Tribute: Om Puri was the angry young man of the 1980s, fearlessly facing injustice and half-truths

We have lost a powerful voice that gave expression to the angst we once felt about the brutality around us.

When a man awakens from his slumber,
And starts to walk again,
He relinquishes his world of comfortable dreams.
In that light of wakefulness, which illuminates his choices,
Will there be fair and equal justice?
Balancing impotence, on one side of the scale,
With manhood, on the other,
The needle of this perfect balance points us
To a half truth.

Sitting across from the simple and elegant Jyotsna Gokhale (Smita Patil), Sub Inspector Anant Velankar recites the poem drawn from a story in the Mahabharata. Told from the perspective of the doomed young hero Abhimanyu, the poem describes his state of mind as he prepares to enter the Chakravyuh, a dreaded battle formation of concentric circles designed by the formidable warrior guru, Dronacharya.

The poem becomes an allegory as the young protagonist wonders about what he will find once he breaches the Chakravyuh, designed to draw in and kill the enemy. Abhimanyu knows how to breach it, having heard the trick while he was still in his mother’s womb. But he never learnt about how to get out. This is his moment of decision, as the half truth stares back at him.

Velankar is the modern-day Abhimanyu, caught up in a merciless system, wondering if he should enter the Chakravyuh that stares at him. The trap that the local mafia don, Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar), has set for him is unknown to him. Will Velankar take on the might of the system, or will he back down?

In that moment, we also seen a man who is not only grappling with his ideals and middle class values, but is also in love, probably for the first time, nervous about how she will judge him as he prepares for the Chakravyuh. In that moment, you can see that he shall lose this battle as well as the woman he loves. That is his fate. But fight, he must.

Ardh Satya.

In 1983, Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya was a rare film, which, though part of the Indian New Wave cinema, was also a commercial hit. As Velankar, Puri was vastly different from the proverbial Inspector Vijay, essayed many times by Amitabh Bachchan.

Puri was thin, almost anaemic, with a face pockmarked by scars from small pox in childhood and a gravelly voice. But his ordinariness, coupled with his intensity, was his strength and his signature in all his roles. He was the ordinary man pitted against exploitation and extreme violence, battling a fate much like the characters of Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy. Like Hardy’s heroes, who were condemned to lose, Puri’s character who was eventually defeated, but in that loss, he sought the half-truth, emerging from the world of dreams into the harsh reality of wakefulness.

Much of the anger on the streets was shaped into the works of playwright Vijay Tendulkar. Between them, Tendulkar, Dilip Chitre and Nihalani crafted some of the strongest and angriest works against the brutality around them. From class warfare to caste, they dealt with a grammar of violence that had not been seen in such strong terms in Hindi cinema. In many of those creations, it was left to Puri to carve out the brutalised man, arraigned against the system silently, sometimes erupting into violent epiphanies.

Before Ardh Satya, in 1980, Nihalani crafted Aakrosh, a scathing take on caste and the failure of the system to protect its ravages. Throughout the film, Lahanya Bhiku (Puri), a farmer, suffers the brutal rape of his wife Nagi (Smita Patil), only erupting with anger as he watches the perpetrators eyeing his pre-pubescent sister. Silent so far, his screams render through the air as he hacks the perpetrators to death.

A sketch for the posters of Ardh Satya by artist and writer Manjula Padmanabhan. Courtesy Om Puri Unlikely Hero by Nandita Puri, Roli Books.
A sketch for the posters of Ardh Satya by artist and writer Manjula Padmanabhan. Courtesy Om Puri Unlikely Hero by Nandita Puri, Roli Books.

Puri, along with Naseeruddin Shah, his friend, colleague and fellow student from his days at the National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India, would remain at the forefront of this New Wave, exploring violence and its thematic representation repeatedly. He was a Marxist in Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan, a trade unionist in Aghaat and Sub Inspector Velankar in Ardh Satya – all angry men standing up against the system.

For those of us growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, Puri and his co-actors and creators served as the defining influences on our ideals and our angst. The decade saw a nation coming out of the Emergency and a national loss of innocence and idealism. It produced anger on the streets as joblessness burst out in a moribund economy. The historic strikes led by Datta Samant in the years that followed further crippled many industries, adding to the anger.

For the privileged and the middle class, the only brush with the violence and the tension around us emerged from the roles essayed by Puri or Shah and their co-actors. They bridged the gap between the cocoon of the elite and the brutal realities that lay beyond, well within reach, but comfortably barricaded. To many of us, Puri and his work served as the urgent reminder of those realities, thus shaping ideals that would take us into the future. His death is the culmination and loss of a powerful voice that gave expression to the angst we once felt – the needle of this balance, constantly pointing at a half truth.

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