As perhaps one of India’s most recognisable acting exports, Om Puri has amassed more than 250 feature film critics in his four decades in front of the camera. Born in Patiala, in the north of India, Puri is beloved at home and abroad, having played roles in mainstream and independent cinema in India, the United States and the UK.
His film debut came in 1976, in the Marathi film GHASHIRAM KOTWAL, and Puri rode the Indian New Wave of the 70s and early 80s, starring in some of the country’s most memorable art-house classics and taking roles in some of Bollywood’s biggest successes.
He had a cameo role in Richard Attenborough’s GHANDI, in 1982, but he credits a turn opposite Patrick Swayze and Pauline Collins ten years later, in Roland Joffe’s CITY OF JOY, as kick-starting his English-language career. Hollywood roles include the likes of WOLF, THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS and CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR.
Equally at home in British cinema, few can forget Puri’s turn in 1999 hit EAST IS EAST, in which Puri played the patriarch of a mixed-ethnicity family settling into Salford, Greater Manchester in the 1970s. A sequel, WEST IS WEST, followed in 2010.
In THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY, Puri again plays a proud Indian patriarch, this time leading his family to a sleepy French village in which he intends to open an Indian restaurant and bring a taste of home to a people whose cuisine has been unchanged for hundreds of years. And there’s a catch: he’s opening opposite a Michelin-starred legend
Puri will soon reteam with Roland Joffe for THE LOVERS, alongside Josh Hartnett and Tamsin Egerton, but in London to launch THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY, he discusses his passion for cooking, the stellar ensemble, and his extraordinary cinematic history.
This is a hard film to watch on an empty stomach. The obvious first question is: can you cook as well as the film suggests?
I think I’m the senior of the group when it comes to cooking. I have been cooking from the age of 14. In school I was a Boy Scout, and one of the was cooking. There used to be competitions. I used to watch my mother, and if we went to anybody’s house I would be curious to ask them, “How did you prepare it? What did you put in it?” etc. etc. I find it relaxing. It’s like doing yoga for me.
Do you have a signature dish?
My preference is still vegetarian. I can’t have a full non-veggie meal. I have to have vegetables. I love lentils and I love yoghurt. I can cook chicken and prawns, but it’s mainly vegetarian.
Also, I don’t indulge in cooking where you have to spend a lot of time. There are a lot of Indian dishes where you have to spend bloody half a day cooking one dish. I don’t much use ground spices, which have a mixture of various things. I prefer to use the whole spice. I improvise a lot with food, too, and try to match things. Most of the time I have been successful in making a mixture.
There is one dish, which becomes like a whole meal. In the north we have a state called Uttar Pradesh, and there’s a dish there called Tahri, which is a mix of vegetables and rice cooked together. It’s like a pilau, actually. When the family goes for an outing, they come back home, the children are very hungry, and they don’t want to cook three dishes. They cook this Tahri, which takes about 20 minutes, and you have a perfect meal. You have vegetables, rice and yoghurt.
Most actors are lucky to have one role of a lifetime in their careers. You’ve had many. Did this immediately leap out to you as something like that?
I was excited and absolutely thrilled. Look at the names associated with it, starting with Steven Spielberg who is a master of cinema. He is so diverse and so prolific and versatile in his filmmaking. When I met him for the first time in America, for the premiere, I looked at him and said, “God, such a tiny body and has so much talent inside.” He’s very gentle and very sweet, and he met me very warmly. Oprah Winfrey is another great human being. She visited the set also and it was a great pleasure meeting her. In fact, I gifted her a book I was reading, which was about spiritualism and meditation. She enjoyed reading it; she sent me an email that she loved it. Lasse Hallstrom is a great director. And then finally you had Dame Helen Mirren. To work opposite her is a dream for any actor. I was absolutely thrilled by this project.
You and Helen share a wonderful romance in the film. What did you like about the way that played out?
You don’t know where it’s heading, and where it’s going to lead. Things keep on happening, and the least you expected was a relationship between Helen Mirren and my character. The younger love story was going on right from the beginning, but ours was a surprise. It’s a very dignified relationship, with a lot of warmth and compassion.
The cast is from many different backgrounds. Was it easy to bond?
Well, I have to say that for me it’s something that comes naturally. It all started with EAST IS EAST. I have a big family in EAST IS EAST and I got this idea before we started filming. I was staying in an apartment in Holland Park, so I said my exercise is that tomorrow we all meet at my place and we go out shopping to cook. Someone went to buy vegetables, and someone went to buy fruit, somebody went to buy wine. Everybody went shopping separately and we all got together and cooked the meal. We spent the entire day, until 12 o’clock at night and it was wonderful. Similarly I did that on this film. Every Saturday and Sunday my screen family would come to my apartment and I had to cook for them.
Your character is passionate but stubborn. Is that a common trait amongst Indian cooks, do you think?
Most Indians are very enterprising. Way back in the 40s and 60s, the people who came from India were essentially the labour class. Then, gradually, they had families here and became part of this society. But they came here with nothing. You can’t imagine that they come almost penniless, and in 10 years time you see that they’re millionaires. They don’t spend very much – they’re not indulgent. They save and they keep growing their business.
You’ve done more than 250 films. Looking back, what has allowed such longevity?
The fact is that in Indian mainstream cinema a face like mine didn’t fit in. If Anthony Quinn had been born in India, he’d still be struggling; he wouldn’t find a main role to play. Fortunately, during the period I came in the mid-70s, the New Wave cinema was coming up. The films had natural faces and ordinary faces. Pretty, chiselled faces weren’t required to play main parts. I was part of that cinema, and gradually, because of the wonderful performances, the mainstream cinema noticed. They started offering substantial parts – although never the main lead. But there was very little money in art cinema. Art cinema gave me prestige and dignity and credibility as an actor, and commercial cinema gave me bread and butter. I created a balance – the right kind of balance – between the two.
How did you break out internationally?
It started with CITY OF JOY in 1992. I had a big part against Patrick Swayze, and I got very good reviews in America. My producers and director, and the casting director, they said, “You must have an agent in London.” I didn’t know anyone, so they put me onto Jeremy Conway and he’s still my agent today. With that film, gradually roles started coming and I did a lot of work in Britain. I did three or four Canadian films, and six or seven American films. Cameos, but good cameos, you know. I worked only with stars, whether it was Jack Nicholson or Tom Hanks or Patrick Swayze or Val Kilmer or Michael Douglas.
How did you find Lasse Hallstrom’s approach on this film?
I spoke to him about his background and how he got his start. He’s a self-trained man. He didn’t go to school to learn direction. I think perhaps, it explains his behaviour on set, because he discovered things himself, so he expects the actors to discover things for themselves. The most important line which stuck in my head – and I’ve worked with hundreds of directors – was when he said, “Om, the take was nice, but I want you to mess it up.” I got confused, I said, “Why would I mess up a scene?” What he meant was, like in real life, you’re awkward, you’re hesitant, and you’re not always perfect. He meant that. Sometimes he said, “Throw the script away. Don’t speak lines from the script. Think of the situation and make your own lines.” That’s quite difficult, instantly. We’re not writers. But he’ll get something out of that.
THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY IS AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD ON 9TH MARCH, COURTESY OF ENTERTAINMENT ONE