He can't sing and he can't dance, but he can twist and turn to fit into just about any movie role. A triumph of versatility in Indian and international cinema, Om Puri's unconventional roles speak loud and clear of his supreme passion for cinema.
We caught up with the star at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where he's in town to promote his latest British comedy drama 'West Is West', a sequel to the 1999 film 'East Is East'. And here's what we asked him:
What was it like revisiting your character from 'East is East'?
Wonderful! In 'East and East', I played a demon; an authoritative, violent, and aggressive husband. When he raises his hand against his wife and his son hits back - his empire was over (laughs)!
In 'West is West', we pick up from there. My character (George Khan) is still an aggressive man who gets angry when his youngest son gets caught by the police for shoplifting, but he has mellowed down overall. My character (George Khan) REALISES his guilt when he comes face to face with his two wives.
What was it like shooting in Punjab?
Punjab is like a second home to me, since I grew up there. The shooting for 'West is West' literally took place 60 kilometers from where I grew up, so it was familiar territory! In the film, George returns to Pakistan, but the shooting took place in India. There's no stark difference between the Indian and Pakistani Punjab – after all they were one at one time. The only obvious difference is in the way of dressing, which we took into account.
How was the experience of working with Ila Arun?
Ila's a wonderful actress and a great singer. I was trying to ease her life by convincing her to portray the role in Urdu, but she was adamant to take up the challenge of learning Punjabi. She was delivering the lines in beautiful Punjabi in no time.
What was the toughest scene in the film for you?
There were two scenes; one when my Pakistani wife reprimands me, seeking a justification for abandoning her. He's answerable to her, but is left speechless. The second scene is when George breaks down in front of his wife and confesses to Ila that he's a failure as a person.
What are your must-dos while in Abu Dhabi?
I'm traveling with my wife and son, so shopping is definitely on the cards, but that's for them. I am enjoying the Arabic food here; in fact right at this moment my kebabs are waiting for me in the room!
Who are you star struck by?
I am enthralled by Amitabh Bachchan's sheer energy. He's 68 now, but he can still dance and sing – it's touching and truly inspiring to see his zest! I can never sing or dance like him.
If you were not an actor, what would you have been doing?
I was always fond of the Army, so I guess that's where I'd be. But if I retire tomorrow, you'll find me on a farm!
What do you love about being a celebrity actor?
I love being praised by people who might have seen my film 20 years back but still remember my performance. The recognition adds to my versatility as an actor – it gives me energy to go on!
What do you hate about being a star?
The odd hours do irritate me and I hate late night shoots.