Friday, October 22, 2021

Everyman’s Hero

Filmmakers and friends remember Om Puri, the versatile actor who used his unconventional looks to essay the role of the common man.

January 7, 2017 4:54:07 am
Om Puri, Om Puri passes away, Om Puri dead, Om Puri death, Indian actor Om Puri dead, Om Puri dead at 66, Om Puri-Bollywood, Om Puri-versatile actor, Indian Express Veteran actor Om Puri. (File)

Jahnu Barua, filmmaker

Today, memories of my friend Om seem endless. We became friends in Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and later we lived together in a flat at Mumbai’s Marine Drive. It was in a building called Ganga Vihar and a friend of ours, Rani Burra, owned it. Many of us strugglers lived there back then and we had a lot of fun in each others’ company. We used to fight a lot over booze. Both Om and I loved beer, but I could drink a lot more than him, so he switched to rum, because I hated it. There are many memories from those days that I still cherish.

One is of the time when Om asked me to teach him karate. I was learning it myself, and he said he wanted me to demonstrate a light kick. I thought I did that, but the kick landed very hard on his stomach. He had to stay in bed for the next three days. Unfortunately, on those three days, our cook was on leave, so I ended up cooking meals for Om and making him tea. He thoroughly enjoyed that, and if I recall correctly, he had a lot more tea in those three days than he usually did! By the last day, I began to suspect that he had been faking the injury’s seriousness, because he was enjoying my service.

I really admired his determination and the seriousness with which he approached even the smallest roles. Om didn’t have the conventional hero’s face, but he put in a lot of hard work and was very persistent. I remember, for Aakrosh, the director wanted him to lose weight and become more tanned, so Om would sit on the balcony, wearing only his briefs, and would sun himself all day. He was very disciplined and dead serious about his career, and that was how he made it big.

Once, he confided in me his frustration that his voice was not the type that would be easily accepted in the industry and that it would keep him away from playing good characters. I told him that his voice was unique, it had dynamism and rawness, and was full of character, and that is what true filmmakers look for. Now, his is one of the few voices that is instantly recognisable. In fact, I believe that it was because of him that filmmakers started looking beyond the usual “hero” material. Two weeks ago, he had called me, but I was driving, so I couldn’t answer. And then I forgot to call him back. Thinking about that now makes me sad.

Actor Om Puri in film ARDH SATYA. Express archive photo Actor Om Puri in film ARDH SATYA. Express archive photo

Manoj Bajpayee, Actor

There are two actors whose work gave confidence to many like me to harbour the ambition to play the lead and take that train to Bombay. Naseeruddin Shah is one, Om Puri was the other. To me, he is among the three greatest actors in India. He helped change the definition of ‘a leading man’. He brought no-frills style to acting. My contemporaries and I cannot even boast of a filmography like Mr Puri’s.

He was so versatile, he could do such varied roles in Aakrosh, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Ghayal and Chachi 420, and excel in all. To me, he is also the first to make space for Indian talent internationally. He did a large number of international projects, from Gandhi to East is East and City of Joy. He showed the world that Indian films aren’t just song and dance. But unfortunately, India didn’t celebrate his talent enough. I got the chance to get to know him on the sets of Prakash Jha’s Chakravyuh in Madhya Pradesh. After the shoot, we would settle down in the guest house, him with his whiskey or rum and me with my white wine. He would talk about his journey and cinema. He was open and always spoke his mind, even if it backfired. We saw the criticism and flak he received for his stand on Pakistan. He was in favour of a friendship between the two countries, and that was misunderstood.

After we became friends, I would often call him for feedback on my performances. He had introduced me to his circle of friends and we would spend time together. A few days ago, one of his friends from Punjab called me, asking me to tell him that he needs to take care of his health. I was to meet him for dinner one of these days. That dinner now stands due.

Kundan Shah, filmmaker

I had known Om for many decades and worked with him in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. He was a wonderfully versatile actor, who could deliver any role in any genre effortlessly. It’s a huge loss.

Fizza Ali, Producer of Pakistani Film Actor In Law One of the finest actors, it was a privilege to work with Mr Om Puri. He played a key character in my production and when we brought him down to Pakistan, we realised what a fan base he enjoyed here. He was such a humble man. He walked the streets of Karachi to promote the film and people mobbed him. The film, of course, was a huge hit. Mr Puri was also among the few artistes in India who spoke up for Pakistani artistes when there was trouble brewing between the two countries last year.

