Skip to main content

What "Fail-Safe" Says about Television in the Year 2000.

TV critic David Bianculli tells us about the upcoming live TV event: a live production of "Fail-Safe" on CBS Sunday night starring George Clooney.

05:15

Contributor

Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on April 6, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 6, 2000: Interview with Om Puri; Commentary on the television movie "Fail-Safe."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 06, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 040601np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Om Puri Discusses His Work in Indian and Western Cinema
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, we meet the actor who our film critic, John Powers, says gave the best performance of 1999, Om Puri. He's a movie star in India who's starting to get better known in the West through two British films, "My Son the Fanatic," which is now out on video, and the new film "East Is East."

We'll talk about making movies in Bollywood, as they call India's version of Hollywood. They turn them out pretty quickly. Om Puri has made about 130 films, art films and commercial ones.

Om Puri, coming up on FRESH AIR.

First, the news.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Our film critic, John Powers, says that the best performance he saw in 1999 was given by Om Puri, my guest. He's made over 130 movies, but chances are you've never heard of him, because he's worked mostly in Bombay, in the Indian film industry known as Bollywood, where he's made both commercial and art films.

Now he's getting better known in the West with the help of a couple of British films. The film John liked him in, "My Son the Fanatic," is out now on video.

Om Puri plays an Indian who has emigrated to England, where he drives a taxi. He enjoys his new culture and is mortified to find that his son is becoming a Muslim fundamentalist and looks down on his father's assimilation.

Here they are at a restaurant.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "MY SON THE FANATIC")

OM PURI, ACTOR: All right. If this is reality -- that I'm disgusting, that I've never been a good man, and I've never done anything worthwhile, I must face it. So you have observed me for a long time. But tell me, at least you're keeping up with your studies?

ACTOR: Father, there are suffering men inside prison who require guidance.

PURI: What guidance? If they're inside, they must be fools.

ACTOR: Father, I've never met men more sincere and thirsty for the spirit. Why can't you see, it's just capitalism and taking advantage because (inaudible) to meet women.

PURI: Oh, (inaudible) my ass? What's wrong with women?

ACTOR: Many lack belief and therefore reason. Papa, the final message is (inaudible)...

PURI: One thing, one thing I know.

ACTOR: It's not too late. I beg you to seek Allah's forgiveness for your mistakes.

PURI: Please, please, boy, don't go too far (inaudible)...

ACTOR: No, it is you who have swallowed the white and Jewish propaganda that there is nothing to our life but the empty accountancy for things, for nothing!

PURI: I am swallowing...

ACTOR: For nothing!

PURI: ... nothing but (inaudible)'s dinner, and it will give me indigestion now. But the boss has gone into (inaudible). For God's sake, (inaudible).

ACTOR: Eat!

PURI: I've lost my appetite. This boy is massacring my life!

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: Om Puri stars in a new film called "East Is East." This time, he plays a Pakistani emigre named George who lives in England with his British wife. He tries to bring up his kids with the traditions of Pakistan, including arranged marriage. His oldest son refused to go through with the marriage and was disowned by George. But now George is ready to arrange marriages for two of his younger sons.

Here he is, talking with his wife in bed, telling her that he's invited a family with eligible daughters to visit.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "EAST IS EAST")

PURI: His name is Tirsha (ph). Good family. Been in this country 25 years, built great house, three (inaudible). (inaudible) two daughters, you know? Same age as Abdul and Tarik. (inaudible).

ACTRESS: I'm not going to go through all that again. You've got to talk to the boys.

PURI: I tell them. (inaudible) telling them.

ACTRESS: They have a right to know, George.

PURI: What do you mean, right? Pakistani believe a father (inaudible) marry, son follow (inaudible) reception.

ACTRESS: I knew you were up to something. (inaudible).

PURI: Don't mention (inaudible) to me. He dead!

ACTRESS: No, he's not. He's living in Ecols (ph). He might be dead to you, but he's still my son.

PURI: Why you no listen? You stupid? I tell you (inaudible), if you don't want to live my way, then you're packing off now, and take your passel of kids out my house.

Where are you going?

ACTRESS: To make some tea.

PURI: (inaudible).

(END AUDIO CLIP)

GROSS: Om Puri, welcome to FRESH AIR.

