Remembering Om Puri on his 70th birth anniversary

Today, the late, great actor Om Puri would have turned 70. To commemorate this special day, his wife Nandita and son Ishaan are launching a YouTube channel, ‘Puri Baatein’. The actor passed away within three months of his sixty-seventh birthday; and while one laments the career he could have continued to have, it's important to commemorate Om's milestones-studded thespian journey.

With a slew of well-picked roles in English films and British TV serials, Om won respect for his carefully-calibrated histrionics and for his ability to make us care about his characters. It led to his getting the prestigious O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) for services to the British film industry. The British capital, London, incidentally, had almost become a second home to Om as he shot there with jet-lagging consistency.

I remember interviewing Om, while I sat under a canopy of plants in his airy, sun-lit terrace. Om Puri sported salt 'n' pepper hair and a life-reaffirming Zen-like smile. Between sips of tea and mouthfuls of poha, Om Puri relived his odyssey.

Om came to Mumbai in the mid 1970s, after studying for three years in Delhi’s National School of Drama and two years at the Pune Film Institute. Naseeruddin Shah had been his senior at the Institute so Om landed up at his residence in Santa Cruz with a small bag. Om laughed when he recalled, “After a week, he pertinently asked me, ‘How long do you plan to stay?” I had been independent from the time I was in the ninth standard. I have worked in a restaurant and as a munshi too. So I moved on.” To keep body and soul together, he taught Anil Kapoor, Mazhar Khan, Gulshan Grover and others at Roshan Taneja’s Acting Classes.

Om’s first job as an actor was for a Govind Nihalani film for which he was paid a handsome sum of Rs 600! His searingly intense performance as a troubled cop in Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (1983) won him acclaim and applause, and he never looked back. Aside: From Om Puri’s myriad performances, Ardh Satya is my forever favourite.

The awareness that he was recognised internationally as Om Puri, the actor, hit home during a morning walk in London. A British gentleman hailed him on the streets and said, "Hi, Om Puri. I loved you in East Is East." Soon this became a common experience at stores, restaurants and at airport check-in counters.

A special memory that Om treasured was of the Telluride Film Festival. Traditionally, this small American town throws its restaurants — Italian, Mexican or French — open to the delegates for free. Each time Om stopped at a restaurant for a cup of coffee, the owners would greet him with open arms and tell him, "We loved you in East Is East, My Son The Fanatic and City of Joy."

Om, always the first to acknowledge those who had helped him. He said, “It was thanks to Jennifer Kapoor that I got into the international arena. The producers of The Jewel In The Crown were on the lookout for actors and Jennifer recommended my name.” Om was seen in the first three episodes of this popular TV serial. One thing led to another and he was cast in Gandhi and City Of Joy too. Om retained the famous talent agent, Jeremy Conway, who, he says, warned him, “You are a wonderful actor, but I don’t know how many parts there will be for Indian actors in foreign productions." Om was, however, flooded with work subsequently.

Since he had worked with Hollywood A-listers like Jack Nicholson (Wolf) and Patrick Swayze (City Of Joy), Om had many interesting stories to share with me. The actor became friends with Jack Nicholson because both of them were smokers. Apparently, one is not allowed to smoke on the sets of a Hollywood film so an assistant suggested Om should smoke in the bad boys’ corner … where Jack Nicholson smoked. After a shot, Jack Nicholson casually asked Om to join him for a smoke, and subsequently they sat together and chatted over cups of Cappuccino. Om told me, “I asked him a few questions; and some of them, inadvertently, turned out to be awkward. There was a big pause but he opened up eventually.”

In 2010, when he worked with Helen Mirren in the hit film, The 100-Foot Journey, he joked, “She is my Smita Patil.”

I met Om Puri for the last time a month before he died. I had dropped in at the Puri residence to wish Nandita a speedy recovery since she had fractured her right foot. He made me a patiala peg of vodka, thrust it in my hand and said, “Drink with me.” I resisted but he persisted. With the drink in hand, he walked me to his son Ishaan’s room and with paternal pride expounded on the family photographs framed on the walls.

(The writer is an author, columnist, TV scriptwriter, and film historian. In 2017, he initiated The Dinesh Raheja Workshop in which he teaches Bollywood aspirants everything related to the media.)

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