January 10, 2017: Goodbye, Puri Sahib

om-puri

Julie M: Indian film lost one of its guiding lights on January 6. Om Prakesh Puri was best known as a character actor—his appearance did not lend itself to lead roles in films that wanted to be popular, and he was definitely no chocolate hero. He worked on stage, in television, and in film, first in “art” cinema, later in mainstream Bollywood. I don’t recall seeing him dancing or singing, though: he always seemed to be too serious an actor for that. Puri was the crossover actor that all Bollywood actors dream of being: fluent in several languages, he worked without prejudice in Indian, Pakistani, British, and American films. His rough looks and gravelly voice as he aged often landed him roles as either a police officer or a stern father/father-figure, frequently positive ones, occasionally ambiguous, rarely 100% negative. As an indicator of his “type,” his name is often thought of when one thinks of actors like Naseeruddin Shah (the Filmi-Goris perennial fave and Puri’s longtime good friend), Shabana Azmi, Amrish Puri (no relation), and Smita Patil. He was the “angry young man” before Amitabh Bachchan, and appeared in later films like Rang de Basanti and Yuva, both serious films about young people coming into awareness of their political obligations (although in Yuva, he played a corrupt politician who is threatened by the young upstarts).

American audiences may remember seeing him in Gandhi (1982) as the character who killed a Muslim child because a Muslim had killed his son, and wants some kind of absolution from Hell through Gandhi. It was a pretty intense one-scene cameo for him early in his career and I believe it was his first non-Indian film job.

Puri had already won the Filmfare Best Supporting Actor award in 1980 for the dramatic and heart-rending art film Aakrosh (aka Cry of the Wounded). In it he played, nearly silently, a peasant whose life is one of such unfairness, dehumanization, loss, and violence at the hands of others that he commits a heinous, violent act of his own simply to prove that his entire life and those of his loved ones won’t be known for complete victimization. WARNING: this is very difficult to watch. The role in Gandhi, however brief, brought back, to those who had seen Aakrosh, a similar character who had the opportunity to make a very different decision.

Jenny K: In a similarly visible US film appearance in Roland Joffe’s City of Joy with Patrick Swayze and Pauline Collins, Puri played a Calcutta rickshaw driver with such detail and determination that he impressed even the New York Times, though the film itself didn’t do well. Here’s a bit of his biography, remembering that film, chronicled by his ex-wife, Nandita.

Julie M: Puri could also handle silly comedy as well as the more serious dramatic roles. One of my personal favorite Indian films is the 1997 Chachi 420 (Fake Aunty), which was inspired by the American film Mrs. Doubtfire.   As Banwari Lal, he is instantly suspicious of “Lakshmi” (the fake-female babysitter for his employer’s granddaughter), and pits himself against her repeatedly as she thwarts his plans to siphon off his employer’s money. Here’s a great scene with Banwari comically spying on her as she walks through town (there is dialogue but no subtitles are necessary).

As in most farces, there is eventually a comedy of mistaken identity, and this one involves Banwari in a hilariously complex way.   At the end he learns the truth about Lakshmi, but has committed so many evil deeds that he cannot reveal what he knows lest they all come out publicly and ruin him.

Jenny K: That looks hysterical, but in addition to a light touch with slapstick, Om Puri could be funny with just a look or a gesture, bringing an indelible quality to what would, in other hands, be a rather bland supporting role. Take his part as Pandit in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool(2003)…a fabulous film, but paired with his old school chum Naseeruddin Shah again, as Purohit, they play policemen/city officials who bring real color to the usually bland “chorus” role in this Macbeth adaptation. They completely had me laughing from the get-go.

om-in-maqbool

(Screencap thanks to Amrita Sen on the Borrowers and Lenders site.  I could not find one, and no pic would be a crime!)

Julie M: But his roles as a gruff father trying to resist change are the ones that I think a lot of people would remember him for, and two of them are conveniently filmed in English. In 1999’s East is East (and its 2010 sequel West is West, which we reviewed here), Puri earned international acclaim as the patriarch of a British-Pakistani family. As George Khan, he is dismayed that his British-raised children won’t respect Pakistani traditions and is abusive to them and to his British wife. In this scene, George is upset that his youngest son is faking that he is not circumcised in order to fit in with the other boys.

Although played as comedy, Khan’s struggles with his family’s identity rang serious and true among not just Pakistani immigrants to Britain, but among any bicultural families torn between the old ways and their new homeland. In 2014’s The Hundred Foot Journey, Puri plays Papa Kadam, an Indian immigrant to France whose smelly, casual Indian restaurant is a nuisance to Helen Mirren’s Madame Mallory, who runs a classy Michelin-starred French restaurant just across the street.