In "East Is East," you play a father who's an orthodox Muslim and wants to raise his Westernized, rebellious children in the Muslim tradition. And in "My Son the Fanatic," it's the opposite, you play the Westernized father whose son becomes an orthodox Muslim.

Do either of these two roles connect with your own life?

PURI: Well, I feel (inaudible), which is "My Son the Fanatic" father, is closer to me, and George Han (ph), perhaps, is -- slight resemblance in my father. Though he never really objected to my -- you know, choosing my career, for example. I wanted to be in theater, he didn't object. I wanted to join films, he never objected to it.

But he did have a temper, and he was, you know, strict at times, like he wanted me to get married pretty early, which I didn't (ph), you know. So there is, you know, small kind of shades. But I wouldn't say that my father was absolutely alike, like George Han.

GROSS: Did your father want to choose your bride the way the father in "East Is East" wanted to choose the bride for his son?

PURI: No, no. He just wanted me to get married and make my choice. But he used to threat that, In case you don't choose, then I'm going to go ahead and choose one for you. I mean, he never did that. I mean, I had a love marriage.

GROSS: Was your father a religious man?

PURI: He wasn't terribly religious. He was in the British army. My mother was religious, but she never forced her religion or her views on me. I mean, she used to visit the temple every morning, but she never really forced me to follow her.

GROSS: And what was their religion?

PURI: Well, I'm born Hindu, but I never really -- you know, I mean, I'm not really orthodox Hindu, I am liberal, I respect all religions. And I have no hangups, and I'm not an atheist, but at the same time, I'm not religious either.

GROSS: Right.

PURI: I mean, I feel all religions do speak the same language. But unfortunately, the wise men in all religions do interpret religion in, you know -- and they distort religion, and that creates a lot of problems all over the world.

GROSS: You're living part of the time in London, part of the time in Bombay. Your new film is British, your recent film, "My Son the Fanatic," is also British.

When did you decide to live part-time in London?

PURI: Well, my major work has been in India. I have been in Bombay for the last 24 years, and I've done about 130-odd films. For last five, six years, I have been doing, you know, work outside of India also, which has become pretty regular now. And, you know, at least one film a year, I have been doing abroad.

And it just happened after "City of Joy." "City of Joy" was the first big Western film which I did, which was shot mainly in India, and then part of it for about three weeks was shot in a studio in London.

Then Roland Joffe, who directed the film, asked -- I mean, he told me that, You should have an agent. I said, Well, I don't know nothing about agents, and he said, No, we'll find one for you. And he found me a wonderful agent in London, Jeremy Conway, and that's how things started happening in the West.

GROSS: You made about 130 films in India. That's a staggering number of films. Tell me what the production schedule is like that would enable you to make so many films.

PURI: Well, India is the largest film producing country in the world. I mean, it's a huge country with 900 million people, and about 23 different languages. And the main national language is Hindi, and, I mean, I work mostly in Hindi films. So for an actor, it is not a big deal to do, you know, 130 films there in 24 years.

There are actors in India who really overwork too much, and they may be in their mid-60s or something, and they may have done 350 films, (laughs) you know, which is quite...

Now, you know, for example, if you have a major part, if you're playing a central part, then maybe you'll be required for eight weeks to finish the film. And in some films you may have a smaller part, which means who may be required for three weeks or four weeks. So easily, you can do five, six films in a year.

GROSS: What are some of the typical roles you've played in Indian movies?

PURI: Well, I have been mostly associated, my early career, for about 10, 12 years, I have been with the art cinema, which is a cinema which is socially relevant, which talks about social issues, social-political issues, et cetera, which is small in nature, which is small in budget also. And whereas the commercial cinema is huge, big, big canvas, big money, and art cinema gave me respect, credibility, status, and gave me opportunity to travel all over the world, because those films went to all kind of festivals all over the world.

Whereas commercial cinema gave me a standard of living back home, so I am -- part of my work, which is about 35, 40 percent, is commercial film, which essentially is entertaining cinema and what we call escapist cinema.

GROSS: From what I've seen of Indian movies, a lot of the commercial movies are musicals with big production numbers, and I'm not sure how much of a plot there, there, there even is. Tell us about...

PURI: No, it's a very, very repetitive in Indian films.

GROSS: What are (inaudible)...

PURI: In commercial...

