Actor, writer, producer and director, Puneet Issar has acted in more than 150 films and TV serials. He began his career playing villain in Coolie (1983). The following year, he made a splash with his role in the Ramsay brothers’ cult horror film Purana Mandir. Post the success he achieved for his role as Duryodhan in the popular TV show Mahabharat (1988-1990), he acted in films such as Chandra Mukhi (1993), Prem Shakti (1994), Ram Jaane (1995), Border (1997), Refugee (2000), Krrish (2006), Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), Ready (2011), Son of Sardaar (2012) and The Kashmir Files (2022), among others. He made his directorial debut with the Salman Khan starrer Garv (2004), for which he also co-wrote the screenplay with wife Deepali. On television, he featured in serials such as Param Vir Chakra (1987), Bharat Ek Khoj (1988), Junoon (1993-1998), Noorjahan (1999-2000), Mahabharat (2013), Parchhayee: Ghost Stories by Ruskin Bond (2019) and Choti Sarrdaarni (2021). He also worked as dialect coach at various acting institutions, teaching speech, diction and physical gestures.
Born on 6 November 1959 in Amritsar, Punjab, he schooled at St Lawrence High School, Mumbai, followed by graduation from Mithibai College. His father, film director Sudesh Issar had directed films such as Jwala (1986), Kali Basti (1985) and Mera Saaya (1966), and worked with popular artistes like Raj Babbar, Anita Raj and Jagjit Singh.
An FTII alumnus, he debuted in 1983 with Coolie directed by Manmohan Desai and Prayag Raj. An action-comedy drama, it starred Amitabh Bachchan, Waheeda Rehman, Rishi Kapoor and Rati Agnihotri. Issar played a character named Bob in this tale of a boy who is separated from his family and grows to become a coolie (porter) at a railway station, and eventually fights for the rights of his ilk. During the shooting of the film, on 26 July 1982, Amitabh Bachchan had got accidentally hit by Issar during an action sequence due to a miscalculated jump. Bachchan was hospitalised due to severe internal bleeding in his lower abdomen; after being critically ill in hospital with slim survival chances over several months, he recovered from the near-fatal injury.
In an interview later, Issar would reveal, “I remember the incident clearly. It was way back in 1982, it was an action sequence and we were shooting in Bangalore. I was supposed to throw some punches at Mr Bachchan and he was supposed to throw some punches at me. It was a mock fight. We did some rehearsals. We did about seven rehearsals and they went fine. But during the rehearsals, Amitji would always stop at the table… Then came the actual take and Amitji was much more charged. I (mock) punched him and threw him on the table as I was supposed to do. But Amitji took a leap, somersaulted and fell off the table. Amitji said, 'Mujhe lag gayi hai'. At first, there was guilt. This was my first film after all. After the accident, Mr Bachchan told me, 'Relax, these things happen while shooting. It was just a mock fight.' Then he got up and left. We continued shooting after that. But the next day, he did not turn up for shooting and we panicked. We didn't realise the seriousness at the time of the accident. Mr Bachchan's condition was only going from bad to worse. Unfortunately, the operation took place only after 72 hours. The rest is history.”
He also shared, “He (Bachchan) is a great man. My wife and I had gone to see Mr Bachchan at Breach Candy Hospital and my wife donated blood for him. I was petrified and thought all this had happened because of me. The press wrote all kinds of things about me and I was paranoid. Mr Bachchan was a demi-god. I remember Mr Bachchan telling me, 'Puneet relax, it happened to me also. It was an accident. You didn't mean it.' The media looked at me like I was some Nathuram Godse. But he, his entire family, Jayaji, everyone was very nice to us.”
Coolie, swept up on a wave of emotion, became a super hit; however, it did not benefit Issar as he was criticised by sections of the media as well as the audience for the unfortunate incident. “I was virtually a stigma. The press turned me into a life-sized monster. I have a fourth degree black belt in martial arts and all these plus points became my negative points. For three – four years, I did not get any work. I struggled for six years after that accident and only after that did people start coming forward to work with me. I got roles like Duryodhan in B R Chopra's television serial, Mahabharata.”
