Interview Hindi

Insurance agent to great actor: Shyam Benegal shares memories of Amrish Puri


On the actor's 85th birth anniversary (22 June), the veteran filmmaker also shared anedotes about Amrish Puri's noble deeds, which he did without fanfare.

Keyur Seta

The name Amrish Puri instantly brings to mind his two most popular characters — Babuji in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and Mogambo in Mr India (1987). A closer look at his career reveals his versatility through the many characters he played in Shyam Benegal’s sensible and realistic films like Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977), Kalyug (1981), Mandi (1983) and Sardari Begum (1996).

Many facets of Puri's life and personality are unknown. On Puri's 85th birth anniversary (he was born on 22 June 1932), Benegal got talking about his close friend. Here are some interesting and awe-inspiring facts about the late actor which Benegal shared with Cinestaan.com. Read them in Benegal's own words.

When Amrish Puri was an insurance agent...

Amrish used to work as a life insurance agent. He used to go around on his motorbike all over the place. But his passion was theatre. I mean, absolute passion. I met him mainly because he used to work with Satyadev Dubey’s theatre group called Theatre Unit. It was started by Ebrahim Alkazi when he was in Bombay, before he went to Delhi. He was one of Dubey’s great actors. He had two older brothers who were actors in films. One of them was successful. He played the villain in films from the 1940s to the 1970s. But Amrish himself had no real interest in cinema.

Amrish Puri in Shyam Benegal's Mandi

From voice-over artiste to film actor by chance...

When I used to make advertisement films or documentaries, I used him to give commentaries. For my very first film Ankur (1974), I had an actor I thought would be good because his physical presence was good. But he couldn’t speak a line of the dialogue properly. So I got Amrish to dub for him. After that I felt, 'Why am I doing this?' So, when I made my next film Nishant, I got Amrish to act.

From then on, he acted in practically everything I did. Of course, as I said, that wasn’t his initial ambition. But because of Nishant, other people saw his work and he became popular; even with a filmmaker in Telugu. He started working there. And he became known everywhere. Usually they would choose him to play villain parts in films. He became extremely successful.

He wanted to be a part of Benegal’s films, even when he didn’t have a part...

He continued to work with me, even when there was no part for him in the film. We used to have this wonderful thing, which was a semi-joke. He used to ask, ‘Do you have a role for me or don’t you?’ I would say, ‘No, I am not quite sure if I have a role.’ He would ask, ‘Not even a thumb impression?’ I would say, ‘Yes, maybe a thumb impression.’ That’s what used to happen. Even if there was no role, he would do a thumb impression role. He wouldn’t do this for anyone else because he had become a huge star.

He was a huge asset, but never a selfish actor...

He had a very fine personality. He had a lean but very powerful build. He had a magnificent voice, as you or anybody who has heard him would know. His articulation was excellent. Therefore, his presence in the theatre was incredible because once he came on the scene, you wouldn’t look at anybody else. He used to immediately dominate the scene.

He was a huge asset as far as I am concerned. Not only that, he was an absolutely brilliant actor. For most people, what happens is that when you have a very experienced actor and someone very new, they get very nervous. But he would never create such a situation. He would always encourage them. He gave them a lot of confidence. Therefore, he had a lot of patience. You need a lot of patience. And he was never a selfish actor.

Amrish Puri in Shyam Benegal's Manthan

Amrish Puri was humble...

Acting is a very narcissistic profession because the camera is on you or the audience is looking at you. So, you become very concerned with yourself. It’s an ego-centric and narcissistic profession. But Amrish was never like that. That was the wonderful part of him. Even Om Puri was never like that. They were never self-centred. Nor did they insist that when they were shooting, they should have the central focus. That was his great quality.

A lucky mascot who would wake people up at 5.30am...

He was almost like a lucky mascot. He would be in practically everything I did. The great thing about Amrish, like Om Puri also, was that when he worked on a film, he brought a lot of order into the unit. He had extremely disciplined ways. I remember, when we were doing Manthan, we were shooting in a village called Sanganva, which was about 45 kilometres from Rajkot. He would wake the unit up at 5:30 in the morning in the winter of January and take them all on a run (laughs). This was to keep everyone in good shape.

He was like that. He always had a wonderful presence in the unit because he maintained discipline, which flowed to other people. This also included his food habits.

When Amrish Puri raised the bar for television performances...

When I did Bharat Ek Khoj, Amrish was a very big star. He used to refuse to do television. But he never said no for Bharat Ek Khoj. He played different parts in the series when he was a very big star that time in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He made no fuss. He came, did whatever part I asked him to do, and did it with such finesse and quality. So he raised the bar in terms of the average performances that I got on TV series. If you look at Bharat Ek Khoj, you can tell the quality of performances, whether it is Amrish, Om or Naseeruddin Shah. These were all stars by that time.

Amrish Puri in Bhumika

When Amrish Puri tried to save a friend’s life...

There was a friend of ours who suffered an accident along with his family. The man and his child were very seriously injured. The wife survived, but these two were critical. They wanted a rare blood group, which Amrish had. He went to the hospital. He had no reason to do it, but he said, 'Look, this is a very rare blood group that I have and I am perfectly willing to give as much blood as they want.' Unfortunately, the child and the man died. But the fact remains that Amrish gave blood when nobody had asked him to. He was in that sense an extremely warm, helpful human being. Whenever anybody wanted anything at all, he would go out of his way to help the person; certainly the ones in his circle.

When Amrish Puri kept theatre going without letting anyone know...

He had become a popular star and villain in commercial films. This is where the money came from. But he helped a lot of people with that money. He kept the poor Theatre Unit going. When Satyadev Dubey would do a play, the production was paid for by Amrish. Nobody knew that was happening. It was not important to him that people should know that he was the person who was supporting it. He also helped people from the film industry who weren’t doing too well. He had such wonderful qualities. Very fine human being. He had immense loyalty towards his friends.