'Hail Mogambo!': Fans loved Amrish Puri's 'bad boy' image, but theatre was his first love

·7-min read

Hail Mogambo!

“Mogambo khush hua!” Each time Amrish Puri uttered those lines in Mr India, sitting on a throne, ticking his ring-heavy fingers on a globe, he unleashed a new terror, a new thrill. In fact, his cheerleaders were largely children, blown away by the myth of his menace – his popularity equalling the baddies of the Marvel universe today.

Amrish Puri
Amrish Puri

The dialogue, as predicted by writer Javed Akhtar, became a cultural idiom of triumph in the years to come. Like when Kapil Dev hit a sixer, banners read, ‘Mogambo khush hua!’. Like when card enthusiasts ‘ace’ the game, they exclaim, “Mogambo khush hua!”

An ominous baritone, red-alert eyes and resounding dialogue delivery made Amrish Puri an indispensable part of parallel and popular cinema, where he dabbled with the comic and endearing as well.

As Kajol’s hard-to-please father in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), Puri’s was the gamechanger dialogue, “Ja Simran, jeele apni zindagi!” Broadening his canvas, he even appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom and Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.

For someone, who began his film career in his early ’40s, after years of doing theatre, his has been a winning game of self-propagated Ps – ‘patience, perseverance and persistence’.


Amrish Puri was born on 22 June 1932 in Naushera, Punjab. He graduated from the BM College in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh. He was a leader of the RSS youth wing there.

In the ‘50s, he moved to Mumbai and worked with the Employees’ State Insurance Corporation (ESIC). There he met Urmila, a Konkani, and married her. His elder brothers Chaman Puri and Madan Puri were also actors.

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The regular job could not dull his passion for acting. During the evenings, he did theatre with Ebrahim Alkazi, Satyadev Dubey, Vijay Tendulkar and Girish Karnad among others.

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Some of his notable plays include Satyadev Dubey’s Hayavadana, Yugati and Aadhe Adhure, Vijay Tendulkar’s Shantata Court Chalu Hai and Girish Karnad’s Hayavadan. He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1979 for his contribution to theatre.

“First, you should learn the art before jumping into films as an actor... You can’t learn at the producer’s cost. If you’re a raw actor, the producer will suffer,” he once said in an interview to rediff.com.

His popularity on stage got him some endorsements and finally films in the ’70s. Dev Anand’s Prem Pujari (1970) was his debut followed by Sunil Dutt’s Reshma Aur Shera (1971).


Girish Karnad’s Kannada film Kaadu (1973), where he played the ‘exploitative’ village headman, won him notice. 

Girish Karnad handed his Filmfare Best Director trophy to Puri as a gesture of appreciation.


His earthiness suited New Wave cinema. Shyam Benegal chose him for his films including Manthan, Nishant and Bhumika in the ’70s. In Bhumika (1977), he played Vinayak Kale, a chauvinistic businessman, who keeps Usha (Smita Patil) as his mistress. He adorns her with ornaments but denies her freedom.

Govind Nihalani featured him in critically acclaimed films Party, Vijeta, Aakrosh and Ardh Satya between the ’70s – ’80s. Given his imposing personality, Puri betrayed a flair for authoritative roles.

Notable is his act in Aakrosh (1980) as the corrupt law professional Dusane. In Ardh Satya (1983), he portrayed the abusive father who damages the psyche of his son (Om Puri).

Director Bapu cast him as Duryodhana in Boney Kapoor’s Hum Paanch (1980). Feroz Khan’s Qurbani (1980) followed and he acquired the status of the most saleable ‘villain’. 

Jagavar Choudhary in Subhash Ghai’s Vidhaata (1982), JK in Ramesh Sippy’s Shakti, Pasha in Hero (1983) snake-charmer Baba Bhairo Nath in Nagina (1986) … Puri’s wickedness reached massive proportions.

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Mr India (1987) took Amrish Puri to the zenith of his career. As Mogambo, the evil scientist, his character assumed cult status. The part-menacing-part-idiotic Mogambo won fans across audiences, particularly children. The character gave villainy a new texture and earned Puri an exorbitant pay hike.

Bhujang in Tridev, Balwant Rai in Ghayal, Maheshwar Dalaal in Suraj Ka Saatwan Ghoda, Barrister Chadda in Damini, Thakur Durjan Singh in Karan Arjun (between 1989 1995) are some more remarkable characters in his ‘vile’ oeuvre.

Dong kabhi wrong nahin hota (Tahalka), Aaisi nass dabaoonga ki cheenkh nikal jayegi (Damini), Itne tukde karoonga ki pehchana nahi jayega (Gadar) and many more such utterances… said in his idiosyncratic style were crowd-pullers.

