Obituary: OM PURI. 18th October 1950 – 6th January 2017
The world will remember him as one of the most naturally gifted actors ever. Many will remember him for his warm earthiness and rustic Punjabi humour. A few will remember him for his down-to-earth attitude and the genuine camaraderie he enjoyed with like-minded people such as the senior Puri (Amrishji – no relation) Naseeruddin Shah, Gulshan Grover and others. Fewer still will remember him for the terrific mimic and prankster he was.
Somewhere today, my former Army driver Sethu will be recalling the day when he stood mouth agape, in total shock, as Omji nimbly hopped into our car, even though the film unit had sent a car for him. This was during the shooting of ‘China Gate’ in Hyderabad; the deal was that I travel with him to the location and continue the interview in the car. However, the minute I pulled up outside the hotel in an Army car, Omji ne na daayan dekha na baayan, bas, he got into our car as it had been his dearest wish once upon a time to join the Indian Army. Needless to say, the drive was more of a trip down memory lane and the interview was pushed aside for later. On location, he and Amrishji kept me in splits and both took it in turns to do my khaatirdaari when the other was called for the shot.
Somewhere today, my maami (aunt’s) sister will be recalling the time I stayed with her in London. I was attending the World Travel Mart and when I came back home one evening, she said: “Some Om had called for you.” Omji knew that I was in London; he himself was shooting in Wales at the time and had taken it upon himself to check train timings so I could travel down; “Yaar, six bedroom ka cottage diya hai unit waalon ne, bore ho raha hoon, aaja, gappe lagate hain!” I was in splits as I told Lubna aunty it was Om Puri whom she had spoken to. “Hain? Om Puri? The actor??” She literally begged me to let her speak to him so when I called him back, I requested him to say a quick “hi” to her and he generously obliged, indeed, he floored her with his warmth.
And somewhere today, I have been thinking that I spoke to the man just three days ago. He had the flu and his voice sounded heavy with the cold and so we discussed meeting next time either when he was in Bangkok or when I was back in Bombay. If anything, this incident has brought home to me sharply that there are no “next times” – the time that we know is the here and now.
His former wife, Nandita, had written a controversial book on him, but I was surprised to see that she had skipped over much of the early years and the harsh childhood that went into shaping his indomitable spirit. His parents were quite poor and therefore he was being brought up by his uncle and aunt in the village. One day his father and uncle had a fight, as a result of which Omji was made to leave the house. He hid out in the outbuildings and his school friends would steal raw vegetables from their farms and bring him, which the young Om (he was in the 4th Std, so about 9-10 years old then) would attempt to cook. By the time he was in the 5th Std, he was giving tuitions to other children to make ends meet for himself. Omji was very keen to join the Indian Army and even went to the Recruitment Centre at Ambala, however, the Recruiting Officer asked for bribe money which of course, he didn’t have and a disgusted, disillusioned Om turned back – but he never lost his love of all things Army. Much later in his life, when his only child Ishaan was born, he was diagnosed with partial blindness and Omji told me once that he was taking on any role that came his way simply because he had to earn lots of money; there was only one Chinese doctor in Boston who could perform this surgery and this was Omji’s goal.
This is a man who rose above his physical shortcomings and socio-economic background, to win laurels such as the Padma Shri and the OBE, to gain recognition both in the east and the west. Om Puri will be remembered by many for the deeply sensitive, versatile actor that he was and the hard hitting performances that he gave. But some will remember him for the true friend that he was and for the humour and humility that stayed with him no matter how many pinnacles he climbed. If someone can say this about me in my obituary, it will have been a life well worth lived.