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From Mr India to Nayak: 10 memorable roles by Amrish Puri – Anniversary special

On actor Amrish Puri's 15th death anniversary, we look back at some of the occasions when he held us in his thrall with powerful performances.

Keyur Seta

Any list of versatile artistes from Hindi cinema would be incomplete without the mention of Amrishlal Puri. The story of how the man who began his working life selling insurance went on to become a legendary name in mainstream Hindi cinema is nothing if not fascinating.

After failing his first screen test, the younger brother of yesteryear screen villain Madan Puri did not give up and started doing theatre with the great Satyadev Dubey. Getting recognized for his work on stage eventually made it possible for Amrish Puri to enter the movies, and once he had gained entry there was no looking back.

Amrish Puri is popularly known as a screen villain, given that he mostly played villainous characters, particularly in the early part of his cinema career. But as a versatile artiste, he brought some novelty to each negative role that he portrayed and also succeeded in playing some light-hearted characters as well.

Amrish Puri, who died on this day (12 January) in 2005, acted in over 300 films and making a list of his 10 best performances is a tough task. So, we decided to take an easier way out and compile a list of 10 memorable roles, for the actor's 15th death anniversary. Read on...

Nishant (1975)

Amrish Puri shared a deep professional and personal relationship with filmmaker Shyam Benegal and was often cast in his films. In fact, Benegal recounted to Cinestaan.com that if he failed to sign Amrish Puri for an upcoming project, the actor himself would approach the director and beg to be given at least a tiny cameo.

Nishant saw one of Puri's best acts in a film by Benegal. He played a ruthless zamindar (landlord) with three younger brothers played by Anant Nag, Mohan Agashe and Naseeruddin Shah. Puri wore the arrogant attitude of the character on his sleeve in every frame. He did not perform any of the antics that Hindi screen villains are normally associated with, but the menace was unmistakable, not least because of the pointed moustache he sported in the movie and, of course, that deep voice.

Aakrosh (1980) 

Much before Amrish Puri went on to become mainstream Hindi cinema’s go-to actor for villainous roles, he had made his mark with his performances in various Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani films. Aakrosh, which was renowned cinematographer Nihalani’s directorial debut, was one such. Although Amrish Puri was not among the film's lead cast, his role was still impactful.

Puri played public prosecutor Dushane who is pitted against Naseeruddin Shah’s advocate Bhaskar Kulkarni. He would argue professionally in court against Shah but wouldn’t shy away from praising him outside, donning a completely different attitude. During one of their discussions outside the court at the end, Dushane tells Kulkarni about the helplessness of the 'system'. Though he is seemingly casual and unmoved while delivering the dialogue, neither the defence lawyer nor the audience can miss the undercurrent of helplessness in it.

Nagina (1986) 

Amrish Puri’s negative role in this film was very different from the rest for he wasn’t a sophisticated or even a conventional bad guy here. He played a traditional saphera (snake charmer) with an unusual get-up and long hair. His intense expressions and determined voice added plenty of effect. There is a danger of such characters appearing unintentionally funny, especially if revisited decades later as we are doing now. But in this case, it does not happen and credit for that must also go to the actor.

There is another reason why Puri’s character in this film is different. After he is defeated and just before he dies in the end, Bhairav Nath expresses regret for using his magical powers in a malignant way. In a way, the character gets reformed.

Mr India (1987)

No list of all-time great Hindi film villains would be complete without the mention of Amjad Khan's Gabbar Singh in Sholay (1975) or Amrish Puri’s act as Mogambo in Mr India (1987). Both characters had iconic lines in these films — 'Kitne aadmi the?' and 'Mogambo khush hua!' — which have been inscribed in the minds of Hindi film lovers.

Mogambo, as we all know, was an out-and-out evil character in this film who wanted to destroy India. But many a time he wore an amused expression. From this stemmed the line, “Mogambo khush hua!” This aspect, ironically, added to the ruthlessness of the villain. The moment when he threatens to throw Aftab Shivdasani’s character — he was a child artiste then — into a vat of acid is quite memorable.

