Gurpreet Singh: Indian actor Om Puri sticks to his guns after criticizing politicians
Vancouver had an unusual guest a few days ago.
Om Puri is a veteran secularist Indian film actor-cum-activist who has made headlines in his home country by publicly attacking corrupt politicians.
He's perhaps best known among non-Indians for his role as a Muslim fish-and-chips shop owner in the 1999 film East is East. Puri, who has many friends in this area, also acted in Richard Attenborough's 1982 epic Gandhi.
Talking to the Straight at his friend’s home in Burnaby, Puri reiterated his position against "corrupt" and "uncivilized" members of the Indian parliament (called the Lok Sabha).
Last year, he stirred a controversy by allegedly using "unparliamentary language’" against MPs in New Delhi during a fast by activist Anna Hazare against corruption. As a result, the MPs contemplated action against the veteran actor.
Though Puri admitted that he may have chosen his words poorly, he insisted that he did not say anything that was factually incorrect.
"Go to every ordinary citizen across India to ask what he or she thinks about our politicians," he said. "I am sure each one of them will swear at them."
Puri then challenged the media to conduct a quick nationwide survey to ascertain this. "As compared to ordinary folks of India, I did not say anything that should have been taken as an offence."
He pointed to violent actions of elected officials during heated debates in the Indian parliament, which have been captured live on TV a number of times.
"Isn’t that unparliamentarily?’" he asked.
For Puri, the problems faced by the poor in India are the result of corruption and greed in high places.
"On top of that, orthodox religious beliefs prevent the poor from thinking rightly and getting organized," he added. "They are made to believe that it is all because of karma."
Puri has acted in many thought-provoking films and TV serials on the exploitation of the poor—including the so-called "untouchables" or Dalits, tribal people, and religious minorities.
He recently returned from the shooting of Chakravyuh, a film based on the Maoist insurgency in the tribal areas of India. He feels that politicians and multinational corporations are exaggerating by painting a rosy picture about India when the poor and untouchables suffer despite economic growth.
"No doubt India has progressed over the years, but not everyone in India has benefited out of this development," Puri said.
He also acknowledged that it would be difficult for him to survive by simply acting in serious films. He also works in profit-oriented Bollywood cinema to make a better living.
Puri narrated an interesting story about being approached by a poor child selling combs. The kid gave him a comb and said that he had nothing else to offer.
"All he wanted in return was a promise that I would only work in serious films," the actor said.
Puri, who is from Punjab, started his career as a theatre artist. He worked in art-house films and gradually developed into a Bollywood star.
He acted in Tamas, a TV serial based on the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, which led to large-scale sectarian violence. He was a leading actor in Maachis, a film based on terrorism in Punjab. And he acted as a fanatical Hindu police officer in Dev, a film based on a pogrom against Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat in 2002. That massacre was engineered by the Hindu nationalist BJP party, which rules the state.
He was so apologetic about playing this role that he kept on assuring junior Muslim artists and technicians on the set that he was not like this in real life. In fact, he vehemently supported the rival Congress party following the Gujarat violence to oust the BJP from holding national power in Delhi.
In a radio interview with me at that time, he also admitted that even though Congress came across as secular and less harmful than the BJP, it could not be exonerated either for what its members did to the Sikhs in 1984. That's when goons led by Congress leaders murdered Sikhs across India after the assassination of the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards.
"I had opposed the Congress back then," Puri said in that radio interview.
He also expressed his dismay over jingoism and unnecessary Pakistan-bashing in Indian cinema.
I still remember a very interesting quote from Puri when I first met him in Mumbai in 1997 while working for the Indian Express newspaper. It sums up everything about him. We were discussing violence in Mumbai following the sacrilege of the statue of a Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian constitution and a powerful Dalit icon.
This is how Puri expressed his opinion about the ugly episode: "If a crow poops on Gandhi’s statue, do we run after it with a gun?"
Gurpreet Singh is Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.