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The Reel Pakistani

“Commercial cinema pays my bills; parallelcinema keeps my ego satisfied,” Om Puri tells Instep as we sit down to chat on one of his trips to Karachi for the filming of Actor in Law.

The Reel Pakistani
Om Puri with producer Fizza Ali Meerza and director Nabeel Qureshi

instep interview

You have seen him in City of Joy, he was hard to miss in Charlie Wilson’s War and countless Hindi films were successful because they featured this legendary actor in a memorable role. But Om Puri has another distinction – he is the first choice non-Pakistani actor when it comes to playing a Pakistani in international films and his award-winning work in My Son The Fanatic, East is East and last year’s Bajrangi Bhaijan is proof of his love for the men in green. He looks as much Pakistani as he does an Indian and on his recent visit to Karachi, the Bollywood veteran had a great time getting to know his ‘reel’ home a little more.

Talking to Instep, Om Puri said that he has been a champion of better Indo-Pak relations and can’t forget the love he received in Pakistan. He had a lot more to say about his recent visit to Pakistan, his upcoming film and all things Pakistan. Read on:

Instep: How does it feel to be in Pakistan after playing Pakistanis in Hollywood and Bollywood?

Om Puri: This isn’t my first time in Pakistan; I first came to Karachi way back when the Kara Film Festival was in its infancy in 2001. People did ask me on that occasion how I felt and I told them that I may have come to Pakistan for the first time but I have known Pakistanis (mostly living abroad) for more than 20 years. After that, I went to Lahore a few years back with my family and loved the atmosphere, the people and the historical places. My wife wanted to visit the college where her father studied and it’s known as NCA now, where we were treated very well.

On this trip however Karachi has treated me differently as I got to move around the city. As I was shooting for Actor in Law, I got to meet so many people that I have lost count; most people want to take me to their home to meet their family. If that’s not love I don’t know what is … and yes, what mazedaar food you get to eat in your city … wah!

As for playing Pakistanis on screen, well it wasn’t that difficult since Indians and Pakistanis aren’t that different from each other. I may have not worked in Pakistan but I have definitely worked with Pakistanis abroad be it Faran Tahir in Charlie Wilson’s War, Mikaal Zulfiqar in Shoot on Sight and Meesha Shafi and Riz Ahmed in The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Many of my friends abroad are from Pakistan and whenever I go abroad, I spend time with them and enjoy their hospitality.

Instep: You must have been apprehensive about coming to Pakistan, since you are a well-known face in the country?

OP: At first I was; I thought that the police and army officials would stop me while I was travelling in the city but that’s exactly what hasn’t happened to me. The policemen do stop me but for taking a selfie and that’s not new to me because even in foreign countries, I get this kind of love from Pakistanis. They don’t charge me if I sit in their taxi, they take me to restaurants and make me feel at home. I went to one of the restaurants in the Do Darya area the other night and was stunned to find so many people there. They refused to take money for the food and I was treated royally; even in the hotel people greet me and I just love getting all the attention.

Instep: Tell us something about Actor in Law, your debut Pakistani film; what convinced you to work on this side of the border?

OP: I was blown away when I saw Khuda Kay Liye and Bol in Indian cinemas; the two films changed my mind set about Pakistani films. We have been following your plays for a long time especially Allan Nanna’s show (Alif Noon) but not films till then. After producer Fizza (Ali Meerza) got hold of me and sent me the script of Actor in Law, I decided to say yes because a) it is a very good script and b) I wanted to do the role they offered me. It was different from the kind of roles I have done and like any actor worth his mettle, I gave in to the challenge. I am sure that with my attempt, more actors will cross the border and work in Pakistan.

Instep:  It couldn’t be that simple otherwise other filmmakers would have approached you earlier.

OP: The credit goes to the makers of Actor In Law because they thought of me in the role and approached me. I believe that an actor isn’t bound by the country they live in; when I can act in Hollywood and British films while being an Indian, and Pakistanis can act in Bollywood films then why can’t I work in a Pakistani film? It’s time that we should forget our differences and start anew because there are a lot of things that your actors can learn from me and I can learn from them.

Instep: Your compatriots Shashi Kapoor (Jinnah) and Naseeruddin Shah (Khuda Kay Liye, Zinda Bhaag) have worked in Pakistani films; you must have been approached before Actor In Law.

OP: I would have loved to be a part of Jinnah and Shashi Jee did approach me for a role in the biographical film of Mohammad Ali Jinnah. I was busy with other projects and a role in Jinnah couldn’t materialize. I also feel that in India, Naseer and I haven’t been exploited properly; we can give any international actor a run for their money but the kind of roles we get aren’t the kind that we need.

Instep: Actors from Pakistan face a lot of problems in India especially visa and political issues. How can that be minimized?

OP: I felt ashamed when Ghulam Ali sahab’s concert was cancelled in Mumbai but that was because Shiv Sena has hold in Mumbai.  Shiv Sena represents a small group of people while India is a huge nation. If some people are against progressive relations than that doesn’t mean that everyone is. Ghulam Ali sahab’s concert was held in Delhi and the Pakistani cricket team was welcomed in Kolkata. I am here for the same reason – to spread love – because people of both the countries respect each other. I was watching the Pakistan-Australia match on 23rd March wearing Green because I believe we should move forward.

Instep: And the visa issues?

OP: That’s something I am very concerned about as well. Pakistan and India are like brothers and I don’t know why they can’t live as friends. My father was posted in Rawalpindi during the Pre-Independence days as he was part of the British Army and I want to visit that area but can’t as I don’t have a visa of the city. We should improve the visa issuance and visa conditions if we are to promote love and friendship. People from Pakistan must be able to visit any city in India and same should happen to the Indian people; most of the people have families on the other side of the border. That way we can promote harmony as well as tourism as well since there are many monuments, historical places in both the countries that people would love to visit.

