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March 13, 2001


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'English films are fine, but East is East for me'

Pritish Nandy

After struggling for years in Bollywood, Om Puri has now emerged, after East Is East, a hugely popular actor in Britain.

Om Puri This has brought him a large number of international offers.

But the critically acclaimed actor remains completely unfazed by his success and still keeps aside five months every year for making films in India:

Did you ever expect to be such a huge success overseas?

You can never predict a huge success. Moderate success, yes you can. You know which film will work, which will not. But you can never predict the big hit. That is the outcome of many factors coming together.

What did you expect from, say, East Is East?

The film cost 3 million pounds. I expected it to earn a tidy profit. But, to be frank, I never thought it would gross 45 million pounds in Britain alone.

If you take the total global earnings, the figure is much more than that. It was an amazing success. Initially, they released only 70 prints. By the third week there were 270 prints showing in Britain alone!

What do you think are the chances of a film like Nagesh Kukunoor's Bollywood Calling becoming a global hit? It is as offbeat as East Is East.

Om Puri and Nagesh Kukunoor It is certainly possible. But, as I said, one can ever predict the size of a hit. I feel this will be a successful film and, properly promoted, it could even be a big hit.

But to start with, it must catch the urban audience. It is essentially meant for them. Once they like it, the film should attempt to grab the rest in India and overseas. Maybe it could be also dubbed in Hindi for the small towns.

But it will definitely do well in Calcutta, Bangalore, Bombay, Delhi and Madras. That much I am sure.

What do you think drove East Is East?

The fact that the story was told through humour. The kids were lively and there was a lot of energy in the film. Eventually, it also touched you emotionally.

After a while, you forget that the film is about an Asian family. You start looking at it as a film about the relationship between parents and children. The problems are identical everywhere. Parents want something. The kids want something else. The film is about that.

I saw the film with audiences in Cannes, Boston, Toronto, San Francisco, Seattle, Vancouver, Delhi. In Delhi, there was no space for me to enter the hall and go the stage. People were sitting on the floor. They had to have two more screenings in the festival.

East Is East Why didn't its commercial release work here?

It worked but not as well as it could have. It was not adequately publicised. No one knew when it came, when it went. But it did fairly well in the cities.

You do think you have now found yourself a fairly committed international following?

Frankly, Pritish, I did not even realise when it happened. It was only in retrospect that I figured out what had happened. My first film with a foreign unit was Jewel In The Crown. After that came Gandhi. Then came Deepa Mehta's very first film, shot in Toronto: Sam And Me. Then there was City Of Joy with Patrick Swayze.

That brought you a lot of critical acclaim?

Yes. But the film did not do too well. It was not even released in India.

But I got fabulous reviews in the American press. That is when everyone said, "You must get yourself an agent."

Priscilla, the casting director, introduced me to Jeremy Conway. He is very highly respected and also works for Anthony Hopkins. He had seen some of my Indian films in festivals but he was honest. He said to me upfront that he could not guarantee a great deal of work for an Asian actor who looked like I did.

East Is East I told him, "Jeremy, don't worry about that! My main shop is in Bombay. So I am not going to keep calling you for work and embarrassing you."

He laughed at that and we started working together. And, surprisingly, things started happening. He got me Wolf, the Jack Nicholson film. Then came Ghost In The Darkness, with Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas.

Then I did two Canadian films, one of which was Such A Long Journey.

When did you become such a hit with British audiences?

Only recently. The three British films almost happened in a row: Brothers In Trouble; My Son, The Fanatic and, of course, East Is East. They really made my presence felt.

I was first approached for East Is East, the play. But I had no dates then. I had just entered commercial cinema and was trying to make some money for my old age. So I couldn't afford to stay away for six months. Luckily, they came back to me for the film.

Any new films after East Is East?

Four actually. One is The Zoo Keeper and was shot in Czechoslovakia. It is about ethnic cleansing and is set in a zoo, where I play a vet. It is a big canvas, small budget film. Very powerful.

My Son, The Fanatic Another powerful film is The Parole Officer, which is made by the guys who did Notting Hill and Four Weddings And A Funeral. The film was shot in the north of England. It is a comic thriller in which I play a computer genius.

Then there's a film made in Wales called Happy Now, where I play a tramp of Russian origin with a Welsh accent. It is an exceptionally well made thriller.

Finally, there is The Mystic Masseur in Trinidad, based on V S Naipaul's famous novel which Ismail Merchant is directing. It has got huge international attention, as you know.

All these films should do well. I am lucky they came my way. Many more films have been coming but I said no. I do not want to commit all my time out there.

I must spend at least five months a year here, to do the kind of films I have been doing. I want to work with Shyam (Benegal), Govind (Nihalani), Kundan Shah. I want to work in Bengali films.

They all tend to shoot at a stretch. So I must have those six weeks that I can give them at short notice. English films are fine, but East Is East for me.

But do you get adequate artistic challenge working out here?

Yes, I do.

Om Puri But the art film is dead? That was the kind of film in which you showed your prowess.

It is not dead. It has actually integrated with the mainstream. The mainstream always produced good cinema within the commercial format. You had Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt, the early Raj Kapoor who worked so well with the traditional song and dance format and yet produced great films.

Today, you have Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Kundan Shah, Mahesh Manjrekar, Rajkumar Santoshi, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Nagesh Kukunoor. I enjoy working with them. I will not give it up for anything in the world.

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