Several Indian actors have made their mark internationally, but one of the first Indian actors to appear in a globally successful Hollywood film was Amrish Puri, who played the villain Mola Ram in Steven Spielberg’s controversial 1984 film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But Amrish initially turned the offer down.
According to his autobiography, The Act of Life, Spielberg was denied permission to shoot Temple of Doom in India, and instead set up the film in Sri Lanka, Macau and London. After expressing disinterest in the part, the actor reconsidered after casting director Dolly Thakore sent stills of him from the horror film Gehrayee to Spielberg.
When American casting agents came down to India to meet him, the actor refused to audition, and instead asked them to watch him perform on the sets of his new film. He also refused to read out a page of text in English. “How does Spielberg know what language do I speak? He would know me as an actor,” he told the casting agents.
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Amrish eventually agreed to the role, and found the production very impressive. He described Spielberg as “very boyish, an unassuming kind of person.” About the crew, he said, “None of them had any ego, problems or reservations about my being an Indian. Unlike many of our actors in Indian films, there was expertise at all levels, and you couldn’t just do anything and get away with it.”
The film ran into trouble in India, for its controversial portrayal of violent cults. Amrish was even labelled ‘anti-national’. He said, “It was a chance of a lifetime working with Spielberg, and I don’t regret it even for a moment. I don’t think I did anything anti-national; it’s really foolish to take it so seriously and get worked up over it.”
Years later, Spielberg said, “Amrish is my favourite villain. The best the world has ever produced and ever will.”
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