Interview Hindi

LIFFT India: Hope people get to watch Om Puri's lesser known films, says Nandita Puri

Nandita Puri reminisces about her late husband and his legacy and explains why she set up the Om Puri Foundation.

Nandita Puri with son Ishaan. Courtesy: LIFFT India

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Early this year, veteran actor Om Puri passed away aged 66, leaving a gaping hole in Indian and international cinema. His prolific career, during which he acted in more than 300 films globally, saw him play a range of roles, both big and small, with equal conviction.

Om Puri won two National awards for acting for Arohan (1983) and Ardh Satya (1983), and was nominated for a Bafta film award in 2000 for his role in East Is East (1999). His last major international production was opposite Helen Mirren in The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014), produced by Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey and Juliet Blake. In love with acting and his work, Om Puri had finished filming for Gurinder Chadha's film Viceroy's House (2017) and just wrapped up shooting for Kabir Khan's Tubelight (2017) when he passed away.

In an exclusive conversation on the sidelines of the LIFFT India Awards & Filmotsav in Lonavala, Om Puri's wife Nandita Puri spoke about his legacy and the Om Puri Foundation. Excerpts:

I would like to start by getting your thoughts on LIFFT India, which is such a different festival as it encompasses all the arts and not just films. As it stands for Literature, Illusion, Film, Frame, Television and Theatre, [festival director] Riju [Bajaj] mentioned that the focus next year could possibly be theatre, and films will be a smaller part, so going forward, there are so many possibilities for the festival. 

Khandala and Lonavala are twin places and Omji bought a place in Khandala-Lonavala about 15 years ago. Om always felt that he wanted to stay in a hill station and it’s so unfortunate because all of December he was renovating our home here and while working on his last film, Tubelight, he was actually travelling from Khandala to Film City and back. Our son Ishaan and he would travel this distance.

Lonavala is such a beautiful and peaceful ambience for an arts festival. Om loved Goa as the venue for a film festival, so places like Lonavala, Goa, Jaipur, Cannes, Locarno, etc. are very good venues for festivals as there is an added tourist attraction. And I’m so happy that Riju has taken all this and brought it together. 

I came here because the festival is dedicated to Omji this year and throughout I have been thinking of him. He loved Lonavala and would have been so happy to see this festival here. I came here on Friday and after seeing the festival I’ve decided to stay till the end because it is such a beautiful festival with many diverse events. LIFFT is fabulous and, like Manoj Bajpayee said, in the years to come, people should come to Lonavala for the festival. 

At the festival, the Best Actor award has been named after Om Puri, so I wanted to discuss his legacy as he broke the mould through his performances, choice of roles, kind of films and in doing so paved the path for many actors.

It’s a huge legacy and I want to take it forward so that others may be inspired. Om came from a very poor background. When he was six years old, he was made to go and wash utensils so that he would bring in money. When he was six or seven years old, relatives had given him Rs5 and he spent Rs1.25 to buy a wind-up car which he really wanted for the longest time. His parents made him return that car because that Rs1.25 was precious for the family.

With that background, he wanted to be an actor. He went to the National School of Drama and FTII [Film and Television Institute of India] and was helped by so many friends who supported him. When he started working for Shyam Benegal, he offered to carry his bags so that he could get the money for the porter as well. At that time, he didn’t know where his next meal was coming from.

That man starred in English films for 25 years and didn’t care about the length of the role. For him, work was worship. He said, 'I am an actor and I have to keep working.' So he was a very practical actor as he worked in the popular medium along with working with renowned directors, because he knew that there is where the money would come from.

He is the only [Indian] actor to have received an OBE [Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire] and was nominated for a BAFTA as well and because he was doing British television, he was widely recognized in England.

Omji is one of the few actors who never had a PR person, any publicist, and the only actor till date who has been honoured at the Oscar memoriam. It was a very proud moment, but for me it was too early. He always said that he wanted to go while working and he had shot two days before he had a massive cardiac arrest and passed away.

