out that he does have a sense of humor. Whether it is in the chair scene, or when he keeps threatening her, "Don't trouble me, I'll call up my first wife." The bugger has never been back to Pakistan! He just sends a little money to his first wife. But he keeps threatening Ella in a teasing manner -- and flirting with her in the shop.

You seem to be saying that the movie is partly about this moment in any parent's life when the kids are reaching adulthood and you're forced to reflect on your own choices as an adult.

The children see the world through their parents' eyes, initially, when they're tiny tots. Once they start going to school, and then to college, they widen their horizons. They have a lot of energy and vitality in them; they are more open to change. They grasp other cultures. They get influenced by lots of other outside things, whereas parents stop growing after a point. So the roles are reversed. Now parents are supposed to be looking through their children's eyes, because the children are young men and women now. That's when they all should have a meeting point. But George Khan can't get there. He doesn't listen to his children, which is a mistake.

Still, another thing in George Khan's favor, according to me, is that no matter how traditional we may call him, he does make an effort to modernize himself. He wants his children to go to the mosque, so they know both worlds. But he agrees with his wife to send them to modern schools instead of traditional schools, which is a big step for an Orthodox Muslim. Not just the male children, but the female child.

He asks his daughter why she wears a short skirt, and it turns out to be her school uniform.

Which is tough for an orthodox father. And he agrees to stay in a white area instead of a Pakistani area. He has made an effort. But at the same time, because of social pressures, he feels he should be accountable to his own community. The atmosphere in the '70s was not as bright for Asians in England as it is today. There were skinhead bands on the streets. There were racial attacks and discrimination. In Parliament, some of the opposition leaders were talking about repatriation. So all these things would create insecurity in a simple man like George Khan. He is not a great intellectual; he cannot see that he will not be thrown out of England. He doesn't want to be isolated. So he feels that in his hour of need he should stand by his community and his community should support him.

I thought it was wonderful that you see George and Ella as being actively sexual.

And this is another indication that they have been happy! For 25 years they have been married, they have seven children, and even now they are happy in bed together. There is a bonding!

Until the end of the film, no one questions why someone like him, who's trying to be a traditionalist, would marry an Englishwoman like Ella.

Right. His own son asks him. And he doesn't have an answer. He picks up a knife. Though -- it's not as if he couldn't justify it. Thinking on his behalf -- and this is me, thinking on his behalf -- damn it, he could have said, "Listen, my son, you know when I came to England, I was alone, I had nobody. This woman fell in love with me; I fell in love with her. Suddenly I thought to myself, George, go ahead. Get married. It's practical. You will be accepted in this society. How long are you going to hide here, hide there, be an illegal immigrant? You will get acceptance in this society and that's how you will stay here. But you, my son -- your situation is not the same. You were born British. Your mom is British. Don't compare yourself with me." But George is too limited to express himself.

So you think he could make the case that his children, because they are British, should cling more to the old Pakistani ways, to keep them going?

Yeah. At least, that's how I think he could defend himself.

The way you work reminds me of something Christopher Walken once said: He told an interviewer that he likes to read lines with an emphasis opposite to what seems natural or predictable, so he can see if there's another side to them.

Makes sense!

For example, when I spoke to Udayan Prasad, the director of "My Son the Fanatic," he talked about Parvez as a man who does everything wrong. But watching the film, I felt that no matter how he stumbled, he was dead right!

Yes. But in "My Son the Fanatic" one didn't have to do extra work -- everything was well-supported by the writer [Hanif Kureishi, who wrote both the original short story and the script]. Parvez was a huge character, huge -- he's in every scene. All his problems were right there on the surface. In "East is East," with George Khan, they are hidden. So one had to plan. OK, make the chair scene more lively, more fun, more friendly. Make more of him teasing Ella in the chip shop. And when the priest comes in, have a little fun with the priest also. The priest says, "God bless you." And I turn around and say, "Allah go with you," and I say it out of fun. I thought if I could play the light moments even lighter, the brutality will come as more of a contrast; it will come as a shock. Oh, we thought he was a good father, and now he's nasty! I want to bring everything to the surface and let people decide.

The movie is based on a play, but it sounds as if you gave it a new interpretation.

I didn't see the play, though it did very well. But the audience, the producer and the cast -- Linda Bassett, who plays Ella, and two of the boys, who were also in the play and the movie -- all felt that the movie was different. In the play George Khan was one-dimensional -- he was just a kind of tyrant.

Do you think that worked on stage because of theatrical conventions?

Oh, yeah. It's easier for me in the film, really, because I have close-ups. So if I say, "Whatever I am doing, I am doing for your own good," and I say it with agony on my face, it makes a huge impact. On stage, it would not reach -- I would need more support in terms of dialogue and behavior.

