If there is one person that does not need an introduction, it would have to be Om Puri. One of the most recognised South Asian personalities across the world, Puri is currently in Lahore for the first time with his new play Teri Amrita. From East is East to Charlie Wilson’s War, Puri has played a vast array of Pakistani personalities and characters and he is now setting out to portray General Kiyani in a biopic on arguably the most famous Pakistani of our time, Malala Yousafzai.
“It was very noble what General Kiyani did for Malala,” says Om Puri in an exclusive tête-à-tête with The Express Tribune, “I am excited to portray him in the film.” Actors have a very delicate job to perform when portraying a real life character, “it is important to capture the essence of the person but not imitate him/her, and that is the most important thing one has to do when playing a real person,” says Puri.
Puri talks about the process used to prepare for the role. What he describes as his method falls directly in line with the teachings of Stanislavski’s approach to realistic acting. “For every character, one needs to mentally create a back story that becomes a reference point for your reactions, the emotional part of the character helps analyse how the character feels about different situations, and finally it is the physical manifestation of the role.”
His work has been very eclectic from villainous characters to comedic ones, Om Puri has done it all. He has found the most satisfaction in working on socially relevant films thus far in his career. “I was never considered the most sell-able star, and hence had to create a niche for myself that worked,” continues Puri, “while commercial films have improved, films on hard pressing issues are missing from the industry and even when they are made, the issue is sugar coated and depicted in a softer manner.”
In Charlie Wilson’s War, Puri portrayed the Pakistani dictator Ziaul Haq. “I really enjoyed playing Ziaul Haq,” he says of the experience, “I still remember when we were discussing the character. I told the director that Zia-ul-Haq had a gold tooth, they had one made for me and I have saved it as a souvenir.”
Om Puri’s love for Pakistan stems from his encounters with Pakistani people all around the globe. “The love and affection I have gotten from Pakistanis across the world has been extraordinary.” He remembers an incident from back in the 90s while filming My Son the Fanatic in London, when his son wanted to eat bhindi (lady fingers). In order to fulfill his son’s wishes, Puri ventured out to South Hall. “After I had selected all the vegetables I wanted to get, I proceeded to the cashier and the gentleman was a Pakistani who recognised me. He did not let me pay for the vegetables and said ‘you have given us so much joy and we have enjoyed your work so much that it is ethically wrong for me to take money from you’.”
The hard-hitting reality of Indo-Pak politics dictates an animosity between the two nations but on a personal level, people have found great friendships across the border. “It has been my lifelong dream to visit Pakistan and when I crossed the border yesterday into Lahore, I felt like I had just been born,” confesses Puri. “I tried looking for differences between the two countries, and what would be something new to see, but I didn’t find any. After all we are the same people and our lifetime apart is only a minute fraction of our history.”
While he presses on the point that life is too short to have grudges and grievances, he also highlights the fact that there are people around the world who fail to understand humanity and cause trouble not only for themselves, but also for those around them. “We all have to die one day, whether it is in a bomb blast or due to some illness. What is important to understand is that those trying to pull us apart are not strong enough if we are determined to stand up for what is right.”
Published in The Express Tribune, March 14th, 2014.
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