They become instant enemies: in this scene, Papa has bought all the pigeons in the market so Madame cannot make her restaurant’s signature dish.   He doesn’t say a word in the scene, but he is so good at the character that you know all you need to just from his face. The journey he takes from stubborn ire to protectionism, to eventual détente and maybe something more, is again one that is familiar to any immigrant.

Jenny K: What I constantly marvel at is how a man with such an instantly recognizable face and voice can give such a variety of characterizations in the body of his work. I remember going to see Mirch Masala (1987) during the Kennedy Center’s Maximum India festival back in the spring of 2011, and almost didn’t recognize Puri at first, who, at 37 was playing an old caretaker of sixty-some. He was always playing older, at least by the time I began watching Indian films in the eary 2000’s. And, because of that, it’s hard to believe that he left us at only 66!

Mirch Masala is one of those dramas of colonial India that play so well, especially with its stellar cast. Naseeruddin Shah is epically slimy as an evil governmental officer, or Subhedhar, who uses his position to harvest the countryside for taxes and other “side benefits.” On his rounds one day, he sees a particularly lovely, but married, woman, Sonbai (the feisty Smita Patil), at the banks of the river, and tells her what he expects from her. She flouts him and runs away to hide in the local warehouse yard where the chili harvest is dried out in the sun. Abu Miyan (Om Puri) is the factory watchman, or chowkidar, who stands alone with the women in their defiance of the subhedar’s demands for Sonabai’s surrender. Even the mayor of the town is against them, thinking that the cost of one woman will be worth the loss of the whole town. Sometimes the film leans toward the melodramatic, and Naseerji twirls a particularly fine moustache, but I really enjoyed the film and Om Puri’s noble character. [Sorry, no subtitles, but the visuals are vivid!]

Another old favorite of mine for its classic cast and solid performances was Disha (1990), our review, here. Puri’s performance as the “crazy” older brother, Parshuram or “Pagal Parsa” who sticks to the farm life and the continual digging of his family’s well, is the rock on which the whole story is built. The whole film is a picture of how poverty in the countryside sent multitudes into the city to better their family’s fate, but it usually didn’t. Nana Patekar, Raghuvir Yadav and Shabana Azmi are also wonderful in it.

Whatever role he took, Om Puri left us with a clear picture of the person he was trying to share. It was a gift, rich with detail, charm and passion, subtle or broad, always perfectly delivering the director’s intention. That is not a talent that will be easily replaced…if ever. Thank you, Puri Sahib.

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Jan. 27, 2011: Doubles Trouble…Disguised and Confused

Julie M:  Okay, I’ve got a question.  Why are fraudulent and duplicate identities such a popular theme in Indian film? American films don’t do it so often–well, maybe they do in stupid farces I don’t watch–so what’s so attractive about the theme to Indian audiences? Maybe a secret wish to pretend to be someone that has a different kind of life? To experience a kind of reincarnation without forgetting previous lives?

Jenny K:  They certainly do use the theme more than we do, but it is a classic back to Shakespearean plays and beyond. Of the ones we’ve done already, there’s Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, which I watched again last night on Netflix (liked it better this time), Don 1&2, the second half of DDLJ, etc. Lots of others we haven’t talked about, like Shah Rukh in Duplicate. SRK doesn’t seem to want to be himself very often, does he? Or some say, he’s always being himself. Oh well, it worked for Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn…

 

Julie M:  Is there an Indian actor of major status who has NOT done a double role like this?

 

Jenny K:  A double role or a disguised role? But I think for the men it’s a no to either question. I think there are a few of the women who have done one or the other, and a few that have done neither. Women, I guess are supposed to be dumb enough to be fooled but not men…

Julie M:  Well, I guess you can count Rani’s second identity as the prostitute in Laaga Chunari Mein Daag, but it’s not like she was trying to deceive anyone, just protecting her own honor, somewhat.

Jenny K:  It’s just not as often that you see the women do this kind of thing. Rani and Abhishek both did lots of identity shifting in Bunty Aur Babli, but that isn’t quite the same thing.

Julie M:  No, it’s not…the whole plot of BaB is the crime spree:  the alternate identities just helped them pull it off.  Although, the reason they did the crime spree in the first place is because they wanted to distance themselves from their failures as their actual selves…so it does make a weird kind of sense.

Jenny K:  Kajol has had at least one twin role that I remember, in Dushman.  Never seen Aish do either, to my recollection. Preity and Ajay pretend to be rich players in Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke, that also ends up with Ajay playing a twin role. Then there is Khal Nayak where Madhuri takes on a false identity.

Julie M:  Duh, Khal Nayak. I just saw that.