In 2001, his bigoted act in Gadar: Ek Prem Katha and that of the politician, who orchestrates riots in Nayak, were powerful portrayals.

Puri carried off comic and positive characters with ease as well, proving his dexterity. His comic act in Chachi 420 and Hulchul were appreciated. His memorable character roles include those in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Phool Aur Kaante, Gardish, Pardes, Virasat, China Gate and Mohabbatein (between 1997 – 2000).

He won the Filmfare Awards for Best Supporting Actor for Meri Jung (1986), Ghatak (1997) and Virasat (1998).

Puri wooed international audiences as Khan in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) and Mola Ram in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984). In the latter, he played the demonic priest, Mola Ram, who sacrifices humans and enslaves children. 

Reportedly, Indiana Jones... ran into trouble in India for its controversial portrayal of violent cults. But the greatest compliment came from Spielberg himself, who reportedly commented, “Amrish is my favorite villain. The best the world has ever produced and ever will!”

Temple Of Doom
Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom

After playing Mola Ram, Puri realised that with a shaved head, he could try different looks. “Dad would pick his own ties, bows, shirts… for a role. He enjoyed observing people... He’d keenly watch the hawaldar, the fit of his shirt, how worn out his shoes were… which helped him play one in Gardish,” son and businessman Rajeev Puri told Filmfare.


A fitness enthusiast, Puri was an early riser and practised yoga. He was one of the first members of the Talwalkars gym in Mumbai.

To preserve his famous baritone, Puri stayed away from fried food. Apparently, he also didn’t like his voice being taped. He rarely gave interviews on radio and television fearing over exposure. “I started concentrating on improving it (voice). I used to practise every day… it went up to four hours at the peak of my career… I still practise for some time every day,” he told rediff.com.

Once Puri was shooting with Sunny Deol at Amritsar railway station for Gadar – Ek Prem Katha. Huge crowds had gathered and the shooting couldn’t proceed. Puri took over in his baritone said, ‘Allow us to do our work. I want pin drop silence!’ There was a hush and the shooting resumed.

Puri loved collecting watches and owned all the possible brands. Another fascination was Mercedes Benz cars. He’d buy the latest editions. His family has maintained his 1983 model in showroom condition.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge

Interestingly, women took to his ‘bad boy’ image. He received a huge fan mail of around 50 to 60 letters a day – mostly from women. “My mom did feel possessive with all the attention being showered on him. But she understood. Dad was at an age where he knew what to absorb and what to keep away from,” shared son Rajeev Puri (Filmfare).

In fact, the gentle shades of romance that his character shared with Farida Jalal’s in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was charming. Puri was known to be ‘protective’ about his female co-stars. “While he was being pampered, he wanted them to enjoy facilities too. He was like a father figure to junior artistes too. He’d call up producers, who defaulted on their payments,” said Rajeev Puri (Filmfare).

Despite the humungous fame that films brought him, theatre remained Puri’s first love. “People generally use theatre as a stepping stone and never turn back once they are into films... Yet, theatre is something I will always do; it gives me great satisfaction,” Puri told rediff.com.

“Amrish Puri kept the poor Theatre Unit going. When Satyadev Dubey would do a play, the production was paid for by Amrish. Nobody knew that was happening,” Shyam Benegal once mentioned in an interview to Cinestaan.


Puri met with a nasty accident while shooting for Guddu Dhanoa’s Jaal The Trap (2003) in Himachal Pradesh. He suffered serious injuries on his face and eye. Having lost blood, he had to undergo blood transfusion. In the coming years, he developed a blood disorder (myelodysplastic syndrome).

When he came to know about the fatality of his illness he was shaken. But he got a grip over himself. ‘Jo hona hai woh hoga’ was his stance.

A professional, he wanted to complete the projects in hand, even though he was in pain. His illness was detected in 2003 and by December 15, 2004 he had finished all his films - Kachchi Sadak, Mujhse Shaadi Kaoroge, Hulchul, Ksna and Aitraaz.

One day, an ailing Puri, had a fall at home and suffered brain haemorrhage. He passed away on January 12, 2005.

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As a mark of respect, the industry remained shut for two days. The road from his house in Juhu to the electric crematorium at Shivaji Park was teeming with crowds. “No guns only roses!” read an obituary in the Times Of India, a fitting ‘bottom-line’ (his famous phrase in Pardes) to an innings that only invited love.


Unravelling the world of classic Bollywood cinema - here’s more from Farhana Farook.

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