By Sonya Rehman
Kicking off with much fanfare this month, the Rafi Peer Theatre Workshop’s three-day International Film Festival in Lahore showcased a number of Pakistani and foreign productions, in addition to bringing together renowned Pakistani and Bollywood A-listers, film critics and movie buffs on one dais.
But perhaps the highlight of the evening was the attendance of legendary Bollywood actor, Om Puri; an actor who has not only made a significant mark in Indian cinema, but also in a number of Hollywood productions, such as; City of Joy, The Ghost and the Darkness, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Hundred-Foot Journey and more.
“Lahore has so much culture and history,” Puri had said earlier during a quick press conference before the festival’s commencement, “If Pakistan was a part of India today, Lahore would be recognized as the country’s film industry, not Mumbai.”
After speaking extensively at a panel discussion along with two Pakistani actors, Usmaan Peerzada and Salman Shahid, and the Bollywood director, Madhur Bhandarkar, Puri passionately vocalized the dire need for both India and Pakistan to continue paving the way for a consistent cross-cultural exchange between both nations.
“The [collaborations] should never stop,” the veteran actor emphasized. We are seated inside a VIP room at the Alhamra Arts Council, where the festival is being held. This year marked the actor’s third visit to the country. Puri comes across as a very kind, empathetic man who has an unassuming air about him. He’s the type of individual who’s fully present when you’re speaking to him, you can tell his mind isn’t wandering – he’s tuned in to you. And that’s rare for an artiste these days, especially for someone like Puri – he is, after all, a living legend.
“Look, even though the British ruled us we have no animosity in our hearts for them any longer; our people go to the UK to work and settle down…so then why is there tension between Muslims and Hindus?”
Having made his debut on the big screen in 1976, Puri states that as a child he was awfully introverted and sensitive. “I used to feel life intensely,” the actor says, his voice betraying a difficult childhood, “As a child I would stand on the street and watch life pass by, and I used to wonder…why are people poor? How come some people have fancy clothes and cars and others don’t? I used to pray so that I could be of some use to them.”
Without an outlet to express his emotions, the actor states that he found it difficult to articulate his emotions which continued to “pile up” within him. Having acted in plays in school and later, in college, Puri says his fate changed the day a judge approached him when he won a Best Actor award for a play he’d acted in at college.
The judge, it turned out, was from the National School of Drama who offered the actor the opportunity to join the school’s theatre group which mainly produced socially relevant plays. “I told him I couldn’t because I worked during the day and went to night college in the evenings,” the actor said, “He offered to pay me. No one got paid since it was amateur theatre.” After joining the theatre group, Puri said he knew he wanted to act for the rest of his life. “I realized the plays gave voice to my feelings; I had found an outlet. I got hooked.”
For the acclaimed actor, film stands as a powerful medium, a harbinger of change. In 1981 after the release of Aakrosh, a film where Puri played the role of a peasant victimized by landowners, he received a long letter from a young girl. “She said thank you very much – you showed me the way; I was so moved by Aakrosh that I’m now working with the tribals. There have been many incidents like that,” he says, “If a film changes the mindsets of even a small percentage of people, it does make a difference.”
But is the Bollywood industry today producing films with a social bent? “I consider the 50s and the 60s the golden period of Indian cinema where great, socially relevant films were being made that were entertaining too,” Puri says while taking a long drag from his cigarette, “It was very moving, a very different kind of cinema…but after the 70s, Bollywood started deteriorating because, I feel, initially the people who were a part of the industry were literary, educated people who wanted social change. And then it became a money spinning medium; then entered the businessman who saw the lucrative potential of the industry but who didn’t have a literary sensibility. The emphasis was more on commerce rather than the powerful use of cinema.”
Currently due to start shooting for a Pakistani film next month in Karachi, the actor reveals that he plays the role of an ethical lawyer in the production.
“He’s a failure,” the actor says, speaking of his character, “Because he drops cases if he finds out his client is guilty. Eventually, he fights a case which is genuine and becomes an overnight success.”