The Act of Life
The trademark hat, booming rich baritone, intent smouldering eyes, a towering height, and an imposing presence only a dramatic description would possibly delineate this versatile painter of sinister strokes, who left a tremendous, hypnotic impact on Indian cinema. Amrish Puri, whose voice could send shivers down your spine, while his antics made you chuckle; his costumes could drive you nuts, and his one-liners ranging from Mogambo khush hua to Dong kabhi wrong nahin hota became household parlance. The industry's ace villain was credited with bringing the hitherto mundane villainy into strobe light, and lent it a pride of place on the billboard with his unmatched histrionics.
This son of the soil, born in the heart of Punjab in Naushahr, spent his formative years in the hilly regions and trekked miles in the Valley of Simla, the summer capital of British India. He followed his creative instincts in college rather surreptitiously, given the stern scrutiny of a conservative, authoritarian father. Moved to the tinsel town of Bombay in the early 1950s, where his elder siblings Chaman and Madan Puri were already groping in the glamour world and he had to write his own destiny. After initial heartbreaks, dejected as a hero aspirant, he turned to theatre and created an amazing repertoire essaying some of the most challenging roles under the aegis of stalwarts, like Ebrahim Alkazi, Satyadev Dubey, Vijay Tendulkar, Girish Karnad, Badal Sircar and Mohan Rakesh, among others. But pursuing this innate passion for stage didn't provide for livelihood; bread and butter came from the rigmarole of a clerical job in a government office. And recording advertisement jingles and radio plays extended a little icing on the cake.
The providential break on the silver screen came at an age when lesser mortals would be resolving mid-career crisis. And once again, he made a distinct mark in offbeat, parallel cinema of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani, as he subtly transplanted the stark profundity of theatre on to celluloid. But the real litmus test was the commercial viability of his talent, as he could also rake in revenue at the box-office. Here too, he graduated with stunning performances, and became the highest paid villain breathing life into characters as the bald baddie, the cold-blooded don, the ruthless politician, the lecherous viper. The Machiavellian prince evoked the essence of evil and went on to build a treasure of excellence, whether he played a wily father or an affectionate patriarch. This star-actor became a reckoning force in both Hindi and regional films with over 300 titles in his kitty. His brilliant renditions elicited the attention of renowned Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, thus emerging on the international horizon.
The book captures poignant moments in the life of a terrific performer with the class act of a chameleon, who depicted an era that encountered the most challenging facet of blending art and commerce, seeking triumph over the paradox of playing the negative and positive, to create cinematic history. Hats off!
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