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A Chinese hat-trick in Bollywood and other villainies (Book Review)

267 Days ago

Title: My Father, The Villain - The Life and Times of Madan Puri; Author: Kamlesh Puri; Publisher: Bloomsbury India; Pages: 224; Price: Rs.499

Out of all actors, those portraying villains have it the hardest. They usually get their just desserts onscreen but the odium around them doesn't dissipate with the film's end and still influences people, though this is an abiding reflection of their skills, not character. This is especially true for Bollywood.

Its iconic and reviled villains were the most respected, and gentle people in the real world, be it Pran, Prem Chopra, Amjad Khan and especially Madan Puri - and we owe a debt of gratitude for their families for acquainting us with the real person and what they thought of their notoriety! But it is not easy to overcome widespread and pervasive public perception, as this book's title, and a telling anecdote of watching one of his father's unspeakable actions onscreen, indicates.

How you do portray your father if his biggest claim to fame was his villainy - the portraying of it onscreen, that is? Well, you could cite his simple principled life outside with the professional aspects kept apart, always remaining grounded to his middle-class moorings and family values and ensuring the children followed it too.

And Lt. Col. Puri (retd.), the actor's second son, presents an endearing account of one of Bollywood's most accomplished actors, whose presence in movies was so pervasive - and expected - that a popular saying then was "that if you wanted to make a movie then all you needed was an Arriflex camera, some raw film and Madan Puri".

Madan Puri's career spanned four decades from the heyday of K.L. Saigal to Amitabh Bachchan and saw him in over 400 films, mostly as an egregious, inveterate, and chronic villain - though he had begun as a hero and later switched to roles of a kindly elder. The account takes us through most of this, though not in detail but making it up with some captivating anecdotes - such as the one about Dharmendra and the female fan.

Though most people only know Madan Puri as Amrish Puri's elder brother, we also learn he came from a family, broadminded (for those days) enough not to scorn the acting profession, was not the first of his siblings to join and shine in films, and was never seduced by the trappings of the glamour world.

Madan Puri managed his entire career from a place on the carpet (where he also slept) in a modest two-room apartment on R.P. Masani Road in Matunga. This road - when when the family moved there in around 1945 - had come to be known as Punjabi Gully due to the number of Punjabi members of the film fraternity living there - Prithviraj Kapoor and his entire family, Manmohan Krishna, Lekh Tandon, J.K. Nanda but also K.N.Singh, Anil Biswas, Jairaj, Phani Mazumdar, Sitara Devi, Manna Dey, Raj Khosla, and Kanhaiyya Lal among others, and we are treated to compelling and colourful account of life there at its peak.

Madan Puri, whose first starring performance was a 1936 play at Simla's Gaiety Theatre (where Pran was the female lead!), moved to Bombay in 1945, when he was helped into films by Saigal, a first cousin. Though he began as a hero, these films never clicked and he found his niche as a villain - on the suggestion of Dev Anand - and began an eventful career which, among other high points, saw him possibly the only actor to portray a villainous Chinese character thrice.

Kamlesh Puri, who also weaves in his and other relatives' life stories in his narrative, confesses that he started too late - over a quarter century after his father's death in 1985 - thus robbing him of chances to talk to several of his father's contemporaries who had also departed the world in this span, but has still managed a creditable job.

It is not only a rare account of a prolific and multi-facetted character actor who saw himself as "the aloo-pyaz that can be put in any Bollywood dish", but also in essence of the craft of acting itself, and of the development of Bollywood - though the first would be enough for film aficionados.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians. (IANS)

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