Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi


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The torments of Om Puri

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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The incurably jolly Mrs Godrej

SUNIL SETHI remembers Parmeshwar Godrej, a multi-faceted woman of style and substance who knew how to stay in vogue

Business Standard, October 15, 2016

I once had to record a half-hour television show with Richard Gere at the height of his crusade to mobilise money and public opinion for the AIDS campaign in India. After it was over I asked why he and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had chosen as their key partner. His creased, handsome, bespectacled face broke into a wide smile. “That’s easy,” said the unusually affable and eloquent actor, also a devout Buddhist, ticking off the reasons on his fingers. “She’s a dynamo and a doer. She has an amazing ability to connect with people and bring them together. She comes up with ideas and offers solutions.” “And,” he added, as if the postscript merited an important but final seal of approval, “she has a light touch… her sense of humour makes any collaboration a pleasure.”

It is an attribute of that many remember the best. Laughter was a component of her large-hearted Punjabi spirit; coupled with shrewd common sense, it swiftly deflated pomposity and notions of folie de grandeur. My enduring first impression vividly captures her essence. It was at a dinner given many years ago by her brother, Harinder Madher, and his Russian-Canadian wife, Tanya, on, of all places, the rooftop of the Samrat, an odd adjunct to the old government-owned Ashok Hotel.

And there, among the drifting flotsam of the capital’s social set, with a smattering of diplomats, bureaucrats and politicians thrown in, was the glamorous Parmeshwar leaning against the parapet wall in one of her slinky figure-hugging dresses, like a slightly angled lighthouse beam. Her head thrown back, she was laughing uproariously, both attentively listening and contributing to some deliciously juicy tale. Not quite the conventional image of a tycoon’s wife.

Evocations of the larger-than-life Mrs Godrej in the days following her death on October 10 have dwelt on her status as a style icon, her legendary entertaining of Gatsby-like proportions, her shouldering of noble causes and unwavering support of her husband, Adi Godrej, chairman of the Godrej group, and his family fortune.

But few have pointed out how a young woman, the daughter of a Sikh army officer from small-town Patiala, conservatively brought up to observe upstanding soldierly virtues, transformed into a trendsetting figure – running independent ventures in fashion and interior design, energetically fundraising for and hobnobbing with the internationally rich and famous. Her paradox was that with her finger so firmly placed on the pulse of the capricious worlds of fashion, film, corporate affairs and party-giving, she never went out of fashion.

I once asked how she managed so many irons in the fire. The flicker of smile behind her bronzed carapace became a roguish grin. “I enjoy change. The newness of things keeps me going,” she said. “It keeps me ahead of the game.” Deconstructed in business terms this could mean diversifying your risk portfolio, exercising strategic image management and being wide open to new ideas and influences. You must be compelling enough to cultivate friendships with the likes of Imran Khan, Amartya Sen, Salman Rushdie and Gere, and a layered network of friends and associates between. She had enemies and rivals as well but she handled them with the same suave assurance.

Journalist was in her class in Mumbai’s Fort convent in 1962. “She was warm-hearted, quite glamorous even then and had a lovely smile. I remember our Hindi teacher being charmed by her,” she recalls.

Parmeshwar’s years as an Air India stewardess were brief. One of her cohorts, the daughter of a senior defence officer, who joined the airline later but met her much after, describes the age of Air India’s golden girls. “The airline’s top management was involved in the selection process. We were chosen not for our looks alone but for overall personality and careful background screening.” Competition to get in was stiff. With limited opportunities for out-of-college women, it was a chance to see the world, earn a generous salary and be posted abroad. Asked to pinpoint the most noticeable change she observed in her former colleague’s growth trajectory, she says: “Her supreme confidence. It was remarkable how Parmeshwar developed her own identity and grew into multiple roles, not merely as the spouse of a leading industrialist.”

One of her old friends and allies is the highly-networked entrepreneur Bina Ramani. Like Parmeshwar she, too, is Sikh by birth and had a strict conformist upbringing. Remembering their decades-old friendship this week, Ramani said, “I first met Param, a soft-spoken shy girl in a white salwar-kameez, at Adi’s Juhu shack in 1966. She was working for Air India but there was an obvious chemistry between them. Her homes on Malabar Hill and Juhu were always open to me. When I introduced her to Richard Gere and the AIDS campaign, she said, ‘Bina, let’s work on this carefully. The government is doing nothing. Let’s ramp it up internationally but I want the scale of the Indian crisis to be absolutely central.'”

