General Zia-ul-Haq, pleased with his authentic-looking stone eye, announced a nationwide contest in Pakistan. The first one to guess which of his two eyes was made of stone would be suitably rewarded, he decreed. The village yokel got it right and the General was amazed.
“How did you know,” he asked the villager. “The stone had a glint of mercy in it,” he replied.
Om Puri would do well to remember the joke — dictators, after all, evoke the blackest of humour — when he plays Zia in a new Hollywood film. For Puri, any hint of the man who came to power in Pakistan after overthrowing Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto can only help. His role in Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, is a small one — but Puri would like to capture all the nuances of the General who ruled Pakistan for 11 years.
“Of course, a real life character is like any other character,” says Puri, “and I don’t intend to copy him as I can’t find any footage on him.” What Puri does know about him is that he had a gold tooth and carried a fancy watch. “My friend, Shatrughan Sinha, who knew Zia-ul-Haq well, told me about this. I have read the script and some scenes give a fair amount of mood, temperament and his style of functioning,” he adds.
The film, directed by Mike Nichols, is based on George Crile’s book on the CIA’s successful efforts at arming the mujahedeen in Afghanistan to oust the invading Soviets. The covert operations were the brainchild of Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks), a charming wheeler dealer and a liberal Texas Congressman who joined hands with a CIA operative to back the Taliban.
Om Puri, who has acted in a series of western productions in recent times, is looking forward to the Hollywood production, though he was initially reluctant to take it up. “But I told him that he should do the film,” says his wife, Nandita. “It was a good role of a statesman, never mind the length,” she says.
Puri was still a little sceptical, convinced that his wife was urging him to do the film merely because she wanted to meet Hanks and Roberts. “Earlier I had wanted him to do an Adnan Khashoggi kind of a role in Syriana only because I would have got to meet George Clooney. But this film has a lot of substance,” says Nandita, who is soon going to leave for Morocco with her husband for the film’s shooting.
For Puri, roles in foreign films aren’t new. He has acted in several British productions — including East is East and My Son the Fan- atic — and has done a few small roles for Hollywood films such as The Ghost in the Darkness and Wolf.
“I love variety. I love playing different parts,” says 56-year-old Puri. The old boy of the National School of Drama in Delhi and Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTTI) has, since his 1976 debut, walked the entire gamut of roles — from a tribal in Aakrosh and an untouchable in Sadgati to a drunkard in Jaane Bhi do Yaro and a rickshaw puller in The City of Joy .
“He can veer from menace to tenderness in milliseconds... and his recent English-language films have awakened Western critics to a talent that equals or surpasses that of Morgan Freeman or Al Pacino,” writes cinema reviewer Michael Sragow in the online American magazine, salon.com.
Essaying the role of a Pakistani is not new for Om Puri either. He played the role of an intolerant Pakistani father in East is East (1999) and a Pakistani taxi driver in My Son the Fanatic (1998). “I have played a Pakistani or an Indian in many films that I have done in Britain or in Hollywood,” he says. “But this (the new film) is not going to be an anti-Pakistan film. It will be an anti-policy film,” says Puri.
Puri likes his stints in the West — for the facilities that are offered to the cast and crew, as well as the money. “In British films the money is not huge but is definitely more than what you get in India.” Puri holds that he does some films for money and some for peanuts — and that keeps him going. “I have been constantly doing British cinema. It is exhilarating,” he says.
The man who has worked with directors such as Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani admits that he was dissatisfied with the work that he was doing in India in recent years. “I have experienced a certain amount of dissatisfaction in the last 10 years. I have done a few Bengali films as well, apart from films with Govind Nihalani and Shyam Benegal. This is the kind of work that I have been missing. Thankfully, that gap was filled by British cinema — or else I would have died,” he says.
Curiously, the man who loves cinema hasn’t watched too many films in India in recent years. “I guess he watched so many films at FTII that he prefers not to,” wife Nandita reasons. But Nandita stresses that he created a record of sorts this year by watching several films in a row — from Krrish and Lage Raho Munna Bhai to Golmaal. “He cursed me for taking him to the last film,” says Nandita.
Om Puri has one regret: he rues the fact that he is not considered a star in India, despite the wide range of roles that he has done. “Today, stars want to do art films — and that’s good. But Naseeruddin Shah and I are not considered stars. When it comes to casting for films such as Apaharan or Omkara, the choice goes to stars who have decided that they will now play character roles.” It is good for the stars, he says. But what happens to the actors'
The actors wait for Hollywood.