Naseeruddin Shah on watching Om Puri on the stage for the first time: ‘He was a revelation’

Puri was dazzling as a warrior in the kabuki-themed play ‘Ibaragi’ at the National School of Drama, says his peer and friend.

We returned from vacation for our final year, to be informed that auditions would be on for the next production, a Kabuki play in Hindi, Ibaragi, to be directed by an expert from Japan. My awareness of this classical form was as immature as that of a twenty-two-year-old drama student can be expected to be. We had never actually seen a Kabuki play but had been shown films of some performances. It would be a stretch to perform like that, I knew, particularly with the vocal acrobatics required, but I felt more than confident that the big part in it would be mine. Even though I then had frequent laryngeal trouble, and had to often perform with a voice that was no more than a ghostly whisper, I was cocky to the core that if anyone could pull this off it had to be me. It did not occur to me that there were other actors too, not as showy as myself, who had been far more diligent in practising their craft than I had been. Arriving at the school for the first read-through, we were told that only the students of acting would be cast. We, the students of direction, were to only observe and assist in the production. I was gutted and so was Jaspal, who had naturally assumed that with his vocal abilities, he would be a shoo-in. And who should get cast in the main part but Om Puri, also a classmate, who had very quietly persevered in self-improvement through the time he had been at NSD. [National School of Drama].

When the play was performed Om, for once cast as a flamboyant warrior, was a revelation. I was stuck doing production duties for this play I would have killed to act in, and could only watch him in wonder and envy. Despite intensely coveting the role, it was difficult not to be thrilled at the level of performance he had achieved. Something told me I could NOT have done what he did. Om had always been a model, if somewhat stodgy, student and human being: completely virtuous, genuinely considerate, deeply compassionate, industrious, punctual, attentive, thoughtful; but had so far received attention because of his sweet temperament rather than for his acting. Now he had delivered a knockout performance, and I could see there was no magic formula responsible. He was so astoundingly good because, quite simply, he had gone for broke and expended every ounce of his energy in preparation. Om continued to inspire me for a very long time. Even though I initially found his sincerity amusing and quite unnecessary—at complete variance with my own attitude—I finally began to see its virtues, and had to admit to myself that none of my own performances in the school productions could begin to approach Om’s achievement in Ibaragi.

Excerpted with permission from And Then One Day: A Memoir by Naseeruddin Shah, published by Penguin Books India (Hamish Hamilton).

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