Remembering Om Puri!

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Throwback to when Cine blitz spoke to India’s most versatile actor.

No ‘ardh satya’; just the real picture, warts and all. Rubina P. Banerjee can’t help but marvel at Om Puri’s unguarded honesty on matters of extreme privacy.

The car swerved and came to a standstill at the traffic light. Impatience writ large on his face, Om Puri was driving fast to the airport and in no mood for small talk. Yet the words of the vendor arrested his attention… ’Saab aap pehle jaise role kyun nahi karte?’

The words were those of a tissue-paper vendor at the traffic lights. Om stared at his face; his words had echoed Om’s own thoughts

Standing at the crossroads, waiting for the light to turn green again, Om Puri is the people’s actor with whom the masses and the middle class still identify. In him the everyday Indian, from a peasant to a policeman, comes alive in all its integrity and intensity.

Yet Om Puri today, is an actor weighed down by roles he scarcely likes but does because he’s a full-time actor.

A sixty-year-old who has fought and won the battle with pain and depression after his back surgery…A spouse who has loved with all his heart and is hurt at the insensitivity of his biographer, his wife…A man who regrets all his mistakes and wants to be fair…A father who dotes on his son Ishaan, the proud inheritor of his indomitable spirit…

Om Puri looks on at life with the large-heartedness inherent in him. The passion still burns, the anger still throbs, the pain still rankles, ambition still gleams. Yet there is the mellowing with time of the man, the actor.

Awed in his presence, I look for ways to overcome being overwhelmed by the actor… A man on whose face time has etched its lines and the actor who has made each line immortal!
Excerpts from the interview…

Are you happy with your biography?

Well, I would have been happier if the actor and the methods I employed were paid more attention to. I did not like the chapter on women because I respect all those women. They gave me so much…affection, love, warmth and they helped me grow. I wanted to pay a tribute to them and not criticise them.

The book is too personal and details of each affair were written callously in graphic detail. For example, Seema Sawhney, Ismat Chugtai’s daughter, was very impressed with me as she had seen a couple of my plays and AAKROSH, and had become very fond of me. She knew my struggle and she took me under her wing. With her, I went to these elite parties and got the exposure I needed.
I was a very closed person she helped me open up. These are the things I would have emphasised on, not how I kissed her or held her – that is not important. It is understandable and is part of any relationship but today, mentioning it has become embarrassing for both of us.

“Real names should have been avoided because, while writing my biography, you might have a right on me but you don’t have a right on the other person. You should not expose other people so nakedly, without their permission.

Who are the other women you would pay tribute to?

All the women mentioned in the book. For example, Lakshmi was like a matron in the house. I was bringing up three of my nephews who were 12, 14 and 16. Also living with me was my father who was 80. This aspect of my life was not emphasised, nor my efforts in bringing them up despite my many films. Why the relationship between Lakshmi and me developed, is not explored. True, she was a working class woman but she was attractive and she took great care of me and my family. I used to go for shoots and outdoors and my house was looked after very well. I developed feelings for her and we had an affair. It was not that I slept with her twice but had a proper affair for more than a year. My father was aware of it, and, while he was not happy with it, he knew he was also dependant on her.

Who else comes to your mind?

My ex-wife; I was very unfair to her. Her only crime, poor thing, was that she did not stay with me in Calcutta during the shooting of CITY OF JOY.  We had hardly spent any time together and were married only seven or 8 months. I wanted her to share my plush 5-star comfort in the Grand Hotel and be with me. Later, she told me she had a complex and was acutely embarrassed about interacting with a British unit. At that point, however, she couldn’t articulate her concerns and we drifted. We were both immature…though I had no business to be as I had married her at 40! However, the manner in which
I filed a case and got the divorce through was very nasty and mean. I regret what I did and I sincerely apologise to her.

Did you move in with her recently? I believe you packed your suitcases and stayed at her office?

Yes, I did. I was very angry and hurt with Nandita and have been in touch with Seema.

Do you feel betrayed by the woman you’ve known for 15 years, who happens to be your biographer?

Yes I do. It was immature of Nandita, with all due respect to her. She is a very talented person but she was in a hurry to write a book. That was the problem.

Are you reconciled with it?

Yes, kind of reconciled… I was angry with her but I’ve let it go.

Is this reconciliation under some sort of pressure?

Yes and no. Yes, I was angry with the the casual way my deepest personal affairs, to which only she had access, were written about. The book seemed to focus on my affairs and not my life. Moreover, it did not discuss whether my affairs contributed to me as a person or as an actor – which they did.