GROSS: ... what are some of the typical stories in the plots?

PURI: Well, typical stories -- you see, it's like a sheep mentality. You know, suppose there is an action film which becomes a big hit, then everybody will be making action films for a couple of years till they exhaust that genre. And then suddenly someone will make a love story, boy meets girl kind of a thing, and becomes a big hit. Then everybody starts making love stories till they exhaust themselves.

And they are greatly influenced by the American cinema. Any film which is a big hit here, they will try and adopt it and make an Indian film out of it.

GROSS: Did you do a lot of musicals?

PURI: Well, I have been in musicals, but essentially I have been a character actor in those films. I did initially a couple of films with songs and dances, but actually I feel very uncomfortable in those kind of parts. But I have played major characters in big budget films.

GROSS: So why do you feel uncomfortable in the singing parts? Because there seems to be so many of them.

PURI: Because I find it ridiculous. I find it illogical. In fact, the other day someone here asked me, you know, How come, you know, in your films, really we see your characters in films singing and dancing in Vancouver or in Switzerland or in South Africa. How does that happen in the plot?

I said, Well, the Indian characters dream. They dream that we are in Switzerland, so they are in Switzerland. Or they dream they are in Vancouver, so you immediately cut, Oh, we are in Vancouver.

GROSS: Now, I think one of the directors you worked with in your years working in the art cinema was Satjayit Ray.

PURI: That's right.

GROSS: What was the name of the film that you did with Satjayit Ray?

PURI: It was in Hindi, it was called "Sadgati," S-A-D-G-A-T-I, which means "deliverance."

GROSS: Did he give you any new insights into acting, or, you know, into acting on camera?

PURI: In my mind was that, you know, one had a view that Mr. Rey, since he does so much paperwork, and you will be just put into a straitjacket and, you know, you won't have any flexibility to do what you want to do. You know, I thought it was just a misconception of people. He was very, very flexible, yes, true, he did a lot of homework, he did have paperwork done. But he would give a lot of freedom to the actors, and he was open to any new thing which would help better the film.

I mean, one day, for example, we were supposed to be doing the climax scene, which is a big scene, and which he had various shots worked out for it. And it was lunch, immediately after lunch I noticed that he's looking at the sky. And with eyes absolutely focused. And he kept staring at the sky for good 30 seconds. I said, What's happening? And we saw it's cloudy.

And suddenly he just berserk, and he ordered that put the maximum trolley (ph) you have, just fix that. So we had about 100 feet trolley, and which was put. And he took that entire scene in one shot. And it was very dramatic because it started raining, and that's what he expected. And he wanted to use the rain. But at the same time, he change his shots. Instead of taking different shots, he took one shot, because obviously he thought that if the rain stops in between, and he hasn't finished the scene, then where will he get the artificial rain?

So that was very clever, and very sort of thoughtful of that, and exactly what his fears were, it was right. I mean, the moment we finished that scene -- we took about three takes, and the rain stopped. And then, you know, certain closeups of mine were done with -- because since it was just a closeup, with a bucket and somebody held a branch of a tree over my head and threw a little water on top, and that's how the closeups were done.

GROSS: My guest is actor Om Puri. He's made about 130 films in India. He stars in the British films "My Son the Fanatic," which is now out on video, and the new movie "East Is East." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Om Puri, an actor who splits his time between Bombay, India, and London. He stars in the new movie "East Is East."

What movies did you see when you were young that made a big impression on you?

PURI: Well, when I was growing up, I grew up in a small town, and the only cinema I was exposed to was the Hindi cinema. But also, fortunately, at that time I was also exposed to the cinemas of the '60s and '70s, which was a wonderful Indian cinema, which also had songs and dances. Like in the West, for example, you had "Fiddler on the Roof" and you had "Sound of Music," which were actually social films. But the story is told through singing and dancing.

And similarly, our cinema in '60s and '70s was very, very relevant, you know, socially relevant, and also entertaining, because it had songs and dances.

Very little Western cinema I saw, I remember, till I was in college. I saw maybe three or four English films. I mean, the first film I remember seeing was "Lord Jim" with Peter O'Toole, and two comedies, "Stitch in Time Saves Nine" and the other one -- that was Norman Wisdom (ph), I think -- and "Saps at Sea," with Laurel Hardy.

