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.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Some of the most significant innovations in automotive history made their debut in this iconic automobile

The latest version features India's first BS VI norms-compliant engine and a host of 'intelligent' features.

The S-Class, also known as Sonderklasse or special class, represents Mercedes Benz’ top-of-the-line sedan line up. Over the decades, this line of luxury vehicles has brought significant automotive technologies to the mainstream, with several firsts to its credit and has often been called the best car in the world. It’s in the S-Class that the first electronic ESP and ABS anti-lock braking system made their debut in the 20th century.

Twenty first-century driver assistance technologies which predict driver-behaviour and the vehicle’s course in order to take preventive safety measures are also now a staple of the S-Class. In the latest 2018 S-Class, the S 350 d, a 360-degree network of cameras, radars and other sensors communicate with each other for an ‘intelligent’ driving experience.

The new S-Class systems are built on Mercedes Benz’s cutting-edge radar-based driving assistance features, and also make use of map and navigation data to calculate driving behaviour. In cities and on other crowded roads, the Active Distance Assist DISTRONIC helps maintain the distance between car and the vehicle in front during speeds of up to 210 kmph. In the same speed range, Active Steering Assist helps the driver stay in the centre of the lane on stretches of straight road and on slight bends. Blind Spot Assist, meanwhile, makes up for human limitations by indicating vehicles present in the blind spot during a lane change. The new S-Class also communicates with other cars equipped with the Car-to-X communication system about dicey road conditions and low visibility due to fog, rain, accidents etc. en route.

The new S-Class can even automatically engage the emergency system when the driver is unable to raise an alarm. Active Emergency Stop Assist brings the car to a stop if it detects sustained periods of inactivity from the driver when Active Steering Assist is switched on. If the driver doesn’t respond to repeated visual and audible prompts, it automatically activates the emergency call system and unlocks the car to provide access to first responders.

The new Mercedes-Benz S 350 d in India features another notable innovation – the country’s first BS VI norms-compliant car engine, in accordance with government regulations to control vehicular pollution. Debuting two years before the BS VI deadline of 2020, the S 350 d engine also remains compatible with the current BS IV fuels.

The S 350 d is an intelligent car made in India, for Indian roads - in the Mercedes Benz S-Class tradition. See the video below to know what drives the S-Class series by Mercedes Benz.

To know more about the 2018 S-Class, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Mercedes Benz and not by the Scroll editorial team.