Neena Tiwana, Actor and director


Om Puri was around 16 and my husband, Harpal Tiwana, and I, both graduates from the NSD, were looking for an actor to stage a play at Panjab University. Mr Tiwana went to Khalsa College and saw Om Puri. He returned home and told me, ‘I have found a boy who is not very handsome but he has a strong and good voice’. Om was working as a lab assistant and earning Rs 100. Mr Tiwana said, ‘I will pay you Rs 125 to join my theatre group, Punjab Kala Manch’. Om was with us for three years and never left acting.

His first play with us was Albert Camus’ Cross Purposes, which we adapted into Adhoorey Sapne. Even then, he was very relaxed on stage. He was a great support to us when Mr Tiwana died. When he missed Punjabi food, he would call us and ask for saag and makki ki roti. He would recall the first time he had tea at a big restaurant with us and found out what fish fingers were.

Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry Actor and Director

Om Puri was two years senior to me at NSD but our friendship went beyond this. He and Naseeruddin Shah would stride into the campus with ‘star’ written all over them. Om had great belief in his destiny, that it would be a destiny written in neon lights. In the mid-’70s, theatre and cinema were rewriting the definitions of beauty and Om’s unconventional looks made him stand out.

I used to notice that women found him very attractive and he was much loved by them. After NSD, he was a regular at my house in Mumbai and, later, in Chandigarh when he visited for shoots or political campaigning. Once he told me that he used to observe how the person serving would move and offer food. He was learning constantly. There was a commercial aspect to him as well — a project with Deepa Mehta fell because of money — but it did not exist in our friendship. He remained compassionate and kind till the end. I had taken up the responsibility to collect money when he was at FTII and he got through first year with that and he mentions this in his book.

Waman Kendre, Director, National School of Drama

I talked to Om Puri five days ago, to invite him to inaugurate the tribal theatre festival of the NSD in Daman. He answered that he would call to tell us. The news of his death is a jolt. Puri was one of the finest that NSD has produced. He gave confidence to the theatre or film actor who was not good looking or didn’t have a trendy personality. A boy from a rural, poor background with no English-speaking skills, he proved that a good actor would succeed in any medium and in any language, including in international cinema. His own style ranged from the naturalism or realism of parallel cinema to the satire and humour.

Deepti Naval, Actor


I’ve seen him through the most restless phase of his life in the last few years. We can only pray now, may his soul rest in peace. I cannot reach out to his wife Nandita and son Ishaan — phone line is blocked but I know what this loss is for them…feeling helpless! Omji and I had been neighbours for 30 years.

Amal Allana, THeatre director and author

One of the most beautiful things about Om Puri was that he was full of emotion. He was a human being who wanted to connect with others. This is one of the hallmarks of a great actor because passion, without compassion, kills a role. An actor has to play a number of characters, from heroes to villains, and must be able to understand and empathise with others. We saw Om’s full range of talent in his films.

In The Hundred Foot Journey, he plays a chef opposite Helen Mirren. I am very critical of actors, especially if I know them, because I feel they can do much more. One of my grandchildren is interested in cooking and I went to watch The Hundred Foot Journey a second time, for her and to watch Om. In My Son The Fanatic, Om gives a riveting performance of a taxi driver who has migrated to England and has to respond when his son comes under the sway of Muslim fundamentalism.

I feel the only thing Om didn’t do was look after his health. He would call me often to ask about Mr Alkazi (Allana’s father and legendary director of NSD, Ebrahim Alkazi) and they shared a special guru-shisya relationship. Om was very clear about the wide-ranging impact that Mr Alkazi had on his life. He always said that he would be nothing without Alkazi saab and he was very sincere in his respect.

I would get calls at 8 am and Om would ask me to send him a photograph of Mr Alkazi from his NSD days. I would ask why he wanted the picture and he would say he wanted to keep it. The Alkazi collection does not have too many pictures of Mr Alkazi from the tenure at NSD so it is my regret that I could not give a photograph to Om.

Inputs by Dipti Nagpaul-D'Souza, Pooja Pillai and Dipanita Nath

📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines

For all the latest Entertainment News, download Indian Express App.

  • The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.