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The NS Interview: Om Puri, actor

“Art films give me status, but Bollywood films give me a living”

Do you think that western cinema stereotypes Asia?
I don't think British cinema does that, but American cinema does have stereotypes.

Do you prefer to make art films?
It is my first preference to do films with social significance. Art cinema has given me credibility and status as an actor, but commercial cinema has given me a comfortable living.

Which is better - Hollywood or Bollywood?
I prefer working in good cinema, wherever it is. I like subjects that have a universal appeal.

How has Bollywood changed?
Bollywood lacked discipline - stars showing up late on set, sometimes not appearing at all, but for the past ten years there has been a positive change. My experience here in the UK has been very good - the work culture is much better.

What about the role of black money there?
There used to be a lot of black money, as film financers were either estate builders or from the underworld. The underworld used smuggling as a source of money. That has cleared up because the market is now open in India. Earlier you didn't get Scotch; you didn't get fancy cigarettes or perfume. Now what are you going to smuggle?

How has the perception of Bollywood changed?
It is now gaining respectability because some of the films are being made to an international standard. What Bollywood lacks is scripts. A lot of the films are copies of western films.

You said recently that you were not happy with the roles coming your way. Is that still true?
Bollywood cinema is full of stereotypes. It is mainly love stories, which only cast youngsters. You will have character [parts for] actors, like "Girl's Father", but they are totally one-dimensional. It's pretty sad. Very few of the films have interesting characters. I always look forward to the films I make in the west.

Did you always want to be an actor?
When I was at school I wanted to join the army. At college, I started acting in college plays and it became a kind of addiction. I was very shy when I was at school, but the plays seemed to give voice to my feelings.

Do you think India is a rising power?
It is, but we still have problems because it is a huge population. There is a lot of pressure on the big cities because people from villages keep pouring in. We need to improve rural areas and create jobs in small towns. Our major problem is not food now, it is electricity and water.

What is the biggest political problem in India?
We have a lot of politicians who are not educated. I have seen BBC Parliament; people listen to each other in a civilised manner. But in India they keep throwing chairs and pulling the mike and jumping on the tables. It is ridiculous. The corruption is too much and big politicians are never punished - they get away.

Do you see relations with Pakistan improving?
It is very sad what's happening in Pakistan. Pakistan is to be blamed, yes, because it has been playing a double game, but the people are suffering. They have no control of the fundamentalists, and India is angry about it.

What about relations with the US?
The Americans' foreign policy is very defective. They are not sorting out the Palestine problem, which has been there for years. They would have interfered in Kashmir but India is not allowing them, because India is a much stronger country. Americans cannot bully Indians.

Have you ever experienced racism in the west?
I did feel it when I came here for the first time in 1984, but now I don't. One used to get worried going into the Tube station because of the skinheads around. They had a very terrifying look on their faces.

Is religion a part of your life?
I'm not terribly religious but I'm not an atheist, either. I respect every religion. The day my father passed away was 7 May, and on one anniversary I was staying with a friend and went to a church and lit a candle. But I'm not into rituals that are not meaningful.

Was there a plan?
I planned to go to drama school, I planned to go to film school, I planned to go to Bombay - but for about 15 years I didn't have any definite plans for earning money. My basic needs were looked after, so I was happy doing good work. When I was about 45, I realised I was getting older and needed something for my old age. Then I started paying attention to material needs.

Is there anything you would rather forget?
Even if I have made certain mistakes, I want to remember them so that I do not repeat them.

Do you vote?
I vote, yes.

Are we all doomed?
Yes, we are living in a world that is not at its best. Human values are at their lowest, I feel. Religion is not being interpreted well.

Defining moments

1950 Born in Ambala, Haryana, India
1973 Graduates from the National School of Drama, New Delhi
1976 Makes big-screen debut in Ghashiram Kotwal, based on a Marathi play
1982 Takes cameo role of Nahari in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi
1999 Stars as George in the film East Is East
2004 Is awarded OBE for services to the British film industry
2010 Reprises role of George in West Is West


Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India