While working, Puri continued to study. After his primary education, he joined the National School of Drama in Delhi to study theatre acting. A fellow NSD student who became a long-term friend, Naseeruddin Shah, encouraged Puri to follow him to the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune. In an interview with The Times of India, Puri later recounted his family was so poor that he did not have a decent shirt to wear when he joined FTII. According to Shah, Puri was disappointed by his education at FTII, and also was unable to pay tuition fees—when he became well-known, the institute followed up the debt of Rs 280, which Puri refused to pay due to the “impish thrill” of owing them money.
Puri’s first film was Chor Chor Chhup ja, a children’s film. During this time, to make ends meet he also worked at the Actors’ Studio, where future actors such as Gulshan Grover and Anil Kapoor would be his students.
Subsequently, Puri worked in numerous Indian films, as well as many films produced in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Puri made his debut in the mainstream films genre in the 1976 Marathi film Ghashiram Kotwal, based on a Marathi play of the same name by Vijay Tendulkar. It was directed by K. Hariharan and Mani Kaul in cooperation with 16 graduates of the FTII. He has claimed that he was paid “peanuts” for his best work. Along with Amrish Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, he was among the main actors who starred in what was then referred to as art films such as Bhavni Bhavai (1980), Sadgati (1981), Ardh Satya (1982), Mirch Masala (1986) and Dharavi (1992).
He was critically acclaimed for his performances in many unconventional roles such as a victimized tribal in Aakrosh (1980); Jimmy’s manager in Disco Dancer (1982); a police inspector in Ardh Satya (1982), for which he got the National Film Award for Best Actor; a humble husband in Seepeeyan (1984), Vinod’s uncle in Zamana (1985 film) the leader of a cell of Sikh militants in Maachis (1996); as a tough cop again in the commercial film Gupt in 1997; and as the courageous father of a martyred soldier in Dhoop (2003).
In 1999, Puri acted in a Kannada film A.K. 47 as a strict police officer who tries to keep the city safe from the underworld—it became a huge commercial hit. Puri’s acting in the film is memorable. He rendered his own voice for the Kannada dialogues. In the same year, he starred in the successful British comedy film East is East, where he played a first-generation Pakistani immigrant in Northern England, struggling to come to terms with his far more westernised children.