Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The torments of Om Puri

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Om Puri’s Quiet And Credulous Charm Could Be Disarming

Business Standard, January 14, 2017

Here is the 34-year-old talking to me in 1984: “I never felt let down or bitter because I never lost perspective on my life. Relax, I used to tell myself at especially difficult moments, what would you be doing if you weren’t here? You would have ended up being a clerk somewhere. There was no terrible anticlimax in my life because I built no castles in the air. It made everything flow easy and even.”
It’s a long damp afternoon and we’re in a hotel room in Delhi. The actor’s accolades are piling up in his landmark films — two national awards for best actor in Arohan and Ardh Satya; a Filmfare supporting actor for Aakrosh and, crowning glory, best actor at the Karlovy Vary filmfest — but, scandalously, a woman member of the Filmfarevetoed his nomination, reportedly saying, “How can you? He’s so ugly.” The film writer Jai Arjun Singh noted this week of the actor who died on January 6, aged 66, that much of his best work was done between 25 and 35 years ago. Naseeruddin Shah’s excellent memoir And Then One Day describes the sudden, surprising impact Puri made on stage at the National School of Drama: “Om had always been a model, if somewhat stodgy, student and human being…[known for] his sweet temperament rather than his acting. Now he delivered [in a Kabuki play] a knockout performance…and I had to admit to myself that none of my own performances in the school productions could begin to approach Om’s achievement in Ibaragi.”
Om Puri’s quiet and credulous charm could be disarming. “Really?” he kept saying when I said that Raghu Rai would be shooting his portrait for the profile I was preparing (“An Actor’s Actor”, India Today, August 31, 1984).
Next day Mr Rai arranged the session in his flat; the two got along so well and made the shoot so enjoyable that the afternoon extended to rounds of Old Monk and dinner. The profile quotes director Govind Nihalani, who first met Om during dubbing sessions of Junoon, as saying that it was a struggle to persuade the producers of Ardh Satya to cast him. “They just thought audiences wouldn’t be able to take that face for too long.” Yet the impact of his performance was so compelling that the late film critic Amita Malik, who was present at Karlovy Vary for his first major international honour, found that foreign audiences “found him sexy and strongly appealing in a macho way.”
If memory is a series of film dissolves, none of our subsequent encounters over the years was like that first. “Om Puri’s most abiding asset as a human being is not modesty (a quality almost always false in performers) but humility,” I had observed.
Madhu Jain, the journalist and editor of IQ magazine, who first met him on a 10-day trip to Russia in the early 1980s, found him warm, earthy and an acute listener. But when she saw him last year at Ebrahim Alkazi’s big 90th birthday bash in Delhi it was a different man. In that rumbustious celebration, milling with Alkazi devotees, he was in his cups. “He appeared dazed, angry, unseeing. Just not himself. It made me very sad.”
As his fame grew his emotional life was in a shambles. My last encounter with him in 2009, a TV recording for the publication of his second wife Nandita Puri’s biography which he found offensive and hurtful, was a dead loss: He was sullen, monosyllabic and unfriendly. Outside the bookshop where we recorded, a large crowd of fans had gathered; I hurriedly escaped the suffocating atmosphere, leaving the overly managing Ms Puri to deal with the bad vibes. At the Jaipur litfest that year he was frequently incoherent and drunk. His marriage was on the rocks.
Born the youngest of eight children (of whom only two survived) to a mother who died in adolescence, and a father, later a railway clerk, Puri was dumped with relatives in a village outside Patiala. Working a hard apprenticeship through provincial theatre groups to NSD, it was Alkazi’s intuitive genius in 1970, that forced the selection board to award him a monthly stipend of Rs 200.
In the last couple of years I got Om’s news from our mutual friend, American novelist Richard Morais based on whose novel The Hundred Foot Journey, Om took on Helen Mirren in a feel good culinary rom com that became an international hit. “The world is a little less bright and a lot more boring. RIP big-hearted Om,” Morais wrote this week. Yet life for Puri, “the Amitabh Bachchan of the dispossessed”, did not flow easy and even. In the end an accumulation of torments beat him.
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