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By Manmohan Melville

 It was a cold winter’s morning in Mumbai. Most of Mumbai’s film fraternity had assembled at a bungalow in the suburb of Juhu to bid farewell to an actor most Indians had grown to hate.  Film villain Amrish Puri had succumbed to myelodysplastic syndrome -- an illness that had been slowly creeping up on him over the past months.  

On 12 January 2005, Amrish Puri ended months of struggle with the illness. And in his passing away – he brought to a close an era of his trademark wickedness on the Bollywood screen.

 One for the Art

 Amrish Puri was born in Naushera in Punjab in 1932. He graduated from BM College in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, and in the ‘50s, he moved to Mumbai.

 His elder brother – Madan Puri -- had already made a name for himself as a villain on the Hindi screen. But, younger brother Amrish failed a screen test to play the hero in 1954. He worked for a while as an employee of the Ministry of Labour. In time, however, the theatre beckoned and Amrish Puri began to take up roles in playwright Satyadev Dubey’s plays. He soon became a familiar face at Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre.

 What attracted the audience immediately to Amrish Puri was his deep, resonant, baritone voice. He realized the importance of that voice, when he began getting offers for ad jingles in the early days of radio commercials.

In 1971, he was cast as a bad guy in the film Reshma aur Shera. He was nearly 40 years old when he made his debut on the screen. But, though he was a latecomer, Lady Luck had a great career plan for him.

 After getting his foot into the Bombay Talkies, he was offered a handful of significant roles (mostly as bad guys) by Shyam Benegal in his art films. This was the ‘70s -- the years of the powerful parallel cinema movement. Amrish Puri played roles in “parallel” films like Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika, Kalyug and Mandi, thus sharing screen time with “art” legends like Smita Patil, Nareeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi.

 His finest (and most memorable) art film role was Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya in which he played a counter-point role opposite Om Puri’s rebellious cop.  In 1987, however, one film changed his entire career graph.

 The Making of Mogambo

 In the mid-80s, director Shekar Kapur (fresh after the success of his film Masoom) was ready to make yet another film for children based on the “invisible man” premise. Anil Kapoor was to play the hero – Mr. India. And Kapur was on the look out for a villain to play the super baddie. The director chose Amrish Puri to play the villain whose name was Mogambo.

 Kapur claims that Amrish Puri was given a mental sketch of the villain. It was the actor’s own inventiveness that inked in the character of Mogambo. Amrish Puri played Mogambo as part-monster and part-caricature. And it remained his most-remembered role.  

Till that time, Amjad Khan’s Gabbar Singh act in Sholay was considered the height of villainy on the Indian screen. When Mogambo hit the screen with his rumbling laugh and his deep-throat trademark line –“Mogambo khush hua” – Gabbar Singh had found himself competition.

 Just let’s say, Mogambo became the second-most notorious baddie of the Indian screen – all time. And, of course, the role catapulted Amrish Puri to the top (or should we say the bottom?) of the bad-guy’s ladder. He found a place among the most despicable fiends of the Hindi movie screen!

 Two Villains in the Family!  

The Puris now had two leading “villains” in the family fold! But, Amrish Puri’s evil doings did not end there. Naturally, he was offered the plum roles in Bollywood’s criminal gallery. But, 1984 also saw him achieve a target that most Indian actors would have killed for. A Hollywood studio offered him a significant role in a Steven Spielberg film!

 The film was Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – the sequel to Spielberg’s immensely popular Raiders of the Lost Ark. Amrish Puri was to play the villainous Mola Ram – a Kali-worshipping tantric  – who tries to eliminate Harrison Ford and company.  Unfortunately – in India – the film ran into much flak – since the priest was the villain of the piece. Till date, the film has not been released in the theatres in India.  

Amrish Puri was offered many more films in Hollywood. But, he claimed, that most of the roles showed him (and Indians) in a “regressive” light. So, he returned to India and continued his villainy at the Mumbai studios. With the Temple of Doom stint, Amrish Puri considered his brief (but successful) fling with international fame complete!

This Villain was also a Gentleman  

It is a well-known fact that a villain is always rated by the hatred he generates in the minds of his audience. It is also an irony, that some of Bollywood’s best-known “villains” have been the industry’s greatest gentlemen. Amrish Puri was no exception.

 And, as is the trend in Bollywood, at some point in every villain’s life, he is given a chance to “reform”. And so it was with Amrish Puri.

 In 1995, the “wicked, bloodthirsty villain” got to play one of his most endearing roles. The film was to become Bollywood’s mega-hit – Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ )– and Amrish Puri was appropriately cast as the heroine’s authoritarian father. In the film, he creates a situation that tests the two young lovers – Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol – with months of heartbreak, stretched across two continents, twenty-odd reels and several popular song sequences. As in most Hindi films, the climax of the DDLJ takes place between the hero and the “villain”. Yes -- it was Shah Rukh Khan versus Amrish Puri in the last reel! But, it was a climax with a difference – and the public just loved the very-Indian moral at the end of the tale. DDLJ created yet another dimension for Amrish Puri’s repertoire as an actor. He began to get offers to play the “father” in films. And -- to his credit – he created quite a range of “fathers” even within the narrow confines of the Hindi film scripts.

 He played Anil Kapoor’s father in Viraasat -- as a colossus -- that the son later has to emulate in life. As Tabu’s widower-father, he even “fell in love” with Kamaal Hasaan (in drag) in the hilarious Chachi 420. And amongst his last roles he had, he played the heroine’s father  -- as a punching bag -- in Mujhse Shaadi Karogi. By now, however, the illness had begun creeping up on the actor.  

Filmmaker Subhash Ghai cast him in his latest film Kisna. However, the story goes, that the actor did not attend the first filming schedule of the movie. This upset the filmmaker very much. It was much later Ghai learned that the actor was suffering from the blood disorder. Amrish Puri completed Kisna – often battling his illness to complete his filming schedule.  

On 12 January, this “beloved villain” of the Hindi screen fought his last battle. He succumbed to a brain haemorrhage in a hospital in Mumbai. Mogambo was no more!