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When Om Puri did so much homework for ‘City of Joy’ that he was mistaken for a rickshaw puller

The actor trained with two barefoot professionals in Kolkata while preparing for Roland Joffe’s 1992 film.

In Om Puri Unlikely Hero, Nandita Puri gets the actor to talk about his most well-known roles. In this excerpt, Om Puri discusses his experience of working in City of Joy (1992).

Roland Joffe’s City of Joy was my first major role in an international project. Based on Dominique Lapierre’s eponymous award-winning novel, this was my big break in Hollywood. I essayed the role of Hasari Pal, the rickshaw-puller, one of the two lead characters. The film was shot over three months in Calcutta and a few scenes were done in London’s Pinewood Studio.

Roland Joffe as a director was very strict and stubborn but he is an exceptionally focussed person. He knows exactly what he wants and refuses to budge. Despite his recalcitrance, he is disciplined and working with him was my first exposure to working on a truly large international canvas.

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City of Joy.

I was in awe of Patrick Swayze and a bit nervous when I first learnt Patrick would be my co-actor. This was to be my first interaction with a big Hollywood star. But Patrick Swayze turned out to be a big surprise. Fresh from his stardom, Patrick was the epitome of humility and friendliness. He was a practising Buddhist and believed in some Eastern philosophies. According to him, I reminded him of his father. ‘You intimidate me,’ he had said on his first meeting with me. I never asked him why.

Though we rarely met, we shared deep love and respect for each other. When I got the news of Patrick’s demise I was devastated but not shocked as I knew it was coming. So many images of Patrick and me from his first day in Calcutta to our trips in Japan and Australia flashed by. I felt sad because I lost him too early – at 57 rather than the other way around, at 75. He was gentle and kind and a fabulous dancer. I will miss him dearly.

Om Puri, Shabana Azmi and Patrick Swayze on the sets of City of Joy. Courtesy Om Puri Unlikely Hero, Roli Books.
Om Puri, Shabana Azmi and Patrick Swayze on the sets of City of Joy. Courtesy Om Puri Unlikely Hero, Roli Books.

I always prepare for the role I play in each film, but City of Joy was special. I started preparing well in advance. I started learning to pull a rickshaw from two regular rickshaw-pullers. We would start out early in the morning and return to the hotel before the traffic started. After a few days, I realized that most of the rickshaw-pullers ran barefoot. The first few days were tough but slowly, I managed.

There are a number of memorable anecdotes connected with the shooting. Once I stopped at a roadside tea-stall to have a cup of tea. It was early morning and two elderly customers were drinking tea there. On seeing me, one of them remarked to the other, ‘Arrey, doesn’t this rickshaw fellow remind you of Om Puri?’ To which the other nodded. ‘Such similar features!’ he exclaimed.

When I finished my tea, I told them that I was indeed Om Puri. They looked at me, not quite believing me or their eyes. Later, as I was leaving, I heard the tea-stall owner exclaiming, ‘Bechara. Poor man. How sad to see him reduced to this state. He used to be such a fine actor. And imagine him pulling a rickshaw now? Must have fallen on real hard days.’ I could not help smiling to myself. My hard work had paid off.

I had a lot of hopes and aspirations pinned to this film and I gave my very best. Unfortunately, the film did not do well, though my performance was noticed. The New York Times reviewer wrote, ‘Puri’s performance will make you cry.’ Patrick Swayze had also remarked at a press conference in Australia that ‘if anyone deserves an Oscar this year, it is Om’. Though I have never really performed for awards, it was this once that I expected at least an Oscar nomination. For once I dreamt of having a parallel career in films outside India but it was not to be.

Om Puri and Patrick Swayze on the sets of City of Joy. Courtesy Om Puri Unlikely Hero, Roli Books.
Om Puri and Patrick Swayze on the sets of City of Joy. Courtesy Om Puri Unlikely Hero, Roli Books.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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