But later, when I went and joined drama school, then I was exposed to, you know, the Western cinema.

GROSS: Your father was an officer in the British army during the era when India was ruled by England. What attitude were you brought up with regarding British rule?

PURI: Well, I was born in '50, and we got independence in '47, so the British had left. I waited for them to go, to come into the world. (laughs) No, my father did -- he was greatly influenced by the Britishers. I mean, he used to refer to their discipline constantly. In fact, he used to, you know, sometimes make comment on that, you know, I wish the Britishers had not gone, because we don't know how to look after ourselves, et cetera.

So he had a hangover of British Empire in him, I mean, particularly he used to refer to -- you know, because we Indians tend to not, you know, have a great deal of respect for time, and if somebody says, Oh, well, you're supposed to be there at 9, I mean, it could be 9:40, it could be 9:50. So that used to bug him and irritate him.

And plus, you know, the English, for example, is a language of -- like any other language in India, like we have 23 regional languages, and English is also one of them. So it is not that -- for Indians, English is not a foreign language, it is part of the Indian ethos now. I mean, any child who goes to school automatically learns English. All the government work, central government work, is done in English. All the business in India is done in English.

GROSS: What was it like to have a part in the movie "Gandhi" about driving out the British, (laughs) after your father had worked in the British army?

PURI: Well, "Gandhi," I had a small cameo, but it was important moment in the film, when Gandhi is sitting on a fast (ph) in Calcutta, and he wants to, you know, stop the riots between Hindus and Muslims. And I was representing the angry Hindus, and, you know, a group of Hindus laying arms (ph) in front of him, and pledging that, We will stop the riots.

To which I sort of barge in and throw a piece of bread on his face and say, OK, don't die, old man, but here, listen, I have a story. My child was killed by Muslims who was 5 year old, and now you want us to stop killing Muslims? And then Gandhi gives his own view that, OK, now you pick up a Muslim child and bring him up as your own, and that breaks him (ph), and, you know, there is -- he breaks down and he falls at his feet, and he gives in.

So it's a nice moment in the film "Gandhi," which I enjoyed. It was only -- as I said, it was a small part. I was not with the unit for a long time. But nicely, I was, you know, pleasantly surprised when that year, the Oscars were going on, and a couple of my friends in India called me up and said, Hey, put on your television. They are showing your scene in the Oscars. So I was quite tickled.

And -- but by the time I switched on, it had gone, (laughs) because it was such a small clipping.

GROSS: Om Puri. He'll be back in the second half of the show. He stars in the new movie "East Is East." His movie "My Son the Fanatic" is now out on video.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross, back with Om Puri, one of the stars of the Indian cinema. India produces more movies than any other country. Om Puri has been in about 130 films. He now divides his time between Bombay and London. He stars in two British films, "My Son the Fanatic," which is now out on video, and the new movie "East Is East."

Are actors in India, successful actors, treated as stars in the way that we have stars in America, you know, like this -- the -- this celebrity class is a class unto itself in America. They have a lot of money, they live in separate places, they tend to socialize with each other, and to be treated almost like, you know, gods and goddesses.

PURI: Yes, it is, it is same there. But to be honest, I don't fall into that category, and neither I would want to. I am very well known all over India, and -- but the only difference is, they wouldn't want to tear my clothes if they see me.

GROSS: (laughs)

PURI: Yes, they would want to talk to me, they would want to have a chat with me, they would want to know what I'm doing here. They'll be very interested. Perhaps, you know, the kind of image which I have created for myself through my films, because the films are -- they're not fantasies, you know, they've been real films.

So my image as a social being is very different than the commercial stars. And I don't avoid people, you know, whether it's at the airport, whether it's in a social place, or in a market, suppose you bump into, you know, people. And if we are filming outdoors, we do attract a lot of crowd. And if people want to have a word, you know, one goes up to them and says hello.

And -- but I do attract a lot of crowds, and I do get fan mail, and all those things are there. But as you earlier asked me, Do we have stars which are -- who live separately, who have flashy cars, you know, well, we do, we do.

GROSS: Well, what are some of your impressions of the differences for an actor making a Western movie compared to an Indian film?

PURI: The major difference in India, particularly in commercial cinema, is the fact that the films are not shot at a stretch. They are shot in bits and pieces. You shoot for a film for 10 days and then you don't shoot for that film for three months. Then you shoot for 20 days, then you don't shoot for (inaudible) maybe six months.