How did Ayub Khan-Din, the playwright and screenwriter, respond to that?

He loved it; oh, he loved it. I'll tell you: he's also a friend and a colleague, because he's also been an actor. We worked together eight or nine years ago in a Canadian film called "The Burning Season." So when I had certain confusions in my mind I said I wanted to have a chat with him. We sat and we talked. And I asked, "Did you make George too negative?" He said, half in fun and half serious, "This is my autobiography. This is my father. Do you know my father better than me?" Then he laughed.

Another thing I like about this film -- that is perhaps why it is a big hit and is finding universal appeal -- is that it is incidental that George is a Muslim. If you remove that and make him an Italian father, or Spanish, or German, or Indian, it will still work.

American actors are supposed to be more instinctive and emotional, working from the inside out; British actors are supposed to be more devoted to text and external technique. As an Indian actor who often works in England, what tradition do you draw from?

Well, to begin with, American actors have been giving such wonderful performances, whether DeNiro or Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino. It is irrelevant whether you are trained in this method by Lee Strasberg, or in that one by Laurence Olivier. What matters is the net result of the preparation: What does your performance say? I don't know where all the actors came from in "Schindler's List," but my God, it has almost the quality of a documentary -- even in the smaller parts you have amazing performances. It almost seems as if it is the actual footage from that era.

I draw from both traditions. I was actually not exposed to British films when I was growing up in India. In foreign films, we mostly get American cinema -- few British films reach Indian audiences. But students of acting used to find them, for example, in the British embassy's film festivals. I trained as an actor for three years in a theater school, and also, after that, in film school. I was exposed to international cinema through the archives: Bergman, Wajda, Fellini, Kurosawa, [De Sica's] "The Bicycle Thief." In theater we did Shakespeare, Chekhov, Strindberg, Tennessee Williams, also folk plays. We did a Kabuki play in Hindi, and the director, an authority on Japanese culture, came over from the University of Illinois; we did Brecht, "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" and "The Threepenny Opera," with an authority from Germany. It was really a substantial course in international theater.

You worked on one TV film with Satyajit Ray ["Sadgati," 1981] and a film his son Sandip directed and adapted from one of his scripts ["Target," 1995]. We often hear that his reputation was not as great in India as it is here.

He was as esteemed in his own country as he is here, but his cinema was regional cinema. He was known by the middle class. But he couldn't reach the working-class, because his films were in a language that was restricted to Bengal.

Do you ever feel special pressures as an Indian playing Pakistanis?

I have felt no pressure, and there has been no controversy, within India or outside of India. I bump into a lot of Pakistanis in England. When I go into their shops and restaurants and stores they have seen a lot of my Indian films and some of my Western work, and they all feel happy meeting me.

How do you approach your supporting parts in Western films?

For example, "Wolf." When "Wolf" came, my agent said it's one scene. And I asked, who is doing it? And my agent said, Mike Nichols. I thought, huge director! And I asked, who is the main actor? And my agent told me, Jack Nicholson. I thought, Jack Nicholson and I! Both of us in that scene! And in that scene I do all of the talking! And Jack Nicholson just sits and listens! Oh, wow! And the character is 80 years old -- so I'm going to play an 80-year-old, a wise man giving Jack Nicholson advice. Wow, I am going to do it! It will be a great experience! A great actor and a great director -- that is how I chose! It was just two days work. And I'm very happy with it.

In "The Ghost and the Darkness" you play the somewhat shifty, ominous chief of Indian workers on a railroad bridge in Tsavo, Africa. When two man-eating lions chew your ranks, you get to say the resonant cheap-serial line, "The devil has come to Tsavo."

My reason to do "The Ghost and the Darkness" was: big money, big film. I do lots of films for very little or no money, so I have to do some films that will give me money. "The Ghost and the Darkness" was pretty popular, but it could have been a huge success; I read the book on which it is based, "Man-Eaters of Tsavo," and it's a great story. "My Son the Fanatic" gave me little money, but huge satisfaction; with "Ghost and the Darkness" I was hanging on for two months and my work took only 15 days. I took it as a holiday. But this has been my strategy even back home in India. Some films I do for peanuts, and some for big money. Another strategy I follow is not to overbook myself in India. I book myself for three or four months and then, if I get a call from the West with an interesting project, I can take a plane and reach wherever they want me to go.

It's true, in "The Ghost and the Darkness," it's the kind of role I have done many times, and some of my Indian friends do ask me, "Why did you do that role?" But I say, "For money, and I'm not ashamed of it."

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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