Ramani gives a touching instance of the deeply emotional private person behind the shining public persona. The death of her sister, Ishwar, to whom she was close devastated her. “When Ishwar was very ill I went to spend a quiet evening with her. We mourned together, seated on the floor, our heads covered. She wouldn’t eat. I persuaded her saying it was Guru da langar. And so we ate a hearty Punjabi thaal. Deep down some of her family allegiances and traits of discipline and steely determination were of a Jat Sikh fauji‘s daughter.”

Her tremendous self-assurance stemmed from never losing sight of her roots, and she easily slipped into Punjabi with fellow speakers. “Ah, my Amritsari friend,” she would tease and corner me for a quick private exchange of colourful jibes. On one such occasion we found ourselves cheek by jowl at one of those lamentably mixed-up film parties. She had arrived fashionably late in her signature beret and well-cut jacket, but now a well-known but thoroughly inebriated film star was annoying her. “Oops,” she said, as she flicked him off like a mosquito with practised ease. But then my ear caught a whisper through her smiling rictus: “Khota hai, bilkul khota!” (He’s an ass, a total ass!).” I laughed out loud, saying that I hadn’t heard that phrase, nor such a sharp dismissal, since my grandmother’s time. Fixing me with a gimlet eye, she shot back, “Naani yaad aagayi na,” before passing on to the next guest.

Parmeshwar was an amazingly alive, multi-faceted but incurably jolly Punjabi girl. Gere was not the only one to find a kindred spirit.


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Kashmir Diary

In Outlook, June 20, 2016

Roadblocks in Kashmir

There are three kinds of prevalent roadblocks that encapsulate old and new life in Kashmir. The first are troop movements in winding convoys that routinely hold up civilian life in the cities and the outskirts, so that getting out of Srinagar, for example, is a bit like timing the Delhi-Gurgaon commute. The traffic snarls can be humongous at peak periods. The second is the rush of tourist traffic—so huge that the relatively new airport can barely cope. Prominent among the holidaying hordes are platoons of those two intrepid tribes—Gujaratis and Bengalis—posing among the peonies in Kashmiri costume at the Shalimar or Pari Mahal gardens, or shrieking as their ponies break into a canter leaving a trail of faecal stink. They present a caricature of inter-generational families: the young women shout orders at ghodawallahs while sari-clad grannies bring up the rear, riding side-saddle like Victorian duennas.

The third migration is a more enduring sight, as ageless as the Alpine meadows and swift steams of the Zabarwan and Pir Panjal mountai­ns. This is the slow, graceful train of the Guj­-jar and Bakarwal nomads, pastoralists who begin their annual summer trek from the Poonch-Rajouri region of Jammu up into the highlands of the Valley and start their descent as the chinars turn to autumnal gold. This eternal life cycle of mountain shepherds and cattle breeders, a pageant familiar since ­childhood summers, never fails to move me.

The Nomadic Lyric

Pahalgam has always seemed to me the ­archetype of a one-horse town—a Hollywood studio of fake shop fronts transported to Himalayan heights. But now there is Trout Beat, unquestionably the best fresh trout restaurant in the country, Dana Pani, a good north Indian vegetarian, and the spanking new Sagar has just opened with idli-dosa-sambar and filter coffee on offer from 9 am. But the premier establishment is the immaculately-kept Pahalgam Hotel, with its exquisite garden overlooking the Lidder river, a menu of Kashmiri Pandit cuisine and Shepherds Craft, a fine shop that bears the name of an NGO run by the hotel-owner’s daughter. For many years, Ramneek Kaur has been promoting the crafts of the Gujjar and Bakarwal women; she runs a community centre for the adivasis and explains the difference between the two—their distinct livestock, enca­­­­­mpments and grazing lands. The women forage among wild grasses, herbs and roots to cook fresh meals. “Hamein Allah khaana deta hai, hum kyun bazaar ki sabzi khareeden?” they tell her. (“When Allah gives us food, why should we buy market vegetables?”)

