“Fat noses have no place in the Hindi film industry,” Om Puri is fond of saying. “But it is not so in the West — otherwise Anthony Quinn would have never been an actor.” Puri certainly nose — make that knows — of what he speaks. When he was starting out as a film actor in the 1970s, his own mighty, bulbous proboscis seemed as sure an impediment to stardom as the pockmarked face that surrounded it, the vestige of a childhood bout of smallpox that nearly killed him (as it did six of his seven siblings). Yet that very face — weathered and wise, a face of experience — has gone on to become one of the most recognizable in Indian cinema and a familiar presence on movie screens around the world, too.
Now it is front and center in the new Disney/DreamWorks movie “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” in which Puri stars as Papa, a stubborn Mumbai restaurateur who pulls up stakes after his family establishment is destroyed and resettles in the bucolic French village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, a literal stone’s throw away from a lauded, Michelin-starred temple of haute cuisine run by the persnickety Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren), whose contempt for her competition is as healthy as her taste buds. Adapted from the bestselling novel by Richard C. Morais, the movie (directed by Lasse Hallstrom and produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey) is an irresistibly entertaining confection — a David-and-Goliath story in which David and Goliath don’t just come to see eye to eye, but stir something dormant in each other’s hearts.
There are actually two blooming romances at the center of Hallstrom’s film, which charts the growing affection of Papa’s culinarily gifted son (excellent newcomer Manish Dayal) and Madame Mallory’s comely young sous chef (Charlotte Le Bon). But it is the gentle, unhurried fondness of the widower Papa for the widowed Madame Mallory that is the most enchanting of the two — a rare Hollywood depiction of two late-middle-age characters finding companionship sans vulgar geriatric slapstick.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Puri says of his co-star over breakfast at New York’s Four Seasons Hotel, the morning after receiving a career tribute from the Museum of the Moving Image. He is dressed simply, in an elegant black kurta, and his words rumble forth in a smoky baritone. “I had seen many of her films. ‘The Queen,’ obviously, was a great performance. I was looking forward to meeting her.” Puri and the rest of the cast had already been shooting for a week when Mirren arrived at the film’s location in the South of France. “One day we were having lunch and somebody mentioned that she had arrived,” he recalls. “From a distance I didn’t recognize her, because I had seen her in films where she had mostly long hair, and now she had very short hair. She got up with her plate to get some food from the counter and I dropped down on my knees and said, ‘Your highness, I am your slave.’ She pulled me up and hugged me, and it was a wonderful relationship from there.”
In a bit of life imitating art, Puri even cooked several traditional Indian meals for Mirren during the shoot. “”Om is the perfect leading man,” says the actress. “Father, friend, host, chef, generous and loving. His charisma is as powerful offscreen as it is onscreen.”
If Puri isn’t quite a household name in the West, in the two decades since he made his international breakthrough (opposite Patrick Swayze) in Roland Joffe’s Calcutta drama “City of Joy” (1992), he has balanced a burgeoning career in international films with a wide range of Indian projects both in and out of the Bollywood mainstream. Mike Nichols, who calls Puri “one of the world’s great actors and a hell of a guy,” cast him twice: as the doctor who diagnoses Jack Nicholson’s unusual, hair- (and fang-) raising condition in “Wolf” (1994), and as the Pakistani president Zia-ul-Haq in “Charlie Wilson’s War” (2007). For Michael Winterbottom, he was the head of a futuristic insurance company in “Code 46” (2003).
But perhaps because there is something intrinsically paternal about Puri (who is, in real life, the father of a teenage son), “The Hundred-Foot Journey” is the latest in a series of films that have positioned the actor as a loving but irascible patriarch shouting into that great chasm we call the generation gap. Fathers like Zahir “George” Khan, the traditionalist chip-shop owner trying to keep his sprawling Anglo-Pakistani family on the right side of Muslim virtue in the hit 1999 comedy “East Is East” (for which Puri earned a BAFTA nomination as lead actor) and the more open-minded taxi driver Parvez, who fears he is losing his son to the grip of Islamic fundamentalism in the prescient “My Son the Fanatic” (1997), a tragically underseen film made from a tough-minded Hanif Kureshi script.
“It is a very, very relevant film, even today, because a lot of youngsters who are unemployed or uneducated are getting drawn into this movement, which is disturbing the world peace,” says Puri, who clearly holds the movie dear.