Ghayal (1990) 

After Mogambo, the second most (in)famous character played by Amrish Puri has to be the criminal industrialist Balwant Rai in Rajkumar Santoshi’s iconic film Ghayal. It is often said that the stature of the villain needs to be very high to showcase the greatness of the hero. Amrish Puri managed that perfectly here.

Balwant Rai is a real devil who commits various heinous acts. Of course, he is never shown committing any crime himself, but Puri’s performance leaves you in no doubt about his wickedness. What is even more noticeable is how the thespian’s character is scared stiff in the end but still puts on a brave front. Only someone like Amrish Puri could have pulled that off. 

Muskurahat (1992)

This underrated gem by Priyadarshan had a wonderful performance by Amrish Puri that, too, went largely unnoticed. Puri played retired Supreme Court justice Gopichand Verma, who secretly funds the education of Nandini (Revathy), though the reason is kept a mystery. Later, she and a stranger Pritam (Jay Mehta) land up at Verma's place in Ooty and slowly some secrets begin to unravel.

Muskurahat was a real feel-good film. The same can be said about Puri’s performance as well. He played an upright man with a short fuse. But deep inside he is caring and emotional, making it impossible not to love this character throughout. In fact, this might also be one of the few occasions when Amrish Puri played a lead role. We even get to see him shake a leg to the song, ‘Gun Gun Karta Aaya Bhavra’.

Damini (1993)

Amrish Puri’s character Indrajit Chaddha from Damini is easily one of his most evil acts. It’s a performance where you fear and hate him equally. No, he doesn’t kill or even slap anyone. Instead, he demolishes the morale and confidence of witnesses in court through words that act like missiles.

When his crazy antics meet Sunny Deol’s aggression, it creates an explosion on screen. The scene in which he asks Damini (Meenakshi Seshadri) humiliating details about a rape deserves special mention. All in all, Puri brought out a very different version of aggressive lawyer than what he had played years ago in Aakrosh. This, too, speaks for his versatility.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)

When those who have grown up in the 1990s think of the character of a girl’s father (whether on screen or off it), the first image that comes to mind is that of Amrish Puri from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. His performance as Chaudhry Baldev Singh was so strong that one felt nervous even when he did not open his mouth. There were various moments in the film where a mere gaze from Amrish Puri was enough to freeze you.

So, when Baldev Singh eventually realizes the deep love of his daughter Simran (Kajol) and her lover Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) and utters those now-famous words, “Ja Simran, ja [Go Simran, go]”, it comes as a pleasant shock to the audience. Despite the presence of Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol and many other good artistes, it was Amrish Puri’s act in the end that lifted the film's climax.

Chachi 420 (1997)

In these days of the internet, people often get fooled online by men posing as women. There was a meme doing the rounds of social media that Amrish Puri’s character in this film was the first person to be fooled by a fake ID since he falls for the character Lakshmi Godbole who is actually a man (Kamal Haasan).

Puri played a stern but positive character in this light-hearted drama. He doesn’t behave in a funny manner and smartly underplays the comical aspect. This was required since the humour came from how Kamal Haasan, who plays his son-in-law in the film, consistently fools him and his daughter (Tabu) into believing that he is a woman.

Nayak: The Real Hero (2001) 

The film by director Shankar saw Amrish Puri play a villain yet again. But the actor ensured that one can’t label it as just another negative or villainous act. He played Balraj Chavan, the corrupt and arrogant chief minister of Maharashtra.

We have seen real-life politicians who manage to smile to hide their true thoughts even when they are angry. Puri got this aspect perfectly here, for instance in the scene in which he injures the finger of a man in such a calm manner. But his biggest moment in the film is the one where he gives that intense interview to Anil Kapoor’s character.