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Interview Hindi

Amrish Puri was full of beans, humour and life, says biographer Jyoti Sabharwal – Anniversary special

On Amrish Puri's 90th birth anniversary, the veteran journalist and writer remembers the actor who redefined villainy in commercial Hindi cinema.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

‘Mogambo khush hua!’ The iconic dialogue delivered in the incomparable baritone of Amrish Puri, the actor who redefined villainy in commercial Hindi cinema, remains the most popular memory of one of the unforgettable roles essayed by the actor during his long and illustrious career.

From theatre to cinema, from arthouse films to commercial movies, from playing archetypal and over-the-top villains to the stern yet soft-hearted Punjabi father, Puri performed all his roles with aplomb.

With his beginnings in theatre under the legendary Ebrahim Alkazi, Puri chipped away at his craft, garnering admiration for his dedication. Alkazi wrote about the actor when he was awarded a scholarship at the Natya Academy in Bombay in 1961, “He [Puri] has, by his presence, stepped up the general tone of the class and set an example to the other students of the attitude required of a worker in the theatre. I have great pleasure in awarding him a scholarship.”

Amrish Puri as Mogambo in Mr. India (1987)

Although Amrish Puri’s elder brother Madan was a well-established actor in Hindi cinema at the time, it was made clear to him that he had to carve his own path, which he did.

Making his foray into films in the 1970s, when he was already pushing 50, Amrish Puri made a mark with his commanding presence and scene-stealing performances. He appeared in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) and made his Hollywood debut with Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984), making him one of the earliest stars from India to perform in a Hollywood movie.

Impressed by his craft, Spielberg penned a note for Puri at the conclusion of the filming, writing, 'To my best villain...You are unique in all the world as a ‘bad guy’. And in the real world we live in, you are a terrific human being. I loved every minute of our work together — can’t wait to work with you again.'

Seeking to capture his impressive repertoire of films as well as the person behind the silver-screen performances, veteran journalist and writer Jyoti Sabharwal worked on his autobiography, The Act of Life: Amrish Puri, published by Stellar Publishers. She met the actor in 1990 to profile him for Newstrack, the video newsmagazine of the India Today magazine.

Although Amrish Puri was not receptive to doing video interviews, he made an exception for Sabharwal. In 2002, she approached him to document his life in a memoir. Instead of recounting his personal and professional life, the book was conceptualized as a treatise on the craft of acting.

Sabharwal wrote in the foreword, 'We mutually agreed upon this title, The Act of Life, for the major thrust of his [Puri’s] refrain was that close observations in life alone make for an outstanding actor and this is where the reel and the real converge.'

Jyoti Sabharwal

In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, Sabharwal reminisced about the time spent with the man whose dialogue delivery, body language and demeanour infused his characters with life: “He was an extremely warm human being, extremely decent and extremely intelligent. There are very few actors around today who understand the craft the way he did. He was so skilful... the best part was the kind of goodwill he left behind.”

The book is divided into three parts, each of which captures a particular stage in the actor’s career — Stage of Struggle, Act of Showbiz, and Art of Survival. “The Stage of Struggle was that although he had made it so big in theatre, he had to face so many rejections when he came to cinema," she explained. "When that phase of struggle was over, he proved that the way he could get under the skin of the character was all a gift of his theatre training.

"There is an interesting thing about Steven Spielberg who called him 'my best villain ever'. I asked him [Puri] about Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom being rebuffed back home and he said it was a very silly reaction. [The film was banned in India at the time.] It [the film] was pure fantasy. He said we should not be so thin-skinned that we take everything so literally. In a fantasy world, we can take all kinds of liberties.”

The second chapter examines Puri's work in cinema while the last chapter focuses on his reinvention of sorts, “The Art of Survival was when he thought he needed to reinvent himself so that a kind of ennui does not set in," the writer explained. "His two roles, one in Pardes (1997) and another in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), where he comes across as a warm, lovable, caring father who calls a spade a spade, both roles were so memorable and he showed that there was a softer side to him which went beyond villainy and harshness.

"That brought another dimension of human emotions into play. That must have been very demanding for him as it was a new genre. This is why it’s called Art of Survival because all of us, to survive, have to keep reinventing ourselves.”

Puri died unexpectedly on 12 January 2005. Sabharwal said she had never thought the book would be published posthumously, “He was full of beans, full of humour and full of life," she said. "You never felt that you were talking to a 70-year-old man. He was so fit. It was so shocking. If he had not met with the almost fatal accident [on the sets of a film], he would have lived much longer. He was a foodie and [both of us] being Punjabis, there was a natural affinity. His hospitality and warmth were remarkable and so was his humility.”

Although in the film Mr, India, Mogambo is defeated because of, well, his evil plans for global dominion, the actor Amrish Puri lives on in the hearts of Hindi film fans.