The first time I met Amrishji was at the shooting of ‘China Gate.’ Although our interview was fixed for the night post pack-up, at the hotel, I was on the sets to interview Mamta Kulkarni. She got called away for a song-and-dance routine and I was left kicking my heels in the dust. Seeing me vela, Om Puri insisted I join him and Amrishji in their van while they were having lunch; “aao ji, tussi vi roti kha lo,” boomed out Amrishji.
In spite of the age difference, both these actors get on fabulously well and are often mistaken to be related, given the same last name. There is no doubt Amrishji is very fond of Om and the latter can get away with quite a few liberties with the senior Puri J It is a little-known fact that Om is an excellent mimic. I am absolutely rolling in the aisles as they recount an anecdote; Om, who was friendly with character artiste Mita Vashisht, was invited for her birthday party. She had not invited Amrishji, perhaps because he was so very senior and also, she did not know him as well. So Om called her home number and left a voice mail message for her – in Amrish Puri’s voice – saying he’d heard she had a birthday and was sorry not to have been invited but anyway, wished her all the best. A panicked and embarrassed Mita promptly called up Amrish Puri to stutter her way through an apology. A flabbergasted Amrish heard her out patiently, pieced together the confusion and told her – “yeh Om ki harkat hai!” Obviously, he tells me now, much amused, why would I go calling up someone to say she hasn’t invited me for her party?!
Amrish Puri’s real brother was of course, very much in films. Madan Puri was an established villain and Amrish, who always had a fondness for acting, came to Bombay in 1953 to try his luck like his older sibling, only to be told – “Your brother is here – so what??” He was offered itsy-bitsy roles which offended him and he started work instead as a government clerk, at the princely monthly salary of Rs150! “I was there for about 20-21 years when worthwhile offers suddenly started coming along,” he muses. “By the time I retired, I was assistant regional director. We were always comfortably off, since my wife was also working. It’s just that lifestyles kept changing; instead of one TV we now have four but, after all, you can only see one at a time,” he says pragmatically. He is also brutally honest – “Some films were of my choice, but you can’t have that every time. I don’t deny that I did certain roles purely to get money…shauq (passion) tha, to have a good house, grand cars, a Mercedes…”
I’m looking forward to our night tete-a-tete and land up at 10pm as it was a late pack-up. We’ve barely settled into his room and there’s a knock on the door. He excuses himself for five minutes and I’m thinking morosely there goes my interview, it’s my pack-up as well but no – the darling man is back, holding out a slice of cake for me on a napkin. “It’s Jagdeep’s little daughter’s birthday today so there’s a small party in his room,” he explains. (Veteran comedian Jagdeep remarried many years later; father of Javed and Naved Jaffri, he had gone to see a bride for younger son Naved and ended up falling in love and marrying the girl himself.)
I’m so touched by the fact that he thought of bringing back a piece of cake for me; close on the heels of his entry into the room, there’s a furious pounding on the door. He opens it and there is Jagdeep himself who insists I come into the next room for the party; “Arre hamein pata hi nahin tha aap bhi yahan hain, please come and join us,” he insists. They are so sweet and so welcoming and I truly feel very humble as I assure Jagdeepji that I am very content with the cake and besides, it’s already late and I still need to complete my interview before Amrishji can call it a night.
In spite of his fearful Mogambo image, Amrishji is far from a daunting villain in real life, and his deep throated roar can actually be a very soothing rumble, liberally peppered with Punjabi witticisms 🙂 He is endearingly childlike as he confesses that his hobby is collecting hats! “My most expensive hat to date cost me US$600,” he exclaims. Hats and shoes, that’s what gets him each time; “Although I’m also on the miserly side, can’t spend too much in one go,” he hastens to admit.
Fame, money, adulation, affection…he has it all. Is there anything he still strives for? “My ambition is to be still greater,” he says simply. “I feel I should get awards, rewards, satisfaction and status with my work – that greed is still there.” He is one of the truly nice people in Bollywood; very polite, affable and hospitable. “ Today, my success, my popularity feels good, but it hasn’t gone to my head. The position I am in…it’s not the end…it’s not the final destination…”he concludes humbly.