I heard the shocking news of Om Puri’s death in the morning through my phone. Being in a place with poor network ruled out my chances of making frantic calls to his family and friends. After messaging the love of his life, Ishaan, his 20 something-son, I have no choice but to stay with the pain. It is a shock and sadness that is finding difficulty in sinking in. So scribbling seems the only catharsis.
I last met Om ji less than a week ago when he came with a beautiful flowering plant. After making sure it was kept properly on the ledge, he firmly spoke to the plant, “Meri izzat rakhna, aur murjhana nahi. Nandita ko tang mat karna, bahut achhi bachhi hai.”
The mock seriousness was part of the lightness he had and the caring self that he was. Before leaving his farm in Lonavala, he asked me how many of us were working in the Manto team, and the home staff was to be added to the list. He brought 10 packets that had a box of chikis and a bottle of churan each – even for the watchman who brought the plant. He personally gave it to the team, to the girl who cooks and cleans and to the driver. For my six-year-old son, there was a separate packet of goodies. Being a Santa came naturally to him.
‘He was always affectionate’
He was genuine, always at par with whoever he was with, never putting on any airs to look precious. Always rooted in life, firmly on the ground and caring and affectionate to all those around him. In the 20 years I knew him, he hadn’t changed at all in his humanity. Yes, he had aged, put on weight, drank too much and got into hurtful controversies. It is not my place to comment on them or give reasons for it. All I know is that through all his hardships, he didn’t become bitter, just very very sad.
I first met Om ji in 1998, at the Ramoji Rao Film city where he was shooting and I was with Shyam Benegal for a film called Hari Bhari. We laughed and talked effortlessly. He asked me if I would like to go with him to the village where he shot Susaman. It was a Shyam Benegal film about a Pochampally weaver’s family.
I can never forget that trip. The villagers. of course, remembered him even after 15 years. But I was intrigued to see that so did he. The children, who were seven or eight at the time of the filming, were now grown men and women. But they were not forgotten. We had chai with them and he shared stories wistfully.
Not so long ago, I almost scolded him and made him promise that he would take care of his health. He would give me a report from time to time to tell me that he had been following my instructions! He had read my script on Manto and was to play Toba Tek Singh, a character in one of Manto’s stories that Naseeruddin Shah once told me that no actor can do justice to. But I strongly believed that Om ji could. He would have proved Mr. Shah wrong, which he would have been happy to concede.
As I was struggling with casting, Om ji began to make a list of characters and promised to help me with it. He wanted Ishaan, his son, to work with me as an assistant, who promptly committed to be on the team. For so many reasons, Om ji will remain part of my Manto journey.
‘Villain on the screen, supremely gentle off it’
I have acted in only one film with Om ji. It was called Pita, with Sanjay Dutt in the lead. He was the main villain whom I had to kill at the end. As the shoot got delayed almost every day, he and I would sit in our trailer watching old films. His commentary on them was most insightful and sensitive. The villain on the screen was a supremely gentle person off screen. Only a brilliant actor like him could be a villain in one, a police in the other, a weaver in the third, a militant in the fourth. The list goes on to 100 varied characters.
He was a man who always wanted to help, do things for others. That’s what gave him the most joy. Quite like my own father. No wonder they got along and always asked about each other with great fondness. Both deeply human but sadly loners – not too different from Manto. Not too different from all those who are almost too sensitive for the harshness of the world.
Om ji, you will be greatly missed. You had somewhat given up on life and just when I thought you were climbing back up the mountain, you left. I have a lot of unfinished business with you. You had to make sure your plant flowered well, you had to help me with my casting, you were to be in the climax scene of my film, you were to get back to life with a vengeance.
For now, all I can be grateful about is that I knew you, through your remarkable work and unwavering kindness. May you finally rest in peace.