Bollywood's best-known villain
Friday 14 January 2005
Amrish Puri, actor: born 22 June 1932; married (one son, one daughter); died Bombay 12 January 2005.
Almost 40 when he made his film début, Amrish Puri emerged as Bollywood's best-known villain, acting in over 220 films. His booming voice, menacingly beady eyes and evil-looking face lent reality to the wicked men he played, almost invariably a ruthless gangster or the hateful, unrelenting and scheming father of a simpering Bollywood heroine.
The man millions of Indians loved to hate was also one of the first Bollywood stars to cross over successfully into Hollywood. In 1984 he played Mola Ram, the evil and terrifying high priest with horns on his head and surrounded by skulls in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Puri shaved his head for the role and it created such an abiding impression that he remained bald thereafter.
Puri had almost turned down this role on the grounds that the film's plot was no different from a formulaic Bollywood production, offering him no challenge. But it was Richard Attenborough, in whose epic film Gandhi (1982) Puri had played a small role, who convinced him to accept the part, pointing out that it was Spielberg's cinematic technique that made his extravaganzas special.
But Puri earned instant notoriety in 1987 for playing Mogambo, the light-hearted villain with the arching eyebrows and blood-curdling laugh in Mr India, directed by Shekhar Kapur. His portrayal of Mogambo, determined to conquer the world, became a metaphor for the ugliness and greed lurking in mankind. One of his lines in the film, "Mogambo khush hua" ("Mogambo has become happy"), delivered with Puri's characteristic venom-spewing intensity, in his booming voice, figures amongst the most memorable in Bollywood folklore. It is also one that is repeated frequently in jest, frivolity and sarcasm by millions across India even today.
Born 1932, into a middle-class family in northern Punjab state, Puri studied in the former imperial summer capital, Simla, before moving to Bombay to join his brother Madan, a middling Bollywood star. In 1954 he auditioned for a lead role, but was rejected on grounds of having a crude and harsh face.
Puri then turned his attention to theatre and this became his abiding interest. He also lent his voice to numerous advertisement jingles. But the lure of Bollywood never left him and his first break came in 1971 with a small role the film Reshma aur Shera ("Reshma and Shera"), a Romeo and Juliet-style love story set in India's western desert state of Rajasthan.
After his somewhat forgettable début, a disillusioned Puri returned to Bombay's lively theatre circuit. In 1978 he was approached by the director Subhash Ghai to play the villain in Krodhi ("The angry one"). Initially he resisted, saying that compared with theatre, characters in Bollywood films were loud and undefined. But he soon succumbed to the lure of Bollywood and harnessed his forceful personality, charm and liveliness to play the villain to perfection.
Puri starred in numerous little-known films but remained on the periphery of Bollywood renown. "Those were not easy years for me," he once said:
Recognition was hard and I had a family to support so I took on any and every villain's role that came my way.
In the late 1970s Puri was cast by the art cinema director Shyam Benegal in films such as Manthan ("Churning", 1976) and Bhumika ("Role", 1977), and these helped further his career. But his big break came in 1982 when he played the villain in the box-office hit Vidhaata ("God"). The same year he attracted global audiences with a cameo role in Gandhi and two years later featured in the Indiana Jones spectacular. His Mogambo three years later firmly established Puri as a Bollywood legend.
In later years Puri showed his versatility by switching to character roles. The comedy Hulchul ("Uproar"), released last month, was his final hit.
In real life, Puri was the opposite of the villainous characters he played - kind, generous, considerate and helpful to his friends. He was also vain about his celebrated voice, requesting journalists who interviewed him to erase their recordings swiftly, fearful that his baritone might somehow be misused.
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