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Why the silence of Om Puri defined his best cinematic moments

It might be his hyperbolic, sometimes hysterical, statements that get him attention now, but Om Puri has made a career out of silences. On his 65th birthday, we take a look at the actor who made a career out of silent expressions, rather than overt drama. 

Shriram Iyengar

The parallel cinema movement of the 80s was built on minimalism. Expressions were reserved. Characters were moulded out of reality. The ideas belonged to filmmakers schooled in the Bimal Roy, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen style of filmmaking. The actors born of these films went on to redefine acting in Indian films. Smita Patil, Anant Nag, Shabana Azmi, Mohan Agashe, Girish Karnad, Om Puri, and Naseeruddin Shah were among the many stars that arose from this fiery revolution.

Among these, Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah deserve special mention. Their depictions of repressed anger, brooding personalities, and intensity gave a new dimension to the trope of 'Angry Young Man'. In Om Puri's case, the anger seemed to simmer beneath the surface,hiding in his silences, waiting to explode on screen. Om Puri's ability to personify these characters is visible from his first film 'Ghashiram Kotwal' (1973). As the protagonist 'Ghashiram', Om Puri exudes the quiet anger of a man who decides to outwit the system that has imprisoned him. Standing alongside fellow FTII graduates like Mohan Agashe and Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri set the stage for his film career.

In the minimalist format of alternate cinema, Om Puri's silences express a lot more than a hysterical scream would. Take the example of Govind Nihalani's seminal 'Ardha Satya' (1983). The film is considered the most accurate portrayal of a Mumbai cop. His portrayal of an honest cop chafing under a corrupt system was accompanied by excruciating self examination and an intense silence. Rivalled by the mercurial Sadashiv Amrapurkar, Om Puri exhibits fury through his silences. In the first introductory conversation between Rama Shetty and Ananth Velankar at the don's den, the tension is created by the contrasting personalities on screen. It lasts for a couple of minutes, with Om Puri's character speaking a gross total of 10 lines. The effect is explosive. The ferocity of Ananth Velankar's anger is palpable on screen.

Silence is an important part of 'Ardha Satya'. Screenplay writer Vijay Tendulkar flourished in the empty spaces between dialogues. Om Puri thrives under the penmanship of this volatile playwright from Bombay. In both, Aakrosh(1980) and Ardha Satya(1983), the climax bursts to life with an explosion of rage following the pregnant silence before. Both films were directed by Govind Nihalani. In Aakrosh and Ardh Satya, Om Puri's character expresses his angst through silence.

In Aakrosh, Lahanya Bhiku has been accused of killing his wife. His suppressed silence and rage at the system that refuses to accept the truth is palpable. Throughout the film, he simmers away in silent indignation. Simmering like a pot on a slow burner, he erupts in a scream of such violence at the climax that it shocks audiences.

The climax of Ardh Satya might be similar in many ways. Except here, the silence is of a different kind. Ananth Velankar understands his course of action. But for all his anger and self righteousness, he is afraid of suffering the same consequences as his peer, Lobo (Naseeruddin Shah in a brilliant role). This silence is born of indecisiveness and anger. In both cases, silence serves to act as a symbol of suppression born of fear.

2 years from Aakrosh, Om Puri would play a role that would pave the way to his rise in Hollywood. Gandhi (1982) by Richard Attenborough saw him in a 2 minute cameo. In those 2 minutes, Om Puri takes over the screen in the presence of another stalwart, Ben Kingsley. His role of the rioter suffering a conscience begins at a high intensity pitch and ends with him in a crumbling heap. Throughout the scene, it is Om Puri's eyes that hold the attention of the audience, exhibiting anger, desolation, sorrow, and horror in equal turns. The penultimate moment before his character's breakdown is where the actor's true skill emerges. Few actors would have been able to make audiences sympathise with a child murderer the way Om Puri does.

Very few actors understand the power of the spoken word. Baritone can prove useful to turn a simple statement into a declaration. Amitabh Bachchan, Amrish Puri, Irrfan Khan, Naseeruddin Shah are examples of this. Om Puri would slide in comfortably in this list. Sai Paranjpe's 1980 classic, Sparsh, is an example of his ability to make an impact in a tiny role. A movie that revolves around Naseeruddin Shah's blind principal, Aniruddh, it does not have Om Puri on screen for more than 10 minutes. Om Puri's Dubey is a strict Hindi professor who is the ideal for Aniruddh's independent, proud self. Yet, his silence displays a certain grudge against the world caused by the slight of blindness. The scene where he breaks down is an acting lesson in itself. As a grieving husband, Om Puri does not flush the screen with tears, but punctuates his lines by sad pauses that add to the poignancy of the scene. Another brilliant performance that reminds us of his quiet presence is Maachis(1996). Directed by Gulzar, the film about unrest in Punjab had Om Puri playing a battle-scarred veteran taking to arms for justice. In one scene by a railway track, Om Puri reminds people of the ability of expressing anger through a quiet voice. The dead pan tone of his voice keeps rising with the intensity of the dialogues, such that even the rush of the passing train does not act as a distraction. The crescendo of it is neither high pitched, nor a whisper. Just a simple statement. Therein, lies the magic.

That an actor of such calibre and poise could act so rashly in the public sphere is a strange contradiction. But lest we forget, the craft and the person are often two different things. He might now be more vocal, not always to his benefit, but as an actor, his work is exemplar. Whether it is silences or page long monologues, his ability to keep audiences rooted in their tracks is unparalleled. An actor, whom Naseeruddin Shah called the most talented of his group, Om Puri has successfully thrilled audiences by finding the perfect range of emotions through his many characters.