'I don't keep myself occupied for a long time in India'
An exclusive interview with Om Puri on his role as the modern-day King Lear
East Is East star Om Puri is the main lead in a forthcoming British television blockbuster for Channel Four, entitled Second Generation, in which he plays an Indian business tycoon called Sharma at war with his three daughters.
The two 90-minute episodes, which have a budget of £1 million each, are being filmed in London and Kolkata. They also feature Roshan
Seth, Anupam Kher and Parminder Nagra, the sensational discovery of Bend It Like Beckham.
In an exclusive interview on the sets with Shyam Bhatia, Om Puri discusses his latest role, his work in the West and what awaits him in the future:
Once again you seem to be the star of a cross cultural drama.
Yes, except that Sharma has adapted very well to life in the West. He is not traditional in that sense. He wears suits and ties and that sort of thing.
Is this the closest you have come to an East Is East type of movie?
There is no similarity between George Khan (East Is East) and Sharma. Sharma is very cultured and educated, a very suave businessman.
There is no cultural tension between Sharma and his daughters, except for the younger one who used to go out with a white boyfriend. Once he tells her in a moment of anger that she should return home after running around for years like a tramp.
Isn't this one of the rare television dramas for which you have been commissioned a part?
I have done White Teeth. That was a big part. Before that, it was Murder, with BBC 2.
Did you enjoy White Teeth?
Oh yes, every bit of it. The director was absolutely wonderful, so gentle and knew his job. Really, even for Murder, that Beeban Kidron, she was a wonderful director, very intense.
What attracted you to Second Generation?
I was very curious and excited that it is the modern version of Shakespeare's King Lear. I must say that Neil Biswas (the scriptwriter) has done a wonderful job. I wondered what they would do to it.
Lear involved three daughters and the head of the family, the king, etc. And power, ambition, all play a part.
Similarly, in Second Generation, you have a business tycoon and his three daughters and two generations.
Would you agree that of all the actors involved, you have the toughest role?
It is tough, yes, because there are quite a variety of emotions, particularly the part where he starts going mad. It is very easy to see it as a cliche. One really needs to make it believable.
Did you have much time to prepare and do you think the adaptation is true to the original King Lear?
Oh yes, they had sent me the script a couple of months ago. When I was preparing for the role, I wasn't looking at King Lear; I was looking at the adaptation. One has to disregard the original on which it is based.
I am not a director or producer to think, 'Oh they should have kept that part or portion.' I didn't even read the original. I will read that later.
All I did was look at the script for what I was doing. The book has nothing to do with this as far as I am concerned.
Do you get totally involved with the characters you play or is it possible for you to switch off from the set?
On the set you are playing a situation. In some scenes which are extremely emotional, where you completely identify with it, maybe there is a slight hangover for a couple of moments. Otherwise, it is not that you forget yourself.
You are all the time guiding that character. Om Puri, the actor, directs that character and takes him around. You are watching him, inspiring him, motivating him to behave in a manner that you think is right.
What is it like working with actors like Anupam Kher and Roshan Seth in the same film?
Well, the three of us have not worked together before, but I have worked with Roshan in Gandhi. We did not have the same scene together, but I worked with him.
We were also together in Such A Long Journey, an Indo-Canadian film based on Rohinton Mistry's book. The others play their characters, I play mine. And the only way to judge is to see how effectively we have played our parts.
Is there extra energy involved when you are with other accomplished actors?
Certainly, when you have a good actor in front of you, it is always better because you give more. It helps you.
What are your specific thoughts about Sharma?
Well, Sharma basically comes from a middle class family, not from a working class family. He decides to move to England as a professional. It is a nice part, the central part and there a lot of nice movements as an actor.
You see him confident and authoritative in the factory, you see him firing the staff, you see him with a good sense of humour, you also see him depressed as he slowly goes mad.
What attracted to you to this particular part?
Well, what am l doing in India? I am doing these love stories. What will l do in these love stories? Either I will be a girl's father or a boy's father. Either you are a good father or you are a tough father. There is no other choice because all our Indian films are bloody love stories.
So it is a refreshing change coming to London.
Are you doing a lot of Hindi films as well?
Of course. I live in Mumbai and there are six or seven films I am in involved with there. In the last 25 years, I have done over 175 films. People here in London collapse when they hear that. I tell them, 'Don't collapse, there are actors of my age who have done more than 250 films.'
You are not that old, are you?
I am 52, and I mean to say that 25 years of working is a long time in films.
Do you have a permanent base in the UK for the times you visit?
No, I just come and ask for an apartment. If it is a short visit for read throughs or costumes, etc, then I am only here for four or five days and I stay in a hotel.
But you have spent so much time in the UK, this must feel like a second home?
Yes, it does because I have been coming every year. One year I did three projects here --- Happy Now, Parole Officer and Zoo Keeper, which was shot in Prague. In Parole Officer, they wanted me for eight continuous weeks, which I couldn't manage, so they broke it up.
You must be one of the few actors who has managed to combine a professional life in India, the UK and Hollywood?
Yes, in the sense that I have been consistently working in the UK for the last six or seven years and living in Mumbai. I finish my work here and I go back and start work there.
White Teeth, East Is East and Parole Officer were all British productions. City Of Joy, Ghost In The Darkness and Wolf were Hollywood.
There have been others like Roshan Seth, who did a lot of work in the UK. So did Saeed Jaffrey.
Roshan doesn't have your Hindi fluency, does he? He was never in Bollywood.
Roshan was never in Bollywood because he lived here in London. But he speaks good Hindi. He did a series with Shyam Benegal called
Discovery Of India, where he played Jawaharlal Nehru. He spoke Hindi. But yes, he hasn't done Bollywood films or films in Hindi.
I have worked in Punjabi films, that is my mother tongue. I have also worked in a couple of Bengali films, a couple of Kannada films.
Do you mind doing 'just love stories' for Bollywood?
You see, from 1980 to 1990 was a wonderful period for me. I am very proud of my work with Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal, Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen.
Then came the period of betrayal --- where I played a police officer who believes in reform. After that I made a couple of nice films like Chachi 420, which was actually a commercial film but a good commercial film. A comedy it was an adaptation of Mrs Doubtfire. Kamal Haasan directed and acted in it.
Then I did an English film in India called Bollywood Calling, a spoof on the Indian film industry. That was really good work, entertaining, but I wouldn't call it a commercial film.
So the ratio of good films has not been very good for the last seven or eight years. The number of such films has reduced and UK has filled that gap of thinking, noncommercial films.
Have you earned enough from your films? Do you need to continue working?
I am comfortable. I started doing commercial cinema only in the last six to seven years. Before that, I did all those poor films.
So I had to do commercial films because art films had no money. Those films couldn't really buy me a house in Mumbai.
At the same time people think Hindi films, lot of money. Now, lot of money is for commercial stars. They are lucky if they last five or seven years.
Today, any director's son is launched into films. He does one film and then charges Rs 200 million for his next film. He goes and does an ad and gets maybe Rs 300 million.
People like Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) and me are not in that category. Don't think that because I have done 175 films, I will have pots of money.
What can we expect from you next year?
I finish this and go back to Mumbai. If there is another call, we will see.
I don't keep myself occupied for a long period in India. I always keep myself busy for three or four months. There are actors who book themselves for a year and then if something interesting comes, they just cannot take it up. Many people are surprised how I manage. I tell them this is the secret.