Instep: You have shared screen space with many great actors in Hollywood … share that experience if you can.

OP: When I worked with Jack Nicholson in Wolf more than 20 years back, I was in awe of the wonderful person he is. He is a cult and I worked very hard for that role because I didn’t want to hear that ‘the Indian actor forgot his lines’ etc. I also enjoyed working with Tom Hanks in Charlie Wilson’s War who is a brilliant actor and commands a great personality. In City of Joy, Shabana Azmi and I developed great rapport with late Patrick Swayze who was one of the finest actors of the current generation. My work in East is East (West is West) and The Reluctant Fundamentalist was also liked and got me nominated for the BAFTA Award, which is considered the British Oscar.

Instep: Your character of a moulvi in Bajrangi Bhaijan recently won hearts of people in Pakistan; the scene where you bid farewell to Bajrangi remains etched in the audience’s mind. How did you come up with that?

OP: The director of the film Kabir Khan wanted to cast me in his Kabul Express but couldn’t; when he was shooting Bajrangi Bhaijan, he approached me for the role and I liked it. The scene you mention had an interesting thing as the moulvi doesn’t say ‘Raam Raam’ but attributes it to Bajrangi by saying ‘Aap log kia kehtay hain?’ I asked the director to shoot the scene twice; there was another take in which I delivered the dialogues differently and am glad that you found it interesting.

Instep: You haven’t been part of many films in Bollywood lately … any specific reason for that?

OP: No specific reason except that the directors with whom I used to work extensively – Priyadarshan, Govind Nihalani, David Dhawan, Shyam Benegal and Rajkumar Santoshi – are not making films these days. I recently did a cameo in Ghayal Once Again and a number of my films would be releasing this year.

Instep: Talking of directors, you have worked with the Who’s Who of Bollywood from Satyajit Ray to Rakesh Omprakash Mehra. That’s some kind of achievement don’t you think?

OP: I feel honoured to have learnt from the best including Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Gulzar and later day directors Rajkumar Santoshi, Priyadarshan, David Dhawan, Rakesh Omprakash Mehra and Farhan Akhtar. I treasure my friendship to Govind Nihalani who gave me the most meaningful roles; David Dhawan and I used to study together in FTII and when he did cast me for the first time in the ‘90s, I didn’t hesitate to ask him what took him so much time to cast me in a comedy.

Instep: Don’t you think the standard of Bollywood films have gone down recently?

OP: Technically they have improved a lot but yes it is unfortunate that intelligent filmmakers aren’t making meaningful films. People like my son don’t know anything about the lives of farmers in India who are committing suicide at an increasing rate. We must address such issues through films because not all the viewers want to watch naach, gaana and comedy. Some are interested in educating the public as well like the great Bimal Roy and Co. used to do in the ‘50s and the ‘60s.

Instep: You are one of the few actors who have managed to make a career in commercial cinema despite being labelled an ideal actor for parallel cinema. How did you manage to do that?

OP: Naseeruddin Shah and I are the only bewaqoof in India who started acting after formal training; first from National School of Drama and later Film and Television Institute of India. It took me seven years for my first break as an actor although Naseer made his mark first in films. In the meantime, I got a job as teacher in Actor’s Studio where I taught speech and movement to Anil Kapoor, Gulshan Grover and Mazhar Khan. I continued to do so till Aakrosh where I had just one talking scene, but things changed after Ardh Satya (1983) after which people started taking my acting seriously, otherwise they wanted to cast me as the goons of the villain. I continued to do art films till the ‘80s because that was my passion; the commercial films I did was to keep my stove running. I follow the middle-class style of living in India and am a content man if not rich. Commercial cinema pays my bills, Parallel cinema keeps my ego satisfied.

Instep: In the early part of your career, people must have irritated you by labelling you as brother of Amrish Puri, right?

OP: Many people in India still think Amrish Puri and I are related which isn’t the case (smiles). People still bet on the subject in India and I enjoy their trivia; I guess people relate us because both of us had similarly-styled powerful voice.

Instep: You didn’t work with Amitabh Bachchan till the turn of the century; any specific reason for that?

OP: It couldn’t materialize I think – I shared screen space with him in two films: Lakshya and Baabul before Govind Nihalani’s Dev where we had parallel roles. It’s just that he used to work a lot with Yash Chopra and I never got to; I also didn’t feature in any films produced by Karan Johar’s father Yash Johar but when Karan was re-making Agneepath, he cast me in it in a pivotal role and even asked me to make unreasonable demands as an actor.

Instep: But you beat Big B to the race to Hollywood …

OP: I won the race beating many (laughs). After watching Wolf (1994) in America, Bachchan sahib told me that he felt pride as an Indian that a Bollywood actor got such a meaningful role in a big budget Hollywood flick. That was a huge compliment considering it came from the best.

Instep: Any message for your fans in Pakistan?

OP: You will be surprised to know that my new passport has four visas from Pakistan (smiles). Jab se yahan aaya hun har koi mohabbat kar raha hai.  Even when I was in India, I was saddened by the coward acts of terrorists in both countries and repeatedly said that we have a common enemy so we should work together to counter that. Is se bada gunaah kia hoga k masjid main namaaz parhte logon par blast kia jaye or massacre children when they are in school. I hope that the governments of both the countries realize that it is better to live together in peace and harmony than in state of war where we have a common enemy. If United States and Canada can do that, why can’t we?

Omair Alavi is a freelance journalist and can be contacted at [email protected]

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