So it's shot in bits and pieces, which is a very erratic way of working, really.

GROSS: That sounds really odd.

PURI: (inaudible) whereas -- Sorry?

GROSS: I say, that sounds really odd, because first of all, your body can change in six months, and second of all...

PURI: Yes, and it does, it does, you know? But people try and, you know, say, for example, they will keep the same haircut for every role they play, you know, the commercial actors, and they will try and keep their same weight. But a lot of times, if the film gets delayed, which is does, actually, in a normal Hindi commercial film takes one and a half year to -- it can go up to three years. So in three years, people do change, people put on weight, people -- you know?

So that's a major difference, really. And whereas in the West, I presume, you know, particularly the films which I have done, 10, 12 films abroad, that the films are shot at a stretch.

And another peculiar thing which is quite funny is that commercial cinema does not give you a copy of a script, unlike the art cinema in India. They tell you a story, and they tell you your character, but you don't have a copy of a script in your hand.

GROSS: So how do you learn your lines?

PURI: You get it on the same day when you go for filming. You get it on the same morning. So no homework is expected from an actor.

GROSS: What's the rationale behind that?

PURI: Well, rationale is that they're not ready with their scripts. in fact, when they ask me in India, you know, What is the difference between shooting in the West and East -- and here, I say, Well, they work on a script for two years, and then go ahead and shoot the film within six months, and that's it. And you work here for two months on a script, and then go on shooting for three years.

GROSS: (laughs)

PURI: (laughs) But Terry, let me tell you, the thing is, they feel very insecure, the producers. That is why they don't give you a copy of the script, because they all get worried that somebody else will steal their subject. We don't have a serious copyright, et cetera. So therefore, they don't reveal their scripts. They would have a copy of the script, but it will be with them. And they never reveal the climax of the film till the end, when they're almost done with the entire film, then they go and shoot the climax, because they feel that some other producer or director will steal their idea, and they won't have the novelty.

GROSS: So how do you evaluate if you want to do a movie or not if you haven't even had a chance to read the script?

PURI: Well, you know the story, and you know the character, and you take it from there. I mean, when the scene comes in front of you and the senior actors would sit on it, maybe disagree and, you know, change, talk about it, and then take their time to prepare the part.

But it is not a professional way of working, and that is why that cinema does not really interest me so much, though I have to work in it because, you know, for the living, because that cinema has given me all the goodies in life, you know? All the facilities I enjoy did come from commercial cinema, so I am grateful to that cinema also.

I try to be as disciplined as I -- I mean, or as professional as I am for art films. I treat commercial cinema also the same way, like going on the set on time. But our stars are quite notorious. I mean, they don't show up on time. This is, you know, something which is very, very annoying. They are pretty indulgent. You know, unlike the West, even huge stars have -- whatever (inaudible), whether it was Patrick Swayze or Val Kilmer or, you know, Michael Douglas, all of them, I mean, they are absolutely punctual, they are ready with their lines, and they are, you know, truly professional.

And I hope this sense of professionalism comes into the Indian commercial atmosphere also.

GROSS: Now, you had said that you didn't have an agent until after (inaudible)...

PURI: "City of Joy."

GROSS: ... "City of Joy," yes. So how did you get by in Indian cinema making all those movies without an agent? Do people just call you personally? You know, in America, like, everybody has an agent if they're making movies.

PURI: No, in India I do have what we call -- we don't call it agent, we call it a secretary. So I do have a secretary in India, but he doesn't look for work for me, the work comes and he handles it. You know, in terms of organizing dates or talking to the producers about money, and then, you know, recovering the money, looking after my income tax, et cetera. All this job is done by him.

But he -- in fact, when I did take on a secretary, I told him also, I said, Please, you don't look for work, the work will come, and we are supposed to handle it, because suppose you bring in work and which I don't like, you make an effort, and then it will be -- it won't be nice that I say no to it. And, you know, I'll also feel embarrassed by saying no, because I want to make choices.

GROSS: My guest is actor Om Puri. He's made about 130 films in India. He stars in the British films "My Son the Fanatic," which is now out on video, and the new movie "East Is East." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is actor Om Puri, and he divides his time between Bombay and London. He stars in the new film "East Is East." He also stars in the film "My Son the Fanatic," written Hanif Kureishi, and that film has just come out on video.