Off The Beaten Track

Kashmir  Clubbed

Empress Nurjahan’s garden,  Achabal, district Anantnag

Visitors I ran into from Mumbai and Chennai grumbled about being ripped off for pony rides to the soiled snowline in Sonmarg, or queue­-jumping the cable car in Gulmarg, incongruously called a ‘gondola’. If only they left those for off-the-beaten-track forays they would be better rewarded—there are haunts like the magnificent 7th century ruins of King Lalitaditya’s pre-­Islamic capital at Paraspore on an acropolis above the Jhelum 22 km north of Srinagar. Of course, some of the treasures in Kashmir are hard to find. Like the spectacular remains of the Martand temple: the dance sequence in Haider downplays the stark beauty of this site to unfortunate effect. Also in Anantnag at Achabal—a couple of hours outside Srinagar—is the splendid spring-fed Mughal garden laid out by ­empress Nurjahan in 1620. It was later tended by Shah Jahan’s two favourite children—Dara Shikoh and Jahanara. There was not a tourist in sight on a recent weekend: only Kashmiri families picknicking under the dense shade of chinars, in the midst of the perfume of flowering roses along the cascades and sprinkling fountains. All of it together made a memorable sight.

Getting Pissed Off

A visitor’s common but heartfelt quandary is the search for a clean public loo. The worst-kept is at Srinagar airport. “Not for Staff” reads the sign but it is packed with J&K police and CRPF jawans. Its stink adds to the nightmare of leaving Srinagar—a cacophony of hollering porters, mile-long security checks and helpless airline staff buffeted about, like passengers, by stengun­-toting soldiers. It sums up the confusion of ‘Kashmir management’: there are simply too many agencies trying to run the place. But here’s the good news: the best loo in downtown Srinagar is at the smartly-refurbished Ahdoos restaurant. Ahdoos has always offered clean rooms, fine cooking and a reliable bakery. But now its first-floor toilet is the best-kept ­secret on Residency Road. Last week… I found that army convoys and tourist buses aren’t the only ­roadblocks to be wrestled with in Kashmir—there is another, more ancient ­movement that allows one to be witness to a timeless migration.

Delhi-based editor and columnist Sunil Sethi hosted a weekly literary show on NDTV for eight years


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Lunch with BS: Neha Kirpal. The lucky outsider

Feature in Business Standard, January 22, 2016

neha kirpal

One of the most influential people in Indian art, Neha Kirpal tells Sunil Sethi how she stumbled into that world and remains ‘one of the curious public’

Neha Kirpal is the woman of the moment, one of the most influential people in the Indian art world and, some would wager, anywhere. She is the managing director and founder of the eighth edition of the four-day India Art Fair (IAF) that opens in New Delhi on January 28. Spread over several pavilions, this year’s fair covers 20,000 square metres, with 85 exhibitors participating from around the world; each one pays Rs 22,000 a square metre for space though some, such as the Delhi Art Gallery, with customised 1,500 square metres, are designed to feel like mini-museums. With an expected footfall of 108,000 visitors at Rs 499 a full ticket, it is a busy, buzzing market and heady, happening, commercially successful, and logistically, not a small feat to create in a large, empty ground.
Over two weeks, German-designed, temperature-controlled, CCTV-monitored tents -with specialised flooring and lighting, elaborate parking, security and toilets – spring to life. There are pullulating bars, lively lounges, gourmet restaurants, rarefied discussions with artists, squadrons of trailing schoolchildren and corporate honchos shelling out top dollar to adorn their walls. This year, the IAF has appointed the super-cool Zain Masud, formerly of Art Dubai, as its international director. In the current issue of the fashion bible Vogue, she advises the smart set “how to spot the Souzas and Subodhs of the future – well, almost”.

The brains behind India’s biggest art hit, however, isn’t glamorous: no highfalutin talk, no Christian Louboutin heels mismatched with deliberate avant-garde chic of the type you spot in galleries of London, Paris or New York. Kirpal, art entrepreneur and exciting start-up story, is 35, and commutes between her unpretentious flat and functional office, often carting her three-year-old daughter along on the nanny’s day off. Her grandfather was a soldier, her father runs an organic farm, and her husband is an IT professional; she had the sort of middle-class upbringing – Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, Lady Shri Ram College for Women, followed by a marketing degree in London and a few years in Delhi’s PR firms – that did not mark her out as exceptional.

She was neither born rich nor had any claims to superior antecedents in art. Generations of well-mannered Defence Colony ingenues like her were steered by army families towards eligible young men for conventional matrimony. They weren’t groomed to run multi-crore businesses – not in the international art world, anyway – set up from scratch.

