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Humility, passion, respect... three traits younger artistes can imbibe from Om Puri

On Om Puri's birth anniversary, his wife Nandita Puri reminisces about time spent with the actor and speaks about the government's apathy to honour his memory.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Om Puri made his acting debut with the Marathi film Ghashiram Kotwal (1976) based on the eponymous play by Vijay Tendulkar.

He received critical acclaim for his performance in Aakrosh (1980), Govind Nihalani’s directorial debut, in which he played the role of a victimized tribal.

The Om Puri that not many knew about

He had an illustrious career and was part of several acclaimed and successful films, including Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), Ghayal (1990), Drohkaal (1994), Maachis (1996) and Gupt (1997). Recently he was seen in Dabangg (2010), Agneepath (2012), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), Tubelight (2017), and Partition 1947 (2017). 

A prolific artiste, Om Puri enjoyed an immensely successful career in the British and American film industries as well, essaying some memorable roles in films like Roland Joffe’s City Of Joy (1992), Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013) and Lasse Hallström’s The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014).

Om Puri: The actor who turned 3-minute roles into a tour de force

Om Puri had the ability to lend gravitas to the smallest of roles and make them memorable. He was felicitated with several awards, including two National awards for Best Actor for Arohan (1982) and Ardh Satya (1983), the Padma Shri in 1990, and an honorary OBE in 2004 for his contribution to British cinema.

Om Puri in Ardh Satya

He died earlier this year of cardiac arrest aged 66. On his 67th birth anniversary, we spoke to his wife Nandita Puri who reminisced about time spent with the actor and spoke of the Indian government's apathy towards honouring his memory. Excerpts:

Om Puri essayed many powerful performances. Which are the ones that are most memorable for you?

For me, the most memorable role came in one film that I had seen, Shodh (1981), at IFFI in Kolkata. I was in high school when I saw the film, which is a lesser known film of his.

Other than this I really enjoyed Ardh Satya, Tamas (1987), the series Bharat Ek Khoj, East Is East (1999), and The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014), which is a happy, feel-good film that features Om as his typical self where he is the blustering, bombarding character and then his kind, gentler self. 

Besides these films, I liked him in City Of Joy, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Ghayal, and loved him in China Gate (1998). In fact, he did all the action sequences himself in China Gate. He learnt horse riding for the film and the action sequences gave him back trouble that lasted till long after, but he didn’t use a body double.

He also did a lot of films where he played a cop. He always wanted to join the army and his father was briefly in the army as well. So, everything about him, his bearing, his discipline, was that of an army man. He really admired men in service and had the stature of an army man. China Gate is the epitome of this.

Om Puri in a still from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro

How did he like to celebrate his birthday?

He never liked to celebrate his birthday. Actually, he didn’t even know if 18 October was his actual birthday. His mother only told him he was born in 1950 two days after Dussehra. So every year, two days after Dussehra, his mother would make kheer [a rice and milk pudding] to celebrate his birthday. When he passed out from the National School of Drama (NSD), he looked up the date and saw that 18 October was also his mentor Ebrahim Alkazi’s birth date, so he decided it would be his date of birth as well!

Do share some of your memories of celebrating his birthdays.

Every year, I would make paayesh [a sweet preparation] on his birthday with specially sourced rice from Calcutta as his mother used to make kheer. He would make it a point to keep the day free, but if he was shooting, Ishaan and I would sometimes join him.

In 2013, when he was shooting for The Hundred-Foot Journey, we landed up on the sets and the entire unit of 200 people cut a huge cake for his birthday. It was a beautiful moment.

But in general he didn’t like to celebrate his birthday. Our house would be filled with flowers sent by friends on his birthday. Danny [Denzongpa] would send a telegram with his wishes and a bouquet of flowers every year. Some people would drop in and we would go out for a meal as a family.

I remember that on his 50th birthday, we bought 50 things that he liked… miniatures of things that he used and liked. We took them to London since he was shooting there and he just loved it!

On his 58th birthday, Ishaan and I insisted that he host a party and several of his friends attended. I remember Naseeruddin Shah gifted him an Armani watch. Omji never believed in buying branded things or expensive presents. He wore Titan and HMT watches. But he loved the Armani Naseer gifted him and wore it till the end.

Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah in a still from Maqbool

The Academy Awards honoured Om Puri at the ceremony earlier this year, but Indian awards functions have by and large failed to pay tribute to his memory, something Nawazuddin Siddiqui had also criticized. What are your thoughts on this?

I am so disappointed. The Academy saw him as a part of the Oscar family and the BAFTAs honoured him beautifully as well, just as they did Carrie Fisher, but none of the award functions here bothered to do that.

When MAMI started and was in its second or third edition, they wanted to give Omji the Lifetime Achievement award as they wanted to get credibility for their festival. He asked why he was chosen because he was still a working actor and had not retired, but they were keen so he accepted the award and supported the festival.

Today, MAMI has become so big, which is good for them, but it is disgusting that MAMI hasn’t bothered to mention Omji. [Actually, the 19th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, which ends today, hosted a special screening of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro on 15 October in the memory of Om Puri and director Kundan Shah, followed by an interactive session with Ranjit Kapoor, Satish Kaushik, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Sudhir Mishra.]

LIFFT India at Lonavala dedicated the festival to his memory and honoured his legacy so beautifully. But the legacy of Om Puri will live on longer than film festivals and his legacy will live on worldwide.

You have taken certain initiatives through the Om Puri Foundation to take his legacy forward. Has there been any support from the government?

It’s sad, but I have been trying to get in touch with the Maharashtra government to get a road or park named after him, but there has been no response from [chief minister] Devendra Fadnavis’s office. Omji always used to believe that Maharashtra was his karmabhoomi [land of work] and Punjab was his janmabhoomi [land of birth].

He never forgot his roots in Punjab. The current chief minister of Punjab, Captain Amarinder Singh, used Omji during his early campaign days. I travelled along with Omji to small villages in Punjab for this. But there was no response from him either! It’s such a shame that Amarinder Singh used Omji and wouldn’t do anything to pay him a tribute now.

Till date nothing has been done either in Punjab or Maharashtra to honour him. The politicians are here today and [will be] gone tomorrow, but the work of artistes will endure the test of time. 

Recently, when Vinod Khanna passed away, Rishi Kapoor slammed younger actors for their lack of respect for senior members of the industry, especially when it came to attending funerals and honouring their memory. What are some of the qualities that you think the younger generation can learn from Om Puri?

Well, the first thing the younger generation can learn from him is humility. Omji consistently worked in films in India and abroad but he wore his fame lightly. He shared screen space with top actors in Hollywood — Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Helen Mirren, Patrick Swayze, Val Kilmer, and many others — but he was always humble.

The second thing they can learn is to respect their elders. These days, going for funerals has become a photo-op for actors who want to be seen and photographed. So many actors who were helped by Omji when they were strugglers didn’t even bother to show up for his funeral. People take selfies at funerals when they see stars, which is really disgusting.

Omji also believed that whatever one does, be it acting, cooking, gardening… one should do it with passion. But the greatest thing about him was that he never forgot his roots and never disrespected the arts. Art cinema gave him his bread and butter, but commercial cinema gave him the jam! So he never disrespected any kind of cinema. He also believed in giving back to society. He helped his family and relatives extensively and helped people without having any expectations of them. Anyone who came to him for help never went back empty handed.

Nandita Puri with son Ishaan at the LIFFT India festival

What are some of the ways in which you plan to take his legacy forward?

One of his legacies is not to do with films, but to do with him as a humanitarian. I plan to take his films to festivals, schools, universities and am also planning the inception of an Om Puri Café Museum and the Om Puri Memorial Lecture will be part of it. 

My idea of an acting or film school is also to take 10 economically backward students to Lonavala and follow a gurukul-like model. I don’t want to just be part of a franchise which will be impersonal. This has been a tough year from me, losing him suddenly, so I’m still putting things in place and launching the foundation.

There is also a biopic in the works. He saw his childhood story as akin to that of Charlie Chaplin, how a small boy of 6 had to work at a tea stall to put food on the family table. When he was in class VIII or IX, he gave tuitions, worked for a munshi. His experiences in the FTII [Film and Television Institute of India] trying to make some money, working for Roshan Taneja, and many others. And he was quite happy doing all this. These were his experiences. So all this will be in his biopic which we are planning.

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