Om Puri, how did you end up acting? How old were you when you decided you wanted to act?

PURI: Well, in school I was fascinated by army. I wanted to be a soldier. But when I reached college, I drifted. I mean, I started participating in college activities and out -- you know, one of them was also working in the plays. And I was picked up by a couple from a youth festival, college youth festival, where they were one of the judges. And they had their own semi-professional theater group. And they invited me to join that.

And I joined the theater group, and, you know, while I was doing my college, I did a number of plays with them. They did a lot of Western plays also, like Strindberg and Bernard Shaw and Ibsen, and also Indian social plays. And then that's where I really got hooked onto, and through them, I came to know about National School of Drama, which I joined later.

So that's how I really drifted, and I -- I mean, I was very shy and very reserved as a child, very, very introvert. And I think somewhere I feel that by acting in those social plays, you know, somewhere I found a great satisfaction that something which I feel strongly about, you know, society, about your views on the society, what you see on the streets, et cetera, and those plays were giving voice to my emotions.

I could identify with those thoughts and ideas, and I thought it's wonderful that I'm sharing those feelings with the audience.

GROSS: Did acting make you less shy?

PURI: Eventually it did, over a period of time, you know, I mean, I could be exuberant in, you know, strangely, in a scene, but the moment scene is over and I'm back to normal life, I would again go into my shell. It went on. In fact, I remember in drama school, I was supposed to do a very tender romantic scene. I think we were doing -- yes, it was "Caucasian Chalk Circle," and I was playing Simon. And I was supposed to hold hand of this girl. And I was about 20 at that time.

And I was very sort of -- you know, I was shivering. And then the director noticed and he took me aside, he said, Don't -- you know, explain me (ph) feel comfortable, you must, it is -- you know? It's emotional, and these are noble emotions, et cetera, et cetera. So gradually I think I did, you know, become comfortable.

GROSS: Now, you've been making more movies in England. I imagine one of the obstacles you're up against is trying to find good roles for an Indian actor.

PURI: Yes.

GROSS: My guess would be there aren't a lot of them.

PURI: Yes, they -- I wouldn't say there are a lot of them, and that's why I'm not leaving my ground.

GROSS: Right.

PURI: That's Bombay, you know? So whenever I have an opportunity, because I have been enjoying to work in the West, and I hope I do find, you know, roles like in the past, you know, people who have faces like me, like Mr. Anthony Quinn will be my favorite, and also Omar Sharif, who could look like Arab, and I hope that I do have interesting parts, not necessarily major roles, but interesting characters. I'll be happy enough to work in those.

GROSS: You said that people like Anthony Quinn and Omar Sharif have faces like you. What kind of face do you have?

PURI: I think -- well, I essentially have an Asian face, and a gypsy face, and I could be from Arab, I could be from South America, parts of South America, you know? So it's not necessarily an Indian face. It's a rustic face, it is -- it's not, you know, traditional good-looking chocolate face.

GROSS: What does chocolate face mean?

PURI: Chocolate face means well chiseled, beautiful, you know, everything proportional. I have a big nose, big fat nose, and I have pock marks, which is -- I mean, I got it when I was about 5, I think. I had smallpox, and...

GROSS: You had smallpox?

PURI: Yes, I had smallpox when I was about 5.

GROSS: And that scarred your face.

PURI: Yes.

GROSS: Wow. Do you have a lot of memories of when you had smallpox?

PURI: I think I have been even smaller than that. The only -- maybe I do remember that my mother used to tie me to the cot, you know, when she had to do some work. She used to tie me so that I don't scratch. She used to tie my hands to the cot.

GROSS: Did you...

PURI: (inaudible) I do remember.

GROSS: Was it questionable whether you'd survive or not?

PURI: Yes, it could have been. Because we were actually a big family. We were eight brothers, sisters, and today we are just two of us. I'm the youngest in the family, and my mother lost all six of them. My eldest brother, she lost him when he was 15. One brother at the age of 9, one sister at the age of 5, one sister I remember seeing when I was in college, she was married, and she also died in her -- I think she was about 40.

GROSS: What did they die of?

