A deep baritone erupts into thunderous laughter and out of the darkness, enters a towering figure, piercing through the mist with a pair of glowing bulbous eyes, chilling enough to stare down generations into submission.
‘Mogambo Khush Hua’- a low voice ushers the calm before the storm
This is a man who etched an eternal image of villainy in the minds of thousands of Indian cinema-lovers. With fearfully elaborate roles and spine-chilling performances, he, Amrish Puri, showed the world that he was indeed the best bad guy on celluloid.
Puri’s unique ability to intimidate was a prominent reason why directors like Shyam Benegal (Nishant, Bhumika, Zubeidaa), Subhash Ghai (Pardes, Meri Jung, Taal), Yash Chopra (Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Mashal), or even Steven Speilberg (Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom) pursued him with memorable roles.
He was a man who could garner a multitude of emotions—hate, fear and love—all at the same time, from his audience, while striking the perfect balance in art.
From Mogambo in Bollywood to Mola Ram in Hollywood, this legend became a paragon of immorality on one hand, while on the other, he emerged as a sphinx-headed custodian of virtue and integrity as Chaudhry Baldev Singh (Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge) and Brig Sarfaroz Khan (Dil Pardesi Ho Gayaa).
But we only know him as he was presented on the silver screen with a long line of landmark films that set an everlasting legacy, not how he was beyond it. On his 87th birth anniversary (he was born on 22 June 1932), we look back at the varied roles he lived while off-screen.
A life insurance agent
He led a dual life, travelling from one place to another on his motorbike, selling life insurance, and another on stage.
The latter was all that mattered—his heart and soul.
One of the most prominent actors in Satyadev Dubey’s theatre group, Theatre Unit, Puri’s tryst with cinema was yet to unfold.
He already had two brothers, who were acting in films. The eldest, Madan Puri, was successful as a character actor and had worked on several films in the 1940s to the 1970s.
Somewhere in the 1950s, he did veer into trying his luck in cinema but was rejected for the lead roles. Much like on-screen, he was uncompromising in personal life as well and did not settle for minor roles. His work in Prithvi Theatre gained him prominence as a stage actor, and he won the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1979. It was his theatre recognition that led him to more work in television ads and eventually, Hindi cinema at the age of 40.
Through the 1970s he continued to work in supporting roles mostly as the henchman of the lead villain (Prem Pujari in 1970, Aahat-Ek Ajeeb Kahani and Reshma Aur Shera in 1971).
A voice-over artist to a star
Puri’s continued work in theatre soon led him to meet Shyam Benegal, who was at the time, working on his first film, Ankur (1974).
“I had an actor I thought would be good because his physical presence was good. But he couldn’t speak a line of the dialogue properly. So I got Amrish to dub for him. After that, I felt, ‘Why am I doing this?’ So, when I made my next film Nishant, I got Amrish to act. From then on, he acted in practically everything I did,” the director shares.
This eventually grew into a strong friendship between the two, earning Amrish Puri wide appreciation in Nishant and Bhumika, and opening doors to success.
Between 1967 to 2005, Amrish worked in almost 400 films in Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Punjabi, Telugu, Malayalam, Tamil, and as well as English.
However, it was only in 1980 that the commercial hit Hum Paanch positioned him as a promising villain in Indian cinema and the rest became history.
A sensitive mentor, thorough professional and disciplinarian
From mentoring young actors off-screen to helping out friends in need, in his personal life, Amrish is remembered as a gentle and sensitive individual with the attributes of a hero—a welcome contrast.
Much like his on-screen character, Chaudhry Baldev Singh (Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge), Amrish was known to be prepared and organised.
Recalling one such experience, Shyam Benegal adds, “The great thing about Amrish, like Om Puri also, was that when he worked on a film, he brought a lot of order into the unit. He had extremely disciplined ways. I remember, when we were doing Manthan, we were shooting in a village called Sanganva, which was about 45 kilometres from Rajkot. He would wake the unit up at 5:30 in the morning in the winter of January and take them all on a run. This was to keep everyone in good shape. He always had a wonderful presence in the unit because he maintained discipline, which flowed to other people. This also included his food habits.”
He is an actor, who for over 30 years and beyond, has shocked, frightened, and inspired generations to embrace negative roles with refreshing appreciation, setting a benchmark for the future!
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)