‘...Shagird, Starring Joy Mukherjee and Saira Banu, was being screened in a local hall. A group of college students sitting ahead of us were vociferous in their condemnation of Madan Puri, especially in a scene where ‘Madan, photographer from Chicago’ tries to molest Saira Banu. I shouted at the group to show some restraint. One of them turned round and said, ‘kyon kya woh tera baap lagta hai’! My young wife was with me, I didn’t want to take any chances, so I thought it would be wiser to shout ‘Maro saale ko’ with the rest.’
With lovely, heartwarming, behind-the-screen stories of the late Madan Puri, who worked in more than four hundred movies and portrayed every conceivable type of character- Kamlesh Puri talks about the popular screen villain who was also his father.
An evocative portrait of the life of a struggling actor, trying to get a foothold in the film industry in Bombay in the 196os and 7os, this book has a lightness and charm that will appeal to all readers, not just dedicated Bollywood buffs.
Kamlesh Prui was born in Pathankot in 1943, and came to Bombay in 1945 with his parents. He is an alumnus of the National Defence Academy and has a PhD from Barkatullah University, Bhopal. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel. Kamlesh lives in Mumbay.
Two years after the death of my beloved wife Renuka in 2005 after a long illness, I decided to write a book about the Sindhi community, so that Renuka’s grandchildren would know more about their wonderful grandmother. In this connection I met well-known author Lata Jagtiani, who promised to help me in my research work on Sindhis. When I mentioned that my late father was Madan Puri, her husband Manek Premchand, who writes extensively on Bollywood music, said that Madan Puri was a very popular actor of the sixties and seventies and I should write about him not only as an actor, but also as his son. To find out more about my father’s film career I needed to meet and interview as many as possible of my father’s ageing colleagues and friends, and time was running out. I put the Sindhi manuscript on hold.
My daughters, Kanchan and Sonal were sixteen and twelve respectively when their daadu passed away on 13 January 1985. They have good memories of him. One day I told one of my grandsons that the man in the movie he was watching was my father, and his great-grandfather. He could not comprehend the concept of great-grandfathers! Perhaps he also found it hard to grasp that he was watching someone on screen who was no longer alive. I remembered this incident when I interviewed Raj Kumar Kohli in connection with this book, for he said, ‘Madanji and other actors are lucky. Future generations will be able to see them as they looked. We, who are the moviemakers, will end up as pictures on the wall to be dusted and garlanded two or three times a year.’
When I began this biography I had no idea that I was writing about a famous man, though the crowds at his funeral should have been an indication. It was a revelation to discover that he was considered an excellent and prolife actor as well as being a popular and respected member of the film community. In the process of learning more about my father as an actor I also rediscovered him as a parent, and found that the ethics he applied to his profession were equally strong in his private life.
This book is about that great human being.
Think of any film you like, and consider what is it that you remember the most. More often than not, it will be the stars, the story and the music. Perhaps the director is someone you admire. You may even remark upon its technical finesse-the photography, the stunts. But rarely, if ever, does anyone pay any attention to the film’s supporting cast. When did you last spend time thinking about who played the character roles in a block buster?
But without these character actors, a film could fall flat. However charismatic the lead actor may be, without the support of others around him, he would be a uni-dimensional figure. Character actors, especially those who play smaller roles with skill, are very precious. Directors know their value and importance in lending depth to a story.
Madan Puri was one such actor. He brought immense conviction to his roles. Whether as a suave gangland boss or a thug, and, later in life, as a kindly old uncle or a grandfather, Madan Puri held the viewer’s attention, even while sharing the screen with the biggest superstar. He blends efficiently into the demands of the scene, rather than draw unnecessary attention to himself and this makes him a great actor. The role of any good actor is to get under the skin of the character—Madan Puri was very adept at that.
It is hardly surprising therefore that while some of the biggest stars in Hindi cinema may have acted in say, 100 plus films, Madan Puri was in more than 400 in his 44 years long career—that’s an astonishing eight films a year; it shows he was always in demand and directors were keen to include him in the cast, confident that he would bring tremendous value to the film.
This is not the place to list all his films, but some of his more memorable roles deserve attention. The ones that stand out and will be recalled by film buffs, are Yash Chopra’s Waqt, where, as a gangster, he managed to hold his own in a film full of the big stars of the day. Who does not remember him lurching in a party or trying to pick a fight with Rajkumar? He was also terrific in Deewar (also directed by Chopra), as crime boss Samant. Two of his less known but equally well enacted roles were in Aadmi Aur Insaan and Gaddar, a small but entertaining film that had all the famous (notorious) villains in it. There are many more that come to mind.
But more than any other, I have always thought of Madan Puri as the quintessential Chinaman. In the 1950s, Shakti Samanta, who went on to make soft romantic films such as Aradhana, Kati Patang and Amar Prem, was known as a director of Noir-ish crime films. Samanta was clearly inspired by Hollywood crime dramas, but the tone and mood was distinctly Indian. Two of the best in the series were Howrah Bridge and China Town, both set in Calcutta. In between there was a third film, the not so well known Singapore. Madan Puri played John Wong in the first, Chang in the second and Joseph Wang in the third. A lesser actor would have merely played them all the same way. Not Madan Puri, who brought subtle changes in inflexion and body language to each one of these characters.
Good character actors can switch, chameleon like, into any role. Stars usually play themselves –the audiences don’t like their favourites to move too far away from their screen personas. Character actors have more leeway and the better ones, such a Madan Puri, effortlessly take on the persona of whatever role they play. Which is why, Madan Puri, after being a ‘villain’ for decades, became a kindly grandfather in Dulhan Wohi Jo Piya Man Bhaye.
I am happy to note that Madan Puri’s son Col Kamlesh Puri has written a book on his father. What is even better is that instead of merely focusing on his film career, the book takes a look at the man behind the actor and gives us a glimpse of what life was like in the 1940s and 1950s, when Madan Puri was settling down in the industry.
One is charmed to read that throughout his life Madan Puri lived in the same small flat he had moved into when he came to Bombay and what is more, sat on his favourite carpet in the centre of the living room, preferring to be with his family rather than spending time in film parties. It reflects his simplicity and domesticity. There are many such vignettes—his struggle to break into the film industry, his early successes, his hey day as a much–in-demand actor—that add to our knowledge about both, the man and the actor. Books on character actors are few and far between—this is a valuable addition to our knowledge about the Hindi film industry.
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