PURI: Well, various diseases. You see, at that time -- I mean, we are talking about, say, 45 years ago, and that time in small towns, et cetera, you know, it was -- the health conditions were pretty bad. My mother said, you know, Your eldest brother just came back from school, and she saw his face was red, and she thought it just, you know, little -- his body was warm. She thought just a little temperature or something.

But he may have had a high fever. And he just collapsed the next day. You know, so it was -- now, of course, the survival rate, of course, is much, much higher. But in those days, the survival rate was pretty low. And that was one of the reasons why people had a lot of children in the past, because they didn't know how many of them will survive.

GROSS: When you were growing up with the pockmarks left from smallpox, were you very self-conscious about that as a kid?

PURI: I was, to be honest. You know, when I used to look at films, et cetera, and that is why, perhaps one of the reasons why I didn't go directly to cinema, I went into theater. And I thought, I don't have the right kind of a face for the theater, till I was exposed to world cinema, you know, when I saw, you know, the international cinema, or cinema of Satjayit Ray and Menalsen (ph).

Then I saw that, you know, oh, well, there are faces like me, you know, in these films, and since I was only exposed to the commercial Indian cinema, you know, which had most faces were chiseled, what we call chocolate faces.

GROSS: Were you worried about the closeups too?

PURI: Then -- yes, then my taboo really sort of broke, and I started thinking in terms of -- then -- you know, I was no longer self-conscious. And today I'm not. In fact, when I came to Bombay, some of my senior friends did suggest me that I should go in for plastic surgery. I said, No, I will not fool around with my body. But I will play, you know, I will accept whatever nature has given me.

GROSS: I'm glad you said that. (laughs) I just think it's really good when people can have their real faces and don't have to get them surgically altered, because there's so much of that now. And it's also one of the things that makes you so interesting to watch, because you have such a real face, and expressive one, at that, yes.

PURI: Yes, yes, I mean, I really -- I mean, I couldn't imagine myself going through plastic surgery and looking at myself, you know, Where is the person gone with whom I had lived for 30 years or 35 years?

GROSS: Exactly, exactly.

Well, Om Puri, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

PURI: Thank you, Terry, it's been great talking to you, and it's a great pleasure.

GROSS: Om Puri stars in the new movie "East Is East." His recent film "My Son the Fanatic" is now out on video.

This is FRESH AIR.

(BREAK)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Om Puri
High: Actor Om Puri is a star of Bombay's film industry, known as Bollywood. In his two decades of acting he has worked with every major Indian film director, including Satjayit Ray. In Western films he had roles in "Ghandi" and "City of Joy," and in the TV series "The Jewel in the Crown." Recently he has had starring parts in two British films, "My Son the Fanatic" and the new film "East is East."
Spec: Entertainment; Movie Industry; Television and Radio; India

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: (OFF-MIKE) Puri Discusses His Work in Indian and Western Cinema

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: APRIL 07, 2000
Time: 12:00
Tran: 040602NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: TV Critic David Bianculli Discusses "Fail Safe"
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:52

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: CBS presents a drama called "Fail Safe," not the 1964 movie starring Henry Fonda, but a new TV version with George Clooney, who's also the executive producer. It's a version that will be performed live and broadcast in black and white. Although TV critic David Bianculli can't review this show in advance, he does have some advance observations.

DAVID BIANCULLI, TV CRITIC: There are two stories to talk about here, the story about "Fail Safe" the drama, and the story about "Fail Safe" in the larger picture of TV in the year 2000.

First things first. The original "Fail Safe" movie, based on the 1962 novel, was presented at the height of the Cold War when fears of both the Soviet Union and nuclear weaponry ran deep. The plot involves a technical failure somewhere within America's war machine leading to an unprovoked bomber attack against the Russians. The president contacts the Soviet premier in hopes of averting an all-out nuclear war, with both sides of the iron curtain on red alert.

Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove" played with the same basic story that same year, but for laughs. "Fail Safe" was dead serious. In the 1964 film, director Sidney Lumet presented events as realistically as possible. There was no music score whatsoever, and the feel was more of a documentary than a movie. Here's an example, with the president briefing his Russian translator on the conversation they're about to have with the Soviet leader. The president is played by Henry Fonda, the translator by a young Larry Hagman.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, "FAIL SAFE," 1964)

HENRY FONDA, ACTOR: Buck, I'm going to talk to the Soviet premier now. You will translate what he says to me. He'll have his own translator telling him what I say. But I want something more from you.

