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November 23, 2001

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'Kamal Haasan helped me prepare for Bollywood Calling'

Om Puri in Bollywood Calling In East Is East his comical portrayal of an expatriate tin-pot Pakistani household tyrant named George Khan awed audiences in the West.

But with his stellar performance in Ismail Merchant's The Mystic Masseur and forthcoming roles in several other English language international productions, Om Puri has finally arrived as an international actor in the league of Ben Kingsley. Critics abroad have even compared him with Morgan Freeman and Al Pacino.

"I am so much in demand in the West because I think I am talented and hard working and have the ability to deliver the goods," Om Puri, the perfectionist, says matter-of-factly.

Puri was in Calcutta for the seventh Kolkata Film Festival as part of the team of Ismail Merchant's critically acclaimed film adaptation of V S Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur.

"My success and adulation abroad were because I had never been greedy. I owe all my material possessions to the commercial cinema, but I divided time between the mainstream and serious cinema and never overbooked myself," Puri said.

A still from East is East "I am doing commercial cinema quite extensively. But I don't book myself beyond three or four months. That way I have enough time for productions abroad. The good thing abroad is that they shoot at a stretch and are very disciplined. So I have no problem balancing the two," says Puri, who made no bone of his distaste for the repetitive plots in commercial Hindi films.

"What I regret about Hindi films is that they still resort to the same hackneyed ideas of love stories. Technically Bollywood has improved but not in subject. There is no melody in the music, no poetry in the lyrics. No Guru Dutt or Bimal Roy of the fifties and sixties can be seen now," rues Puri, who got his first major break in Govind Nihalani's Aakrosh after doing some inconsequential roles as a struggler in the industry.

"I do appreciate works of Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Priyadarshan because they are not repetitive," says Puri, considered one of the great quartet of art cinema in India along with Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and the late Smita Patil.

The international success of Puri, as finicky as ever with his role, is not without hard work. "I take great care in delivering the right accent while working in English films. While playing the south Indian character in Bollywood Calling I asked Kamal Haasan to help me out with my lines."

"In East Is East I banked on my co-star Linda. When I found that I have not been trained to deliver the right accent of a Pakistani who has been living long in England I asked Linda Bassett, who played my wife Ella in the film, to pronounce my lines and I noted it down on paper."

"After all my character has stayed 25 years with his English wife and so his desi accent is bound to be influenced by her," he says. Puri played a fish-and-chips shop owner in 1971 Manchester in the Damien O'Donnell film.

The film transcends class and ethnic stereotypes to turn embattled fathers into figures as robust, funny and poignant as the immigrant parents in American melting-pot fables by Clifford Odets or Mario Puzo.

In Udayan Prasad's My Son the Fanatic too he plays a cabbie in a contemporary British midlands city. "My Son the Fanatic is an extraordinary movie and I enjoyed doing it," says Puri.

A still from Bollywood Calling "Now these films are being appreciated much by the western audience as well as non-resident Indians. I was surprised to find that in London 70 per cent of the audience was English," says the actor whose broad, expressive face has been described by critics abroad as a relief map of discordant emotions.

"But I am still very much based in Mumbai and am not moving to New York or London," assures the actor whose present international releases are Danish production The Zookeeper, A Parole Officer (a film produced by the makers of Four Weddings and A Funeral), Happy Now (shown at the London film festival) and Merchant's The Mystic Masseur.

Indo-Asian News Service

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