…And no, because I don’t want to be too critical of her or damage her in any way because she happens to be my son’s mother. And the son is a grown boy, who looks at the newspaper and cannot make sense of what is happening. I don’t want his mother to fall in his eyes.

Tell me about Ishaan…

I adore him and love the way he’s fought back with life. He was born with such a limitation… his eyes…at times I feel very sad about it. He was only 950 grams when he was born and he struggled for three months in the incubator. I don’t want him to be affected by this in any way, now.

Are you still together?

Yes, we are still together.

You have not moved in with your ex-wife?

Not so far but I did move when I was very upset with Nandita.

I have great admiration for Seema. She didn’t get married for the last 18 years since we were divorced. Despite my being so harsh and mean she loved me so much that she forgave me. She is a self-made woman and has managed her life totally on her own. She had no support from her family and has supported her mother and her younger brother; I have great regard for her.

She has made documentaries and TV serials and has now directed a film for NFDC on women’s emancipation. She is a good writer, a trained classical singer and is extremely talented.

Do you see yourself going back to her?

I won’t comment on this now.  At this point, my mind is still clouded…yet I want to be as fair as I can. I don’t believe in tit for tat.

Coming, as the biography does, at this time of your life do you feel betrayed?

I think so. Particularly the chapter on women, because I’m sure my son will not be proud of it and the pain and hurt were acute. My deepest personal secrets should have been put in perspective and not shown naked as narrated. The writer is supposed to dress it up and write it in context. If it was only about writing down what
I had said, I could have done it myself!

Have you been drifting apart? Was the book a reflection of that?

No, it was not a deliberate attempt on Nandita’s part. Yes, we’ve been having trouble but I don’t wish to get into it. The book has been written in a hurry and lacks a writer’s perspective. However, I do not wish to talk about this anymore except to say that very soon there will be a chance to write a lot about me!

How would you write the book if you had to?

I would stress on the sheer incredibility of my achievement! I can’t quite remember what the inspiration was that motivated me…To live on my own from the 8th std. and start earning from the 9th…To pay my way through school and college…To take all decisions alone…To take drastic steps like leaving a Government job, which had so much security, and join NSD or the film institute and dream of being an actor on the silver screen…I still wonder how I did it.

And how did you achieve this incredible success?

I did it because my dreams were real! …Achievable. I didn’t dream of owning a Mercedes; a Fiat was good enough. I never thought of the material achievements. I wanted only the basics, like a decent comfortable house not a terrace house or a bungalow.
I still live in the same house
that I bought after ARDH SATYA. Material aims have been very realistic and, in the process of doing decent work, if one becomes rich that’s good. But I worked and gave it my best because I was passionate about my art. An actor is his own instrument and I wanted to be a maestro!

What is the real Om Puri like?

…Sensitive, receptive, sincere and resilient. He tries not to let his evil side come up. I believe we have both good and evil in us and you become good by overcoming the evil in you. It would be dishonest to say I have no evil in me.

And what would the evil in you be?

I can be mean and I have been mean to a couple of people in my life, which I regret deeply…Particularly to a couple of women in my life. I was a confused young man but I take full responsibility for my selfishness. I did not realise it and had become blinded by my success. But, the moment my eyes opened, I did apologise and sincerely asked for forgiveness. Humility lies in acknowledging one’s mistakes. I am what I am today as I was focussed, talented, sincere, hardworking, honest and real!

What are the images of your life that come to your mind?

The images in the mind happen quickly, like shot after shot in a film. My life, in these images, will not even make a two-hour film! I remember, when I was three and had small pox, my hands were tied to the bed to prevent me from scratching my face… Once, my dad hit my brother Ved and his head was shoved into a space where a brick was missing… Flashes of my school; I’m playing kabaddi, I’m a monitor in class… My headmaster’s slap when I was being very aggressive to the class; my father’s slap when once I retaliated to his hitting my mother… Another slap at 40 after ARDH SATYA! Hot-headed as my father was, he thought that the producers were taking me for a ride and not paying me enough… Passing out of school; infatuation with a girl I was teaching… Cycling everyday for 30-40 kms from the village to the city and my college… Doing theatre, putting up posters, trying to sell tickets, Alkazi Sa’ab, the man who made me… Doing various jobs to survive and then, of course, the films, the directors, the co-actors and the awards that have come my way! At 60, I’m proud of who I am; the man and the actor.

 

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