LARRY HAGMAN, ACTOR: Yes, sir, whatever I can do.

FONDA: I think the premier will be saying what he means. He usually does. But sometimes there's more in a man's voice than in his words, and there are words in one language that don't carry the same weight in another. You want to -- you follow me?

HAGMAN: I think so, sir.

FONDA: It's very important the premier and I understand each other. I don't have to tell you how important. So I want to know not only what he's saying but what you think he's feeling. Any inflection in his voice, any tone, any emotion that adds to his words, I want you to let me know.

HAGMAN: Yes, sir, I'll do my best.

FONDA: I know you will, Buck. It's all any of us can do. And don't be afraid, say what you think. Don't be afraid all this is too big for you, Buck. It's big all right, but it still depends on what each of us does. (inaudible) number one. I'll talk to Moscow now.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BIANCULLI: Sunday's TV version is written by Walter Bernstein, the same man who adapted the novel for the original movie. It's directed by filmmaker Steven Frears, and the cast, assembled by Clooney, is first-rate. Richard Dreyfuss plays the president, Noah Wyle of "E.R." plays the translator, and Clooney plays the colonel in the cockpit of the bomber.

Other performers include Brian Dennehy, Harvey Keitel, Don Cheadle, and Sam Elliott. And all of them will be performing live, like in the golden age of television.

And that's the larger story here. With prime time TV audiences dwindling each year, it seems the networks are deciding more and more to fight back by using tricks from 50 years ago. Back then, TV was trying to lure audiences from radio. Today they're trying to keep them from defecting to cable and the Internet. Some of the weapons they're using, though, are precisely the same.

Credit this new wave of old-wave TV to "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" the ABC summer series that is nothing short of a phenomenon. No matter where the network plays it or how often, "Millionaire" is a major hit. It's the first quiz show in prime time since the scandals of the late '50s, and it's done something that TV had all but forgotten how to do. It gets several generations of viewers into the same room watching the same show.

Quiz and game shows aren't the only golden age TV tricks being applied again these days. Thanks or no thanks to UPN and "WWF Smackdown," pro wrestling is back in prime time. Fox is talking about presenting 15-minute shows, a concept last seen a half-century ago.

And "Fail Safe" is only the first of several planned live TV experiments.

Is this a step forward or a step backward? Wrestling, no question, is a giant leap back for mankind. Quiz shows, good ones -- and "Millionaire" is a good one -- were and are fun to watch. And live TV, I love it. Some people are saying the only reason to watch "Fail Safe" is to see if someone makes a mistake. I'm after more than that. I'm after excitement and excellence.

GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for "The New York Daily News." You can catch the original "Fail Safe" movie Sunday night at 11:30 on Turner Classic Movie Channel.

Earlier today I recorded an interview with Sidney Poitier, who's written a new memoir. We'll play the interview sometime soon. We'll close today's show with the theme from his movie "To Sir, With Love" as recorded by Al Green.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

(AUDIO CLIP, "TO SIR, WITH LOVE," AL GREEN)

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 877-21FRESH
Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, David Bianculli
Guest:
High: TV critic David Bianculli discusses an upcoming live TV event: a production of "Fail Safe" on CBS Sunday night, starring George Clooney.
Spec: Entertainment; Television and Radio; Nuclear Weapons

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 2000 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 2000 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: TV Critic David Bianculli Discusses "Fail Safe"
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

A journalist's plea to the West: 'Pay attention to Ukraine and its fate'

Journalist Luke Harding began reporting from Ukraine in December 2021 and was in the country's capital of Kyiv on Feb. 23, the night before the Russian invasion began. He's been reporting from the war for the British newspaper The Guardian ever since.

52:30

'Armageddon Time' director explores how the world is ruined by 'well-meaning people'

James Gray's new film was inspired by his childhood in Queens in the 1980s. Though his grandparents had fled antisemitism in Ukraine, his family didn't recognize their own biases against Black people.

29:36

'Fresh Air' marks the centennial of Charles Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown

Schulz, who died in 2000, spoke in 1990 about his iconic Peanuts comic strip. Plus, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead talks about pianist Vince Guaraldi, who created the music for A Charlie Brown Christmas.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue