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.

March 30, 2012: Deliver Me from March Madness!

Julie’s been somewhat of a basketball widow this past couple of weeks, which gave her lots and lots of time to catch up on films!

 

Julie M:  B was working and watching basketball tonight, so I took the opportunity to watch Kashmir Ki Kali (Kali of Kashmir, 1964). It started out like a typical Shammi romp, where he is a wealthy, irresponsible playboy goofily chasing a shy, beautiful village girl, whom he almost gets until an impossible amount of drama in the last 30 minutes threatens their happy future together.

  

Jenny K:  Yes, I liked that one, too…it’s always been touted as one of his best. And of course, set in Kashmir…how can you resist?!?

 

Julie M:  Rajiv (Shammi Kapoor) is the reckless heir to a wealthyDelhi industrialist. One day Maa decides to pick him a bride so he’ll settle down; he rejects all the choices and flees to the family’s other home in scenic Kashmir, where he meets Champa (Sharmila Tagore), a poor flower-seller with a blind father. So as not to scare her off he pretends to be the homeowner’s driver (hm…where have I seen THAT before?) and chats her up, then finds numerous occasions to be with her and pitch adorable woo, mostly in song. This one was my favorite.

A particularly hilarious scene has him dressing up in a burkha so he can ride with her and her friends as they travel to a village fair, and there is a crazy sub-plot involving three comely lasses who have rented rooms in his home and are chasing his wealth (that part could have lifted right out as far as I was concerned). There’s also a wonderful dance number at the above-mentioned fair, full of ethnic goodness, although what a Punjabi folk dance is doing in a Kashmiri village is beyond me.

Since I had already seen the disarmingly similar, An Evening in Paris (1967), also with hammy Shammi and Sharmila, I kept having flashbacks–or flash-forwards considering it’s a later film. Though clearly typecast, Shammi is so silly and sweet that I forgave almost everything. Also, this film is worth watching because of the elaborate jewelry, second only to Paheli in films I’ve seen. Overall: fluffy, fun, a thrilling scene near the end with Shammi getting all dishoom on the bad guy and wrestling with him on an elevated rock transport system…what more do you want?

Kashmir Ki Kali available free on YouTube, with English subtitles.

 

Jenny K:  I, who never let basketball bother me, watched Bikini Beach today while getting some housework done. Ah, that Frankie Avalon, winning the fair Annette in a double role, as both himself and, as his own rival, Potato Bug, a goofy British hearthrob of a singer (a Chad and Jeremy type), who also drag races.  I just watch it for Eric Von Zipper. When EVZ likes someone, they STAY liked! In no way deep, but I’m a sucker for fluff, every so often. This may be why I was predisposed to like masalas.

 

Julie M:  I think the 1960s are the 1960s no matter where. I love how Indian films reflect the music of the time, all the while staying true to Indian mores and values.

[the next day…still during the basketball tournament…]

Julie M:  Saw Morning Raga (2004) tonight. LOVED it. It had everything–fantastic music, dramatic storyline (but not too), fabulous performances. Prakash…what a hottie, too bad he didn’t do more work. And Shabana “sang”! I loved that it wasn’t “mainstream,” that the pacing was perfect, visually stunning…I can’t say enough. Just my kind of film. Thank you, thank you for sending it.

Brief plot summary:  Swarnalata (Shabana Azmi) and Vaishnavi (Ranjani Ramakrishnan) are best friends and musical partners, singing traditional carnatic (South Indian) pieces in the privacy of their homes (this piece is the opening of the film).

Swarnalata convinces Vaishnavi to perform publicly with her, but a tragedy en route changes the lives of both families.  Twenty years later Vaishnavi’s son Abhinay (Prakash Rao), an aspiring musician, returns to the village and encounters Swarnalatha, and wants to incorporate her and her music into his band.   Swarnalatha, still blaming herself for the tragedy, refuses.  Can their mutual passion for music overcome the horrors of the past?  And what role does Pinky, Abhinay’s new girlfriend, play in the story?   Click on the Youtube logo, bottom right, if it doesn’t play.

 

Jenny K:  Morning Raga was all part of my minifest “movies about playback, and concert, singers”.  It was a nice little movie…but, Shabana didn’t sing any of it herself, you know. However, all the reviews I have read said they thought she had studied a lot to get the whole set of performance mannerisms right and the lip synch just so. Quite a feat!

