By: Eastern Eye Staff
For Om Puri, who died last week at his home in Mumbai at the age of 66 of a heart attack, the film that defined him to audiences in the UK and probably around the world was East Is East in 1999.
He played “George Khan”, a Pakistani immigrant married to an Englishwoman, Ella, and determined to bring up their brood of seven children as “good Muslims”.
Only they would much rather be like their English peers – go to parties, engage in snogging and indulge in bacon butties. Trouble erupts when George discovers his youngest son, Sajid, has not been circumcised – his “tickle tackle”, he tells his son, “no belong to you”.
It was a difficult and complex role for which Puri was cast by the producer Leslee Udwin on the recommendation of the playwright Ayub Khan Din.
“Very few people have that kind of acting ability,” observed Udwin. “It was Ayub who said, ‘I know someone who would be perfect.’”
Ayub takes up the story.
East Is East is an autobiographical work, based on Ayub’s experiences of growing up in Salford in the 1970s with eight brothers and a sister. As a young drama student, he had made some notes about a possible play and then forgotten about it.
Under prodding from friends in the Tamasha Theatre Company, it was workshopped at the Royal Court in London into a proper play which premiered in 1996 at the Birmingham Rep.
It so happens that Ayub, who began life as an actor before he turned full-time playwright, had met Puri three years previously.
“I first met Om when we worked on a film together in Canada called The Burning Season in 1993,” recalled Ayub.
In the early 1990s, “East Is East was still in a bottom drawer but even then I thought he would make a wonderful George,” he added.
East Is East turned out to be one of the most successful pieces of theatre staged in Britain in the last 50 years. When Udwin saw it one evening, she was so taken by it she immediately snapped up the film rights.
In 2010, she produced the sequel, West Is West, which sees George Khan returning to his native village in Pakistan after an absence of 25 years. He had left his first wife behind in England to start a new life.
This time, George has brought along his youngest son Sajid in the hope that a dose of Pakistani culture would sort out the unruly youngster.
The trilogy Udwin had planned to complete one day can now never be made – at least, with Puri in the lead.
Ayub said: “How lucky I was to find such an amazing collaborator for the films of East Is East and West Is West. It’s rare when an actor comes along and lifts a character from the page and takes it on to dizzying heights. That is what Omji did for me when he played George Khan. It was an honour to work with him and I’m truly saddened I won’t be able to write for him again.
“His passing is a tremendous loss to the film industry – East and West.”
Puri was one of probably only three actors from India who found acceptance in the UK, the two others being Roshan Seth and the late Saeed Jaffrey. But while they could affect clipped English accents, his style was altogether earthier.
He first caught the attention of overseas audiences when he was cast opposite Shabana Azmi in City of Joy in 1992 which was shot on location in Calcutta. Their daughter was played by Ayesha Dharker, then aged 12.
In 1997, Puri starred in the adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel, My Son The Fanatic, a prescient tale in which a first-generation Pakistani immigrant is horrified to discover that his British-born son has turned to fundamentalist Islam.
The late Jagmohan Mundhra cast Puri as a hardline cleric in Shoot On Sight in 2007, and he also acted opposite Dame Helen Mirren in The Hundred-Foot Journey in 2014. Based on the book by Richard C Morais, the story is of a man who opens a curry house in a village in France opposite a Michelin-star restaurant, the conflict that follows and the subsequent harmonious resolution.
It is said that during the shoot, Puri would cook Indian food for the cast.
Dame Helen said: “Om Puri was such a great, expansive, life force of a man. He instantly became a great friend. He was a generous, life-loving man. He loved to act, he loved to feed people, and above all he loved his country and its culture.”
She added: “My profession will miss an original, and India will miss a great representative.”
Other tributes came from Puri’s “screen children” in East Is East, some of whom are now well established in their own right. The film gave birth to a new generation of British Asian actors.
Archie Panjabi, who moved to the US and won an Emmy in 2010 for her portrayal of lawyer Kalinda Sharma in The Good Wife, wrote on Twitter: “Devastated to hear of the sad loss of @OmRajeshPuri. He was a true gem. Rest in Peace.”
Panjabi and Puri worked together in the TV adaptation of Zadie Smith’s novel, White Teeth, in 2002.
Jimi Mistry commented: “Very sad news about Om Puri, the first great actor I ever worked with and a true inspiration and great man..thoughts go out to his family x.”
Yet another “son” from East Is East, Chris Bisson, now a presence in the British soap Emmerdale Farm, wrote: “Really sad that #OmPuri has passed away. A great man, a great talent, he taught me a lot. He was a guiding light whilst making #EastisEast.”
Another member of the cast, English actress Lesley Nicol – she played the role of “Aunt Annie” – said: “So very sad to hear that the talented and beautiful actor Om Puri has passed away – much love to you dear soul – East Is East family.”
In 2004 Puri, an Indian national, was made an honorary OBE for his “contribution to British cinema”.