Govind Nihalani burst onto the Indian film industry in the early ‘80s with his human document on the violent oppression of a worker, Aakrosh, which won the Golden Peacock at the International Film Festival of India in 1981. He went on to make a lasting impression on the Indian audiences, with films such as Ardh Satya, Aghaat and Tamas. Nihalani was at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre last week for a retrospective of Om Puri’s films. He spoke to Guardian 20 on the unique actor that Om Puri was and how emphasis on glamour separates him from today’s breed of superstars.

Q. The gap left by Om Puri is enormous. It is difficult to match his stature, but can present-day actors learn from him?

A. I think acting is not about deriving your style from someone else. It is one’s own attitude. An actor brings in certain amount of integrity, understanding and intensity to the interpretation of roles that are offered. Each actor develops his own style which makes him stand out from the rest. 

 Many questions arose after Om Puri’s demise. Question like: what kind of actor was he, what was that in him which was so good about him and so on. I never thought critically about him. Basically he was a friend who also happened to be an actor.

Q. So what made Om Puri a fine actor?

 A. I think an actor should be like a wrist watch. In the wrist watch you look at the beautifully designed dial, two needles moving and giving you the precise time. You don’t see the mechanism inside the wrist watch. You don’t see the gears and you hardly hear the sound of the “tic tic”. You only see the precision.

Every actor prepares for the role in his own way. Someone works on the physical appearance, another polishes the voice and language, depending upon the role. An actor’s job is not easy. What you see on the screen is the sum total. A good actor is the one who gives you the precise performance where you don’t notice all the efforts that go behind the preparation for the role just like a wrist watch. Om ji was an excellent wrist watch in that sense. 

Om Puri had carved a niche for himself. He would never remind you of any other actor. He was unique. A good actor brings a whole lot of his inner sensibility to the role. Om ji was a very emotional man. His response was heartfelt. He was a very caring person. There was a lot of compassion in him. And this very sensibility he had reflected in the interpretation of his characters. He was not too much objective. His audience used to sense that he is actually feeling the emotion. He imbibed the emotions of a character and that set him apart. In his case, I can easily say that: you forget the actor but remember the character. His skill was finesse till that level. 

Q. Why don’t we see this very flair in today’s actors? What are the roadblocks that stop them from putting up a refined performance?

A. No, I think this skill is present in today’s actors as well but the characters they get are not really strong. The character should demand such emotions. The character should challenge the actor. An actor always wants to be honest to the character and deliver his best role. But mostly the interpretation of the role is such, which requires an emphasis on the glamour rather than the emotion. Hence you don’t see the actual impact of a person as an actor but as a glamour personality. It depends what is important for you as an actor. And what you choose.

Q: Most of your films, such as Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa, Ardh Satya, Tamas, are literary adaptations. What are the primary things a director should be careful about when making films from literary texts?

A. A filmmaker in this case should be able to identify the most appealing thing in the work and be very honest to it. This should be done because every individual has a different idea about what the written work is about. There are many interpretations of one story. So, even a literary text in itself is not fixed. Therefore, it is mandatory to hold the essence of the narrative.  Whatever be the essence one should be honest towards it.  Once you do that, half the battle is won. It is always better to approach the author, given he is there and then if he agrees with your interpretation, nothing like that. But even if the author is not available you can go ahead with the reading but the essence shouldn’t be lost.

Q: How can a director wield power over his audiences? And what kind of films, according you, are capable of engaging the audiences?

A. A film should be able to catch your attention the minute images start streaming on the screen. The direction should hold you by the collar and make you sit in the seat till the picture ends. A film should be that arresting. For me, as long as I make my audience sit in the chair so long that their attention doesn’t waiver I am happy. I also give them sensory pleasures.  Things like the aural word, music, image, composition, lighting all these things should grip the audience. Provided these elements, if the audience just doesn’t think of any other thing but just enjoys the movie; my job is done.

Q. The film fraternity is often at the receiving end of criticism coming from various communities. The recent movie which faced the wrath of public is Padmavati. Is there a way to stop such negativity?

A. Yes, it should not have happened. As a filmmaker I feel frightened. In any film you make, more than the monetary factor, there are many who are involved who give a structure to a film.  And when an actor is criticised for the chosen films, it is most disturbing. An actor doesn’t choose the impact of the film. As a director, I choose the actor, similarly the dialogues are provided by the scriptwriter. So an actor is nowhere responsible. He just follows certain orders. But still their lives come in danger. I won’t like any member of my crew to be harmed. A layman, without the research of the film, won’t know how much the director has researched. If there is a difference of opinion there is a way out minus the violence, which is to go about it legally. Why to impose your own views when you yourself are not well researched? This is a sad thing. People should not be just tolerant but understanding.

Q.  It doesn’t seem like the censor board is discerning, or sympathetic enough when it comes to certification of such films. Scenes in many films are curtailed, so much so that the movies are unable to present the viewpoint they originally wanted to put across.  

A. Some films do get comments from censor board and in the present scenario this has become frequent. But whenever the aggrieved party has gone to the court the judiciary has always been supportive and given a very appropriate judgment. This is one section where the judiciary of the country has always been open and understanding. It is important for people to understand that whatever is there in the films, for instance the dialogues, a director has given a lot of thought and consideration to it, as it takes a lot of expense. No filmmaker would deliberately go against what they describe as Indian culture. All the filmmakers are very careful about the fact that they do not go wrong according to the definition of Indian culture. But at the same time, it might happen that some progressive thoughts could be considered revolutionary. One could say that you are not taking the regular path of the tradition and you are challenging the established norms. So there might be some cases of that kind and our censor board doesn’t seem to very open minded on that cases. Thank god we have a judiciary, which is far more understanding.

Q. Are you planning any film on the current socio–political scenario? What is your forthcoming film about?

A. Current scenario in the country is a work in progress [laughs]. It is still developing. It has not yet come to a position where one can say, “ok, this is it”. Besides I would like to make a film again on what emerges in a form of literature, because my interest is what happens to human beings under such circumstances. That comes when a good writer takes up the issue and makes it a creative work. I have just finished a film in Marathi to be released next month, which is yet again an adaptation of a literary work.


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