Issar would feature as a villain in over 150 films, such as Palay Khan (1986), Zakhmi Aurat (1988), Kal Ki Aawaz (1992), Jaagruti (1993), Tejaa (1990), Prem Shakti (1994), and Ram Jaane (1995). He essayed negative characters such as a rapist, henchman, terrorist, tantric, and killer.
He also featured in several horror films such as the Ramsay brothers’ iconic Purana Mandir (1984) which had its platinum jubilee in theatres, Saamri (1985), Zinda Laash (1986), and Khooni Murda (1989).
However, though he had delivered a few super-hit films, the work he was getting was not up to his expectations. He utilised the time to work on his body, voice and acting. When he heard B R Chopra was making Mahabharat, he approached him, and said that he wanted to audition for the role of Duryodhan. He prepared for the role by reading the epic, and convinced Chopra of his suitability by reciting the powerful Jayadrath Vadh. As he convincingly essayed the character, he was called dusht (evil) by audiences, which was a compliment to his acting prowess, and brought him mainstream popularity.
Another key role was that of Subedar Ratan Singh in the J P Dutta-directed epic war film Border (1997), which was an adaptation of the real-life events that happened during the Battle of Longewala in 1971.
He played Shekhar ‘Superman’ in the sci-fi action adventure Superman (1987). Directed by B Gupta, it was an adaptation of the 1978 American film of the same name.
In the Tathagatha Buddha: The Life & Times of Gautama Buddha (2008) he played the role of Anguli Mala, a blood-thirsty brigand who is transformed, in the biopic revolving around Siddharta, a prince of Kapilavastu, who gave up the royal life and his family to gain freedom by seeking the path to end human misery, which arises out of ignorance. In the process of finding the path, he attained divinity and became a Buddha.
In 2022, he played DGP Hari Narain in The Kashmir Files, a film based on the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Valley. He also acted in films such as Bunty Aur Babli (2005), Krrish (2006), Partner (2007), Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), and Jayeshbhai Jordaar (2022).
Issar has also worked in Punjabi and Telugu language films including Pingami (1994), Allari Pidugu (2005), Narasimhudu (2005), Rabb Ne Banaiyan Jodiean (2006), Jag Jeondeyan De Mele (2009), and Besh Korechi Prem Korechi (2015).
In 1997, he directed the TV series Hindustani, which featured Arun Bakshi, Hemant Birje, Vikram Gokhale and Rohini Hattangadi. He would turn feature film director with the action-crime-drama Garv: Pride and Honour (2004) starring Salman Khan, Shilpa Shetty and Arbaaz Khan. The plot depicted an honest and decorated police officer who is arrested on charges of mass murder and trapped in a corrupt political system which sends him sinking into deeper and deeper trouble. According to Box office India, the film had a “very good opening” and collected Rs 220 million during its opening weekend in India; after three weeks, it grossed Rs 750 million. Later, Issar would say of his film, “I think Garv was ahead of its times. For Salman, the movie had set a benchmark in terms of action sequences, drama and emotion. If it would have been released today, then it would have definitely done business of Rs 300 crore.”
In 2011, he directed I Am Singh, revolving around neo-Nazis and bigoted police who oppress and target vulnerable Sikhs and Asians in post 9-11 America. It was followed by Born To Be King (2015), his directorial, written by his son Siddhant Issar, and starring Rahul Kohli, Lara Baker and Kishore Bhatt.
Besides acting in more than 12 TV serials such as Junoon, Sahil, Noor Jahan, and Vikram Aur Betaal, he also directed serials such as Hindustani and Jai Mata Ki starring Hema Malini. He was also a contestant in the reality television show Bigg Boss 8 (2014–2015), hosted by Salman Khan.
Issar is a fitness and gym enthusiast. He revealed that even after turning 60, he continues to do weight training in the gym for two hours every day, besides practising martial arts and running 8km-10km daily. He believes one’s health has to be the one big priority in life, and that the body needs movement and strength from time to time, as age advances, as allowed by one’s doctor.
Married to Deepali Issar, he has two children, daughter Nivriti Issar and son Siddhant Issar, who is also an actor, and wrote, directed and produced a short film titled Resurrection- Jaago Aur Jiyo (2020), in which he also acted.