A charming text message – “Oops, which restaurant did you say?” – later, she’s at Ritu Dalmia’s first-floor Diva Cafe in New Delhi’s Greater Kailash, a mainstay of shoppers covered in Fabindia’s upholstery swatches, cotton napkins and accidental jars of pickle. She’s seated at a window table with a young assistant briskly taking notes, 10 minutes ahead of time.

The restaurant wears a Christmassy look and menu, and so does she: In cheerful red and white woolly jacket, she is clear-eyed, sparklingly funny and candid. The assistant evaporates as she helpfully explains, “When I worked with Dilip Cherian of Perfect Relations as a dogsbody he would say, ‘Come ride with me’, meaning we can finish so much of the day’s agenda in traffic jams. I’ve never forgotten that!”

We decide to share a special of turkey roulade stuffed with chestnut and sage with pink peppercorns, cranberry sauce, creamy mash, wood-fired roasted vegetables and slices of honey mustard glazed ham. Out of politesse she orders a glass of mulled wine which, at the end of the meal I notice, she’s hardly sipped. The smooth, cheesy potatoes are so good the obliging waiter brings a second helping. He then literally over-eggs the pudding with a choice of complimentary desserts we never asked for. Santa’s gifts are late but lucky: Neha Kirpal and Ritu Dalmia are a double blessing on a bleary Delhi afternoon.

My guest starts with a confession: She was clueless about art. All her life she had walked through museums and art galleries in incomprehensible, unutterable wonder. Like the child with her nose pressed to display windows of tempting toy shops – mysterious but out of reach – “they represented a China Wall of wealth and privilege, not part of my world”.

“Museums were cold and intimidating, art galleries made me feel like an ignorant waif. After a while I began to think: Is something wrong with me – or with the art world? My family strived hard to give me a decent education: I was mad about Hindustani classical music; I was a state-level badminton player and also part of the under-19 national hockey team. Why did this world lock me out?”

Someone gave her a ticket to Frieze, the annual art fair in London. She came away dazzled but none the wiser. An abracadabra moment followed. On a domestic flight back from an assignment, she drew a marketing model for an art fair – “it was more diagram than plan” – on an air sickness bag and presented it to her boss at Hanmer MS&L. He believed in her and gave her a few lakh rupees to try her luck. So started the decorously-named India Art Summit (she was wary of calling it a fair) at Pragati Maidan in 2008, with 34 galleries, mostly local. Mumbai’s galleries cold-shouldered her. “They waited and watched but Delhi gave me the thumbs up.” When she buttonholed Shireen Gandhy – today one of her biggest supporters – of Mumbai’s hoary two-generation-old Chemould Gallery at Art Dubai, she was cut short in chilly tones with, “And who are you?”

In a few years she had given her employer such a healthy profit that she was able to buy him out. She and a couple of co-workers in a slummy office were maniacally managing phones and the media – plus licking invites -when, at Frieze 2010 in London, she ran into two Scotsmen, Will Ramsay and Sandy Angus, owners of 22 art fairs, the world over. They believed this convincing, plain-spoken charmer and injected 49 per cent funding into her business. They are silent partners; she owns the rest as sweat equity and controls the show.

Kirpal wears the title of IAF top boss lightly, with seven 30-something fleet-foots, who work round the year 24×7 (on improved premises, she adds), to produce an art event whose importance is matched by its burgeoning profile.

Like any savvy entrepreneur she is keen to stress the integrity of her business ethic over her rosy balance sheet: She has never transacted an art sale in her life, nor can any employee, for that would amount to conflict of interest or charges of insider-trading in a business riddled with stories of cartels, pelf and forgery. “Your associates have to trust you irreproachably.” IAF’s 14 partners this year include BMW, Pernod Ricard and JSW Steel.

We trickle down the stairs and Delhi’s odd-even car formula means I must forage for a cab. A BMW drives up (“I got a good deal on it,” she announces with childlike pleasure) and she offers me a ride home. On the way she says, “All I want to do is to make art publicly accessible, to make people’s life richer, creative and stimulating. I was a nobody and knew nobody in art. But I’m one of the curious public. I want to know about art – and I wear it like a badge of honour. You might say it’s a patriotic act.”