Combustible Celluloid

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Om Puri is like a living history of Indian film. He's also become an expert on "East Is East", describing certain scenes to back up his opinions. He's a true professional, giving most of his energy the new film, a comedy about a displaced Pakistani father living in Britain and trying to raise his kids traditionally, but also gives ample time to other parts of his impressive history. Puri is a 24-year veteran of movies, and has made some 150 or more titles, including the recent US releases "My Son the Fanatic" (1999) and "Such a Long Journey" (2000).

"Most of my films, particularly my early years, first 10-12 years, have been in art cinema. That cinema gave me status and respect and credibility. It also gave me an opportunity to travel all over the world to film festivals. But they have very small money. So I also had to do commercial cinema, which was a bit of a compromise because I don't really admire those films. I've always been sort of conscious of it. If I do so many commercial films in a year, I also do art films to keep the balance."

Puri has the good fortune to have made a film with Satyajit Ray, who is the best known Indian filmmaker in the west, and widely considered one of the greatest filmmakers of all time. The film was a small hour-long television movie made in 1981 called "Sadgati" ("Deliverance"). Puri talks about the experience. "I was absolutely astonished when I got this news that he wants to put me in his film. I got a message that I should give him a call, and I called him up and I was shivering. I couldn't speak. He said, 'I'm sending you a copy of the script. Have a look at it, see if you'd like to do it.' I said, 'LIKE to do it? Of course I would!'

"He was truly a renaissance man. He was one filmmaker--I worked practically with every filmmaker in India, particularly in the art cinema--he was one who really stands apart. He could write his own scripts, his own stories, his own dialogue. He could edit his own film. He was handling his own camera. He was doing his own music. And he could design his own publicity. He was really multi-talented. I was under the impression that he did so much paperwork that I would be in a strait-jacket--he will tell you exactly what you are supposed to do. But to my surprise, he gave a lot of freedom to the actors and to himself. If he found anything interesting on location, he would incorporate that.

"I remember one incident during filming. It was lunch break. And I saw him looking at the sky, absolutely focused and frozen. I said, 'what is he staring at?' Then I looked at the sky. It was cloudy. And suddenly he just went berserk. He ordered to put as much trolley as we have for the camera outside. We had about 100 feet of trolley that was put outside. He was supposed to do a scene, and an actress was supposed to leave that evening because she was traveling to New York to participate in an Indian festival. So she had to go that day, and he had to finish the scene. So he decided to do the entire scene in one go, a kind of a mise-en-scene, because he expected rain. And he used rain for the scene, and it added to it. It gave it a more dramatic quality. But he threw away his piece of paper where he had different cuts. Instead he decided to do it in one because he must have realized that the rain may stop any time. It's nature. So one could see that he was thinking ahead. Because in a village, where would he bring the artificial rain from? And he was dead right. We had three takes and the rain stopped. And after that, there were certain close-ups of mine, because my body--I am dead by that time--is lying a little away under a tree. My close-ups were done with the artificial rain. Somebody held a branch of tree and another person was pouring a little water on it, making a little sprinkle. But entire scene he had completed. Satyajit was very clever."


Puri talks about working in the Indian cinema, which cranks out, if you can possibly imagine, more films than Hollywood. "Most actors will be working simultaneously in 15 or 20 films, maybe more," Puri says. Sometimes actors will work on two or three different films in a single day. Imagine Meryl Streep trying to find the souls of 15 characters all at once. And films will shoot sporadically over the course of 2 or 2 1/2 years. Recently, though, "the producers got tired because when actors signed 20 or 30 films, they couldn't give time to producers. So they complained and the association decided to put a ceiling on actors. The main actors who play central films will not sign more than 12 films at a time. The character actors will not sign more than 20 films," Puri laughs.

"I don't keep myself very busy. Which I can. There's so much work, I can easily book myself for two years. But I don't. I keep myself busy for 5 or 6 months maximum. So that gives me freedom. The reason being if some art filmmaker approaches me with an interesting opportunity from outside, or even within India, [I'll be available]. Because anybody who approaches me from abroad would give me at least 3 or 4 months notice. And that's been my strategy, even before I started working in the western films."


"When I first read "East Is East", my first impression was, 'it's a one dimensional character.' He's authoritative father: mean, bashes up his children, bashes up his wife, one-dimensional. But then after a couple of readings, I started digging. There is a subtext: the man has been married to this woman 25 years. This woman is not meek. She is not timid that she will take it lying down. So there has to be something more in it. I wanted to bring out his limitations, his contradictions, his frustration, his complexity, all that. So that he is a well-rounded character. [I wanted] to make him human--He is not inhuman. He is not a monster--that was a bit of a challenge. If I had replayed it, and made him absolutely dark, you would not defend him one inch. You would say, 'no he is a monster. That's it.'

Puri talks about the domestic violence in the film. "In the last scene, this woman fighting like a tigress, throwing the Pakistani couple out of her house, defending her family and defending her children. That made me think. Then I felt that what we see is a slice from his life. It's not completely him. He had been a good father, but he has a bad temper. I think this is the first time he raised his hand on his wife, in the film. Because she wouldn't have taken it. And that scene with the chair for example [where George brings home a barber's chair] could have been very matter-of-fact. But we made that scene into almost like a love scene, where they're sharing this very intimate moment. Because those moments are there in their life. Obviously if those moments were not there, they couldn't have survived for 25 years."

Puri was worried about having an Indian accent for the film. His character has supposedly lived in England for 25 years and learned English from his wife. "Damien [O'Donnell, the director] said, 'No you have your Indian accent. That's fine.' I said, 'OK.' But the boys had an accent teacher who came to the studio and take classes. And also Linda [Bassett], who plays my wife. One day before the shooting, I suddenly started feeling that I should have some accent, but by that time, the accent teacher had gone. So I sat with Linda. I said, 'please you read my lines the way you would a character. And I'm going to put those sounds on paper.' And that's what I did. And that's how I have an accent in the film. She would say, 'SONday' and I would say 'SONday.'"

"East Is East" has been a huge hit in England, and Miramax is no doubt hoping to duplicate its success here. The greatest benefit of this is that Western audiences will get to see more of Puri, who has appeared in "City of Joy" (1992), "Wolf" (1994), and "The Ghost and the Darkness" (1996). "I hope and I wish I get a meaty part in some Hollywood film, which hasn't happened so far. I hope it will happen."

March 29, 2000

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