Jenny K:  I’m sure there’s more…Wait. Haven’t watched it yet, but Rani pretends to be a man in Dil Bole Hadippa! so she can play cricket, but then falls for Shahid. Got it in my queue at Netflix. She must have been the tiniest Sikh guy to ever wear the beard.

Julie M:  Maybe women-pretending-to-be-men, a la DBH!, in order to achieve something that is denied to women by the culture is a different issue? DBH! is very Shakespearean as well. Like Twelfth Night, recently made into the delightful-ish 2006 teen comedy She’s the Man, where a girl pretends to be her twin brother so she can play soccer and falls for a guy on her team.

Jenny K:  That’s really loosely Twelfth Night, isn’t it? Viola pretended to be a boy to save her own life…a woman alone in the world back then was in desperate straights…she wasn’t doing it to achieve something she couldn’t have as a woman. She thought her brother was dead, too, not that that is a particular issue, but it adds to the pathos. In the US we tend to do more body-switching or regressing films to “show how the other half lives,”  films like 17 Again (which I loved)/Back to the Future/Freaky Friday and that more recent one with Ryan Reynolds and Paul Rudd that seemed too crass to watch, so I didn’t. We seem to like it better when the characters have little or no control over the switching. I wonder why that is?

Julie M:  The Change-up, and it’s Jason Bateman, not Paul Rudd.

Jenny K:  Six of Juan, half a dozen of his brother… 🙂

Julie M:  Nah, Bateman is a much better actor…and technically B to the F is time travel with the characters playing themselves in the past/future, but I see what you mean. To me, body-switching plots in American movies tend to be for the purpose of learning how to empathize. (except for the action movie Face/Off—where it’s for evil—but that’s not body-switching, just face-switching) Maybe it’s a Christian thing–walk a mile in another person’s shoes etc., but what do I know from that, I’m Jewish–and I think that is culturally more attractive to Americans particularly when it’s a switch between generations. Adults always say they want to go back to high school, knowing what they know now, right?

Whereas dual- or alternate-identity plots in Indian film seem to be for the purpose of trying to cram two different lives into one normal lifespan, and may be more attractive in Indian culture.  But here’s a rare Indian body-switching AND gender-switching plot—Mr. Ya Miss—sounds a lot like the awful Rob Schneider film The Hot Chick.

But all this is very different from dual-role movies, where one character is the visual double of another, generally an opposite-personality type, both played by the same actor, and that is the basis of the plotline.  Sometimes one dies and the other replaces him (Kaho Na Pyaar Hai).  Sometimes they turn out to be actual twins but separated, so that one is unaware of the other’s existence (in which case, the purpose seems to be to heighten the story’s melodrama). That, I think, plays with the popular notion/fantasy that everyone has a doppelganger somewhere, and what would happen if they came into the same life-space at the same time.  I found a fun slideshow of recent and famous dual roles.

It’s also a way to get hot or new starlets some extra screen time, particularly when one of the characters is evil or likes to wear revealing clothes (or both):  I refer you to Bipasha Basu in Dhoom 2 and Deepika Padukone (ick) in Om Shanti Om and Chandni Chowk to China (ick) as two examples. So, women seem to get these kinds of roles although they don’t typically play characters with alternate identities.

(warning:  my inner nerd comes out here)  I thought this was pretty cool about why superheroes have been popular as alter egos á la Ra.One, and also sheds light on why dual identities are popular:

“Reincarnation is par for the course. It can be a cosmic pathway for attaining an alternate identity, sense of self, or supreme liberation… Women, who can often be powerless in the real world, can channel the divine female energy to break social convention and triumph over evil.”

Jenny K:  I still stand by my statement that the girls do the double roles much less frequently than the guys do.  My theory may have something to do with watching Pat and Kathy go crazy at every version of SRK that they can possibly watch, the more the better.  Cases in point:  Ra.One and Don 2, every different identity and/or disguise, and even every different makeover elicits hours of post-show dissection. The girls, not so much.

Julie M:  Aha!  Then this probably explains it:

“Audiences have always loved to see their favourite hero in two viable characters where one is shy and the other is daring at an exciting price of single ticket.”

And if the hero is hot…well, who can blame them?!

Speaking of alternate identities, I recently had fun with the comedy Chachi 420 (Aunty Fraud, 1998) despite its being a direct rip-off of Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). The basic plotline of the two movies is identical: a man, faced with losing the right to see his kid(s) as he and his wife divorce bitterly, disguises himself as a woman so he can get a job as their nanny and stay in their lives. Both characters face complications trying to maintain their dual identities. The differences in details and ending, though, are emblematic of the vast differences between Indian and American culture, and where the comedy comes from is likewise wildly variant.  I think may help shed light on why alternate-identity films are so popular.

