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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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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.