 

Julie M:  Yes, apparently she did study, for months, as did Prakash learning to play the violin (even though it wasn’t his playing in the film). I admire that kind of commitment.

And…I was listening to a library CD on my walk this morning and a fusion song came on that had long bits of carnatic music in it, and now I know what it is! 

Morning Raga is available free on YouTube. It’s mostly in English, and the small bits that aren’t English are subtitled.  Part I is here.

 [a few days later..still more basketball…]

Julie M:  Saw Maqbool (2004) tonight. I was really leery of seeing it because of the gangland setting and I kind of wish I had listened to myself, because despite the excellent performances (Irrfan was fantastic!) it was really bloody and violent.

I like how it played with the parallel characters from MacBeth: instead of two sons Abbaji (the King Duncan character) has a daughter, which set up a whole other dynamic re the succession. Lady MacB is not a wife but a mistress, the mistress of both the King and Maqbool, again upping the drama quotient and changing her motivation from ambition for her husband to simply getting rid of a lover she does not love to exchange for one she does love, while still keeping her position. This scene, where she holds a gun to Maqbool’s head and forces him to call her “my love,” is key to her twisted psyche.

Jenny K:  That’s what bothers me the most about Maqbool, when they make Lady MacBeth the mistress, then in this film, Maqbool’s whole motivator is sex, not power and greed as in MacBeth. That bothered me more than, say having “Emilia” [spoilers] not die in Omkara, but in the end, flip the Shakespeare on his head and have her kill her Iago. Shocking, but less fundamentally a change to the plot.

 

Julie M:  I also loved this quwwali song at the gangland funeral.

And I loved how the “witches” are brought together in the single person of the soothsaying cop (Om Puri) and his jovial sidekick (your boy Naseeruddin Shah).

The visuals were good and I suspect would have been better if the DVD had not been mastered from a bad VHS original. Still, all that blood and shooting really soured what could have been a really satisfying drama. Overboard, to my tastes. 

This was a welcome light moment, at the engagement-party festivities for Abbaji’s daughter.

Jenny K:  I’ve always liked Omkara better than Maqbool of Vishal Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare adaptations, primarily because Maqbool is soooo dark.  I thought as you like Irrfan so much, it was important that you see it. It may not have been his first film, but it was one of the first two that really put him on the map, cinematically. The first was The Warrior by Asif Kapadia. I haven’t seen it, but it has great reviews.  I can’t believe that he didn’t “hit” until he was about 40. He still looks so great and as busy as ever at 50!

Julie M:  Omkara certainly gets my vote, too, for the better of the two. It  was nice to see Irrfan and Tabu act together again. I loved the two of them in The Namesake (2007), which I saw first, but I can’t help but think that their casting in Namesake was inspired by their undeniable chemistry in Maqbool. Excellent, mature actors serious about their craft. LOVE to see that!

 [the next night…isn’t that tournament over yet?]

Julie M:  Saw Kairee (Raw Mango, 2000) tonight. Very indie, very good.

A young city girl (Yogita Deshmukh) arrives in a rural Marathi village to live with her beloved aunt Taani (Shilpa Navalkar) after the tragic death of her parents. At first she is happy in her new life, since she gets to spend a lot of time with her aunt in the beautiful setting. But soon she must go to school, which is taught by an incompetent master and where she is the only girl. She is made to feel bad but is cheered by her aunt’s standing up to the master and getting her transferred to another school where the education is better, the master  is friendlier (a stuttering Atul Kulkarni) and there are more girls. But, gradually she finds out that things are not what they seem in her idyllic new life.   [Sorry, no subtitles.]

It was a very beautiful movie visually, with excellent performances by Shilpa (such an expressive face, especially when she laughs!)  and Atul (good to see him NOT be a villain for a change), and a cameo by Sonali Kulkarni (of Mission Kashmir and Dil Chahta Hai) as the grown-up girl. 

Lots of cryptic references to finding the local peacocks (which the girl never gets to see:  I’m not quite sure what the symbolism is, maybe happiness?) and eating raw mangoes fresh from the tree (which I believe represents perfection), a favorite treat of Taani’s which the girl also never gets to experience.  

 

Jenny K:  Atul is one of my favorite character actors.  He’s given some great performances in Rang De Basante, Chandni Bar, Khakee and this one.  And all so different.  Amazing.  He never just “phones it in” as they say.  Definitely you’ve picked some wonderful basketball distractions. Two points…swooosh!  Into the hoop!

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