He worked in about 350 films and I want his films to travel to festivals, to be screened in schools and colleges.

This is a good opportunity for me to ask you about the Om Puri Foundation that you have started in his memory.

We launched the foundation at Cannes at the British Pavilion, BFI, and then at the India Pavilion and we got an overwhelming response. The idea was to get the word out. We have Shyam Benegal as one of the main trustees of the organization, along with Kabir Khan, Juliet Blake, and I'm trying to get like-minded people to work for the foundation.

Om would always say, 'I want to make money but only till a point.' He didn’t want a big car and luxuries but wanted a simple, comfortable living and a few savings so he never turned down anyone who was in need. He would help people without anyone knowing — farmers, young students, relatives, our staff. I have learnt this sensitivity towards poor people from him.

He made one silly comment on the Indian army and regretted it. Without anyone knowing, he went to the village of the young BSF guy and wrote a cheque of Rs10 lakh and handed it to the family. He brought his photograph and the family sent some pickles for us. No one knows that because he felt he had been wrong. So, the idea of the foundation is to keep his philosophy. His legacy is his films and his philosophy is the work through the foundation.

The foundation has instituted several awards and scholarships for young actors.

Yes, so there is the Om Puri Fellow at the NSD. At NSD one can get a scholarship, but Om had no money while he was there, so he would stay with the guard and live with friends. So this is the Om Puri Fellow for two years, for students who want to take up any form of theatre.

Om had no money when he joined the FTII, so I want to give a scholarship for a student at the FTII. Later on, as the foundation grows, the scholarships needn’t be given just to FTII. It can go to any recognized film institute, it could be the Satyajit Ray Institute or any other.

The third is the Om Puri Grant because though Om started in theatre, he went to films and Om always said that he learnt the most from NSD as opposed to Naseeruddin Shah who says that he learnt the most from FTII.

Om left theatre and felt that cinema was a bigger audience through which he could reach out to many more people and he respected cinema for that. So any young filmmaker whose films are selected for festivals may not be able to travel with their film and present it at the festival. This grant is to mentor a filmmaker, so they can be present for their screenings at festivals, network, market their film and get the word out.

The last award honours Om’s love for the farming community. He used to say that farmers are the backbone of our country. So, we sponsor the education of the children in courses of their choosing so they give back to their community.

This is a very unusual award.

 But it was very important because it was the closest to his heart. He actually was a farmer and he even bought a plot of land here in Lonavala and we grow vegetables and a few fruits on it. So if we can help a farmer’s child, why not? Tomorrow, if the foundation becomes big, we may be able to help entire villages and not just individuals!

While people are familiar with Omji's well-known and popular films, there are several lesser known films of his that haven't been circulated widely. Have you thought of preserving his films for the future?

I need to collect his student films and early diploma films. We can digitize films today. As we are talking of preserving, we need to preserve for sure. We have about 70% of his films and need to get the rest.

As I mentioned during the opening ceremony, if Ismail Merchant hadn’t preserved the Apu trilogy, [Satyajit Ray] wouldn’t have won the Oscar! Merchant was instrumental in lobbying the stars in Hollywood for Ray to get the Oscar. So, Audrey Hepburn flew down to present him with the Oscar as he was too ill to travel and receive it himself.

To recount one incident, while shooting for Sadgati (1981), Ray had told Om that when he approaches the house, he has to do so very gingerly. Om didn’t know what ‘gingerly’ meant so he hesitatingly asked Ray. The auteur realized there was no point in explaining the word, so he told him, 'Imagine that I am sitting here and there is a roti lying next to me and a dog wants to pick it up. How the dog comes in is the meaning of gingerly!'

Om won the National award for Arohan (1983), but it has never been released! And I’m so glad that you mentioned his lesser known films because I am taking such films to festivals and hope that people will get to watch his lesser known films.

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