A good man plays Zia-ul-Haq

Among India’s high-end exports to the West is Om Puri, a calm composed man with the second most recognisable voice in Indian cinema. A truly international figure now, Om Puri has actually just returned from a script session of Charlie Wilson’s War, directed by Mike Nichols who made Wolf and Birdcage among other films. Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts are part of the main cast.

Charlie Wilson’s War is set in the ’80s when Russian troops had invaded Afghanistan. Tom Hanks plays the maverick Texas congressman Charlie Wilson who orchestrated the covert operation that resulted in Soviet troops exiting Afghanistan. At one point, America asks Pakistan to intervene. And that’s how General Zia-ul-Haq, a character portrayed by Om Puri, comes into contact with Charlie Wilson, played by Hanks. The shoot begins in Morocco next month.

“In several of the western projects, my role hasn’t been very big. But the projects have been A-Grade. Likewise, my role as Pakistan President Zia-ul-Haq is not lengthy. But it is integral. It has actually me dominating the Americans. I’m not bullying them or anything. But it’s a forceful character.”

Puri says that Hanks is an “easy-going” man. “On the second day of our meeting he was calling me ‘Omi’. I guess I’ll get to know him better when we start shooting.” Recounting his experiences with Hollywood superstars, he summarises that they don’t think the sun rises from their posterior. “Stars are stars everywhere. They can afford to come five minutes late. But not more than that. The biggest stars in Hollywood are not brats; nor are they spoilt. They definitely charge more money, which is done here also. However out there, the stars can’t take themselves for granted. None of them will take their own sweet time showing up for a shot, with an attitude saying, ‘So what if 200 people are waiting for me? Let them wait’.”

He recalls how co-actor Val Kilmer was completely distracted one day while filming Ghost and the Darkness. “Val was going through a bad period in his personal life. So he couldn’t remember his lines. And shooting had to be cancelled. This is an unheard of thing in Hollywood. The same evening, Michael Douglas who was the producer called Val and gave him a piece of his mind. The next day things were different.”

A buffet was laid out during Puri’s recent visit to Los Angeles. “Tom Hanks queued up like the rest of the cast and crew and filled his own plate. No tables came out of thin air and no valets jumped up to clear the area,” he recalls.

Om Puri has actually brushed shoulders with Patrick Swazye, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Val Kilmer and now Tom Hanks. He must be amused that the Indian media still continues to call Aishwarya Rai the Indian face of Hollywood. “But I lack the glamour that she has,” he says, laughing.

For 30 years, since Ghashiram Kotwal (1976) Om Puri has actually been the artistic conscience of Indian cinema. Yet, after 160 films, the Hindi film industry usually considers dull roles for the 56-year-old actor whom Brand-new York Times described, “the finest actor of the post-Independence generation”. Puri feels that even the recent revolution of good strong mainstream cinema at estate has actually cast him aside. “There’s no stardom attached to me. There are a whole load of good character roles in the movies now. But film-makers prefer to have stars like Mr Amitabh Bachchan or Ajay Devgan or Mr X even in those parts because these guys are stars. I’m not one.” That is one of the reasons why he has actually always been keen on taking up foreign assignments. But major roles like in East is East, have not come his way as often as he would certainly have liked.

It was Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati (1981) that got him the required mileage in the West; and from then on he has actually never looked back. Gandhi happened in 1982, then came City of Joy (1992), Wolf (1994), My Son The Fanatic (1997) and East is East (1999), the last winning him a nomination for the most effective Actor at the British Academy Film Awards.

The Ambala-born actor whose yesterday includes meaningful cinema like Ardh Satya, Aakrosh, Sparsh, Aarohan, Aaghaat, Bhumika, Dhoop and Dharavi admits he is a little sad sometimes as in the last few years opportunities befitting his talent have not come his way. “I am not a dissatisfied person. But whenever I feel low, I look at my work in the past, which may not be such a wonderful idea actually.” Recognition at estate has actually been grudging. The only time he has actually been on a glossy’s cover was when he stood alongside Amitabh Bachchan. And a year ago his ailing back got some media attention because he was operated upon by the same doctor who treated Shah Rukh Khan.

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