The Empire Strikes Back

Bollywood star Om Puri makes a second career in British films about frustrated Eastern immigrants

In Bollywood, the relentless treadmill of commercial Indian cinema, the favorite leading men are affectionately called "chocolate faces." They are valued, as the phrase may imply, for their trim figures, smooth complexions, and youthful bounce. They are not, as the phrase may also imply, strenuously rated on talent. Om Puri is a rare exception to the rule of comely youth; the 49-year-old actor has been a Bollywood star for more than a decade despite his face, which an Indian politician once jokingly--and rather maliciously--compared to the rutted roads of Bihar. While Puri doesn't fit the profile of the Bollywood lead--he is stout, with big, sad eyes and a somewhat puffy and oversized nose--his equally distinctive talent has landed him small supporting parts in Hollywood (Mike Nichols's lamentable Wolf, and the no less lamentable The Ghost and the Darkness), and, more recently, starring roles in two charming British domestic dramas, My Son the Fanatic and East Is East.

Puri was in town the other week to promote the latter film, which opened the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival earlier this month (and starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre). Settled in a private lounge at the top of the Minneapolis Hilton and veiled in a cloud of cigarette smoke, Puri sets about explaining his character in East is East, a Pakistani immigrant to a dreary British suburb who finds himself at odds with his modernized and rebellious children. "On the surface, he's horrid," the actor says. "Certainly, he's not a noble man. But he has a human side that should not be negated. He lives in contradiction, and his only answer to it is raising his fist against his family."

The film, Puri notes, is set in 1971, during both the India-Pakistan war and a period of virulent xenophobia in England. "The pressure from outside is working on him," he explains. "When the film begins, it's on a very happy note. Then his son runs away from arranged marriage. He feels that in the eyes of the community, they are no longer good children. While I was playing him, all the time I kept in my mind that his violence should be a gesture with pain in the back. When he hits his children, he does it not out of pleasure but out of concern.

"In his own ideas, what he's doing is right. But he's very small up here." Puri gestures to his head and smiles wanly. "It's a natural phenomenon that children growing up will have their own opinions. People at middle age stop growing. They get tired--exhausted--and they're no longer able to keep pace with the modern world."

Such a character seems tailored to Puri's world-weary demeanor. And indeed, he has recently made a specialty of the type. As in East Is East, Puri's character in My Son the Fanatic is an emigrant of the subcontinent struggling to reconcile modern Britain to his home culture. In the case of the latter film, however, it is Puri who plays the liberal, libertine foil to a fundamentalist son. It is an uncommonly subtle performance; in one recurring scene, Puri's character, a cabby and part-time panderer for a British prostitute, retreats to his basement to sip Scotch and listen to jazz records--a poignant illustration of the man's isolation from both his traditional family and the closed society of 1970s Britain. Puri's face, too drawn to keep any emotion private, shows the toll that integration has taken; here is an everyman, resigned and hopeful, both enchanted with the world and bewildered by it.

Given Puri's intuitive ease before the camera, it's somewhat surprising to learn that he came to film relatively late in his acting career. As a boy, he explains, he dreamed of following his father into the Gurkhas. "I would see the soldiers on the street or at the railway station in their starched uniforms. I looked at them as young people look at film stars.

"I actually ran away from home to join the Boy Battalion, which was for children whose fathers were in the British army. But one couldn't get in without a certificate from one's father. I couldn't get that, so they turned me away. Then I went to college and drifted away from the idea."

Puri drifted instead to the stage, where he performed in various repertory companies and, eventually, founded an acting ensemble of his own. During the heady early days of India's "New Cinema," the socially conscious 1970s movement exemplified by the great director Satyajit Ray, Puri moved into film. Before long, he was working with Ray himself. There wasn't much money in art cinema, though, and despite a lingering disdain for the slickly commercial product of Bollywood, Puri moved to Bombay and began looking for roles. "I got respect and prestige from the art cinema, but not much money. To take care of my material needs I worked in commercial film."

Though he became a Bollywood star, Puri remains circumspect about the relative merits of India's commercial film industry vis-à-vis the international cinema. "Technically, the films have gotten much better. But still the subjects are repetitive and the plots simple: Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love."

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