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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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