Had Amrish Puri been alive, he would have turned 88 this week, and keeping in mind how the late starter went onto dominate the landscape of popular Hindi cinema from the mid-1980s to late 1990s, he would have been creating yet another iconic character. As someone who not only started by his early 40s, Puri had to swim against the tide in more ways than one. Although he was a regular feature in films of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani, but when it came to popular films, Puri had to overcome the towering image of his elder brother, Madan Puri, and a host of well-established villains to carve a place for himself. Beginning with Nagina (1986), Puri managed to create a great legacy that is now synonymous with the term ‘villain.’ Called the greatest baddies by Steven Spielberg, who directed him in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Puri’s era demarcated a before and after for villains but the actor was not limited to playing the baddie.
There are four phases in Amrish Puri’s life and every single phase is peppered with not only great performances but also being a part of films that have gone on to become a part of the collective consciousness of cinemagoers. The first phase begins from the early 1970s where Puri marked his presence in films such as Prem Pujari (1970) and Hindustan Ki Kasam (1973) as well as being an integral part of the genesis of the Parallel Cinema movement with films like Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), and Bhumika (1977). This phase also includes Puri’s inspired presence in films such as Gandhi (1982), Ardh Satya (1983), Vijeta (1982) and, of course, Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). By the time Puri emerged on the scene as a replacement for the previous generation of buddies that included the legendary Prem Chopra, Ranjeet, Danny Denzongpa and Puri’s own elder brother Madan, there were a few others in the running as well. One can see the difference between how Puri was cast in some of the milestone films of the 1980s and notice his transition from the ‘other’ villain in Qurbani (1980), a glorified sidekick in Dostana (1980) and the ‘parallel’ villain in Shakti (1982). By the mid-1980s, Puri transitioned into the next league with Meri Jung (1985) and a year later with Nagina he had truly arrived. Both the films show how Puri sowed the seeds of becoming the greatest nemesis of the Hindi film hero.
The second phase came with Mr. India (1987) where Puri played Mogambo and become the ultimate villain for an entire generation. By now Puri had become a kind of a legend in his lifetime. When Subhash Ghai told Puri that he had no role for him in Karma (1986) and Puri asked him what role was Anupam Kher playing, Ghai is believed to have said ‘woh Amrish Puri ka role kar raha hai.’ (He is playing the role of Amrish Puri). Intriguingly enough Anupam Kher was originally meant to be Mogambo but director Shekhar Kapur had a change of heart at the eleventh hour and cast Puri instead. The success of Mr. India and the villainous roles that followed Inaam Dus Hazaar (1987), Shahenshah (1988), Gangaa Jamunaa Saraswathi (1988), Dayavan (1988), Yateem (1988), Tridev (1989), Ram Lakhan (1989), Aaj Ka Arjun (1990) and Ghayal (1990) almost brushed away the memories of Puri’s roles in the host of films that he done for filmmakers such as Shyam Benegal. He was seen as a brilliant actor who got immense popularity playing the bad guy in commercial Hindi films and for the generation that grew up watching Puri in such films, his post-Mr.India foray into the strong character roles in the 1990s came as a shock.
Most film villains often become victim of their image and are unable to go beyond the popular perception. Unlike Pran, and to some extent, Amjad Khan, most baddies right from Jeevan, Madan Puri, KN Singh, Ranjeet and Prem Chopra found it difficult to attract the kind of roles a ‘supporting’ artist would enjoy. In this aspect, Amrish Puri stood poles apart from the rest. Puri’s films with Priyadarshan beginning with Muskurahat (1992) and Gardish (1993) marked a decorous turn in commercial films where he seemingly went beyond being a Shashi Kapoor or Rishi Kapoor in an Amitabh Bachchan film or even Govinda in the 1980s where he played the able second fiddle to everyone from Shatrughan Sinha, Dharmendra, Sanjay Dutt and Anil Kapoor. A remake of his own Malayalam film, Kilukkam (1991), Priyan’s Muskurahat was marketed solely on Amrish Puri’s presence in an era long before small or indie films became fashionable where a ‘character’ actor could be the face of a film or the ‘hero.’
Gardish laid the foundation for Puri becoming a great parallel lead where he played a police constable, Havaldar Purushottam Sathe, who nurtures dreams of his son, Shiva (Jackie Shroff) becoming a police officer and keeps a hawk’s eye on his son lest he makes a mistake that would hamper his chances of joining the force. In a twist of fate Shiva ends up being seen as a local dada when he takes on a known criminal Billa Jilani (Mukesh Rishi) to save his father. The film ends with Purushottam Sathe putting his son’s photograph in the rogue’s gallery in the police station. These films displayed Puri’s wide range and in addition to establishing his brand beyond Mogambo also saw him metamorphose into a colossus who did not have to be second lead like Hindi films saw the second hero. Puri was lucky to be able to balance these with roles that demanded him to be the baddie and once he played Chaudhry Baldev Singh in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) he became something that many leading stars in the twilight of their careers would have killed for.
In the mid 1980s if someone had come up with a film like Ghatak: Lethal (1996) it would have been impossible to think of any actor besides Sanjeev Kumar to play Shambu Nath, the former freedom fighter who is dying of cancer and before death could take him away he witnesses the utter decay of a society that he fought to free from the British. Even in the 1970s, Sanjeev Kumar would have been the automatic choice to play Shambu Nath but come 1990s and the equivalent was not a star at crossroads like Rajesh Khanna or Dharmendra but Puri. The fact that this at his peak Puri sahab was outdoing Dharmendra, Shatrughan Sinha and Vinod Khanna who could never graduate to playing the strong character roles that they were capable of is a testimony to his brilliance. Perhaps that is why Puri was a natural choice to reprise Sivaji Ganesan’s role in Virasat (1997), the Hindi remake of Thevar Magan (1992). Moreover, the fact that even when Bachchan slid into the ‘Amrish Puri’ bracket with Mohabbatein (2000) to play a role originally written with Puri in mind and whose success practically killed the careers of ‘character actors’ like Kader Khan, Aruna Irani, Rohini Hattangadi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Om Puri, Amrish Puri escaped unscathed.
By the 2000s the kind of films where Puri could play the standard Hindi film villain were dying a slow death and the resurrection of Bachchan post- Mohabbatein saw the advent of former heroes as fathers, and elder brothers or crazy uncles but Puri was still in demand. One of the last films to feature an out and out classic Hindi film villain, Gadar- Ek Prem Katha (2001) would have been unimaginable without Amrish Puri. Life came a full circle for Amrish Puri a few months before his death in 2005 when this time Subhash Ghai got Amrish Puri to play the ‘Amrish Puri’ role in Kisna (2005), one of the last films that Puri did.
One can gauge Amrish Puri’s impact on the medium from a popular misconception of a great one-liner credited to him as there couldn’t be a greater baddie. In the 2010s, a meme with Puri’s character Bhairav Nath from Nagina along with a line that he could have probably mouthed ‘Aao kabhi haveli par’ became popular. The closest that anything in Hindi films comes to being the origins of ‘Aao kabhi haveli pe’ could be a scene from Dilwale featuring Paresh Rawal, Pramod Moutho and Sunil Shetty; Rawal tries to convey to Shetty, an honest cop, that haveli pe aajaana and we will take care of you. Perhaps like Sherlock Holmes being attributed with the line, ‘the game’s afoot’ even though he never really said anything like that directly because this could be something that Holmes could ‘owned’, ‘Aao kabhi haveli pe’ no doubt sounds something that an Amrish Puri could have made immortal.