Puri’s own father was a former officer in the British Indian Army, who left after WWII to work in the railways and spent much of Om’s childhood drifting between various jobs, struggling to keep his family afloat. He was, Puri recalls, a strict man, but one who never stood in the way of his son’s ambitions. At first, Puri thought to follow his father’s footsteps into army life, but while doing amateur theatricals as a student at Khalsa College he was noticed by the prominent Punjabi playwright Harpal Tiwana, who invited him to join his semi-professional theater company, Punjab Kala Manch. From there, it was on to the National School of Drama in Delhi, where he studied the classics (Brecht, Ibsen, Shakespeare) alongside his classmate Naseeruddin Shah, who would also follow Puri to the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune and eventually co-star with him in many notable films.
Puri and Shah’s entrance into movies coincided with the emergence of a new wave of arthouse (or Parallel Cinema) filmmakers who pushed strongly at the proscribed aesthetic boundaries of Bollywood by making raw, socially and politically conscious dramas that addressed matters of class warfare, rural poverty and government bureaucracy in stark and sometimes startling terms. Where Bengali-language directors like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen had paved the way in the 1960s, now directors working in the dominant Hindi-language cinema were following their lead, and just as their movies weren’t like anything Hindi cinema had seen before, neither were their actors.
“He can play practically any kind of part you give to him. He has that Everyman kind of quality. In some ways, he’s like Alec Guinness,” says Shyam Benegal, who first cast Puri in a small role in his 1977 bio-pic “Bhumika: The Role.” Five years later, Benegal made Puri the lead in “Arohan,” the true story of a tenant farmer who spends 14 years fighting a wealthy landowner (future “A Passage to India” star Victor Banerjee) for the land that is rightfully his — a role for which Puri was named lead actor by the prestigious National Film Awards. Together with Puri’s other strongest work of the period — as a tribesman wrongfully accused of uxoricide in Govind Nihilani’s powerful “Aakrosh” (1980), and as an honest cop driven to the brink by a corrupt system in Nihilani’s Lumet-like “Ardh satya” (1983) — it was evidence that the actor felt a strong affinity for honest men undone by their own virtue, characters worthy of Greek tragedy.
“As a young man, I was very introverted and quiet, but with a lot of intensity and feelings,” says Puri. “I was very sensitive to the environment around, and this disparity in people, seeing beggars and laborers not paid well, used to disturb me. So these emotions in these roles came very naturally to me.”
“Ardh satya” won Puri a second National Film Award and made him a bankable star at home, though his father was initially less than impressed. “He used to sit around with the neighbors and they would provoke him: ‘Look, the film is doing so well and your son is living in a rented room,’” he remembers. “So he got very upset and angry. He thought I had been taken for a ride. I was 34 years old, I entered his house with a friend, and without saying anything he gave me a big slap — he was a big man, his hand was one-and-a-half times bigger than mine. And I was baffled. I didn’t know what happened. So I explained to him, ‘Look, it was a contract, and now because of this film, in the future I will get better work for better money. Everything will be fine.’”
Indeed, Puri has rarely been at rest since, including roles in some of the very mainstream Bollywood films (like his part as an Interpol agent in the popular “Don” series, opposite superstar Shah Rukh Khan) he once positioned himself against. He has also enjoyed a life largely free of tabloid sensationalism — until 2009, when his wife, Nandita, published a tell-all biography, “Unlikely Hero,” that revealed explicit details of the actor’s sexual life (including an alleged episode of childhood sexual molestation and a teenage liaison with his family’s maid). Puri fired back that the allegations in the book were “cheap and lurid gossip,” and by 2011 the couple were reportedly on their way to divorce court (amid further rumors that Puri wished to reunite with his first wife, Seema Kapoor).
Today, Puri says candidly that he has withdrawn the divorce request and he and Nandita have resolved to remain legally together while living fundamentally separate lives. “It’s been four years and I realized, I’m 65, and the court processes are so long, almost like the court wants to exhaust you, which is a pity,” he says with visible weariness. “Another thing is that I can’t fight an unethical war.” Is he happy? “Not really,” he says, “but I have come to terms with it.”
So he takes pleasure in his work, especially “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” which he proudly calls “a film without any technical lies,” meaning none of the elaborate CGI that has come to define Bollywood and Hollywood alike. He regrets that Indian cinema has lost some of its socially conscious edge, but notes that “there are about 10 young filmmakers in Bombay who are making good films — not necessarily song-and-dance films. But they are few and far between, and there are very few that talk about rural India, which earlier, in the ’80s, was more common.” And he longs for more roles in the West, where he feels there are richer opportunities for a big-nosed, pockmarked actor of a certain age.
“Recently I got up in the middle of the night and put on the television and thought, ‘Who is this old man? He looks familiar,’” says Puri. “It was a love story. I caught it in the middle, and I was so thrilled and happy — it was almost like the relationship in ‘Hundred-Foot Journey.’” Then he realized that the actor on the TV screen was Anthony Quinn.