To start with, the basis of the separation of the men from their children is very different. Jai (Kamal Haasan—who also directed the film), the dad in Chachi 420, has very limited visitation with his young daughter because the divorce was granted on the basis of fairly minor “cruelty” to his wife Janki (Tabu).  Not much chance for comedy there. In the American version, a culture where joint custody is pretty much the default in divorce judgments except in extreme circumstances, dad Daniel (Robin Williams) was refused joint custody and given only weekly visitation with his 3 children because he was an unemployed voice actor and generally an irresponsible person.  Voice actor=funny.  Irresponsible=funny.

The relationship of the father to the ex-wife is different, as well.  Jai still loves Janki dearly and hopes for reconciliation (another motive for trying to get closer to the family), but Daniel understands that his relationship with his wife (Sally Field) is at an end–for him, it’s all about the kids.

Both films have comedic love sub-plots. Daniel’s wife has a boyfriend that Daniel works to crowd out of the picture, as he doesn’t think he’s good for the kids (and he’s a bit jealous as well)–how he undermines the boyfriend is very funny but is not the main source of the film’s comedy, which derives from Robin Williams dealing with being in a dress, learning to cook and clean, and having to switch identities in seconds to keep from being found out.

But in Chachi 420, Janki’s widower father falls in love with Chachi, as does Jai’s landlord, and a good portion of the Indian film’s comedy is in Chachi trying to evade their advances. That, and seeing how Chachi beats people up: there is an extended fight scene in a marketplace that is pretty funny, done in South Indian filmi fashion with Chachi standing in for the character normally played by Rajnikanth, but it goes on way too long. Sorry, I can’t find a clip of that scene, but trust me, it’s hilarious.

Jenny K:  So they combined Mrs. Doubtfire with Tootsie, it seems, with the older suitors thing, and doubled it, just to make sure we got the joke!

Julie M:  The reveal scenes where the dual identities are discovered are also very different. In Mrs. Doubtfire, the reveal takes place in public, in a restaurant, where Daniel has to go back and forth between two tables in his different personas and ultimately slips up–and is absolutely hilarious. In Chachi 420, it’s much more serious.  Jai (as Chachi) saves his wife from drowning herself in a river once she realizes how she drove Jai away and that she still loves him; he reveals his true self to her (and her alone) to keep her from continuing suicide attempts.  They reconcile and reunite the family, inventing a tragic death for Chachi.  Mrs. Doubtfire‘s Daniel and his wife never reconcile, but he does end up with a new job hosting a kids’ TV program in the persona of Mrs. Doubtfire, which proves he is responsible enough for a joint custody arrangement.

Jenny K:  You can usually see where the “homage” directors are drawing from the originals, and that’s part of the fun.  I’m, in most cases, pretty good at it…but the suicide on the bridge thing has got me stumped.  Where did that come from?

Julie M:  Oh, that was totally out of the blue. She sees Jai (who has been promoted from choreographer’s assistant to head choreographer on his current film) on TV giving an interview. Jai goes into detail about how he has two children, his 5-year-old daughter and his ex-wife who acts just as childish, and this triggers an extensive flashback as to how they met–very cute, she hit him with her car on a film set–fell in love, eloped and had their daughter.

She realizes how great Jai really is, and she runs to his house to find him, only to find a bunch of Chachi’s clothes and Jai’s dance assistant. (the assistant thinks Chachi is Jai’s housekeeper) Janki leaps to the conclusion that Jai is seeing both the assistant and Chachi, and this prompts her to throw herself off a bridge instead of, hm, I don’t know, leaving him a NOTE??!!!

Jenny K:  You and I obviously don’t feel things deeply enough.  I’ll try to do better.

Julie M:  It’s also a testament to Kamal Haasan’s acting talent that he makes a really good woman. Robin Williams does not–and that’s the funny part of Mrs. Doubtfire.  Here’s the first public appearance of Jai as Chachi.

Jenny K:  I see what you mean…he does look nice…only his forearms give him away. I don’t think I would have recognized him. He is a wonderful actor, though I think I’ve pretty much only seen him in his dramas and not seen his comic side before.

Julie M:   What I thought was funny is that as Chachi, he tucks the front of his sari back between his legs like he is wearing a dhoti, and nobody seems to notice. And throughout the film his fake boobs get bigger and bigger–he is positively svelte in that first reveal scene compared to later in the movie.

It’s also telling that Kamal, in the Jai persona, is a complete straight-man, while as Chachi he’s doing the comedy. It’s like he doesn’t want to pollute peoples’ visions of him as a dramatic actor.

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