“Aaj woh bhi bichchad gaya humse Chaliye ye qissa bhi tamam huwa…” — Javed Akhtar

My friend Om
The famous chronicler of Calcutta, Nemai Ghosh, captures Patrick Swayze photographing fellow actors Om Puri and Shabana Azmi during the filming of City of Joy. The year is 1992.

By Shabana Azmi

I still remember the first time I saw Om Puri at Prithvi Theatre in the play Udhwast Dharamshala. It was a stellar performance. I rushed backstage and hugged him even though I’d never met him before. He was fond of relating that incident, namak mirch lagakar, of how he strutted around, his chest puffed up, because the reigning queen of parallel cinema ( his words not mine) had showered such affection on him.

A few months later, he rushed to greet me at some party, arms wide open in an anticipated embrace, when “the very same queen’’ dismissed him with a cold look and moved on, leaving him devastated!

“Poora confidence puncture ho gaya mera, aur uske baad main kabhi seena taan ke nahi chal paya! (My confidence was punctured, I was never able to walk with my chest puffed up ever again)” he would rue. I don’t remember the second incident but it made me laugh each time he narrated it.

I had the good fortune of doing 14 films with him. Many of them had long outdoor schedules during which it is easier to strike up friendships that last beyond the film’s completion. During the making of Shyam Benegal’s Susman, he chose to stay in a weaver’s hut in the village rather than at the hotel all of us were put up at. He learned how to weave, and wove me a beautiful Ikat dupatta which I still have.

While filming City of Joy, Roland Joffe and Patrick Swayze were amazed to find hordes of fans almost trampling over them to get a glimpse of Om Puri. Om and I would stand atop a truck with megaphones in our hands and plead with the crowds to make way for the unit to shoot. They would chant back, “Om-da aami tomake bhalo bashi” (Brother Om, we love you) and refuse to budge. Finally, we advised Roland that the only way we could shoot on the streets was to do away with all the paraphernalia, hide the camera in the car and let us out on the street, guerrillastyle. That’s how all the rickshaw-pulling shots were done.

Three months into the shoot, we got so sick of eating hotel food that we bought two tiffin boxes and made a pact that whoever went to a friend’s house for home-cooked food would get some packed for the other. We bonded over food big time.

When I was helping with the costumes of Mandi, I spotted a guy on a cycle wearing a garish shirt which I knew would suit Om’s character to the T. He happily wore it without the slightest fuss. What a sleaze ball he was in that film and played it with such relish, so different from the characters in Mrityudand or In Custody or many other films we worked in together.

Om wore his fame lightly, almost too lightly. The international recognition he achieved was more than any other Indian actor has received to date, but he never tom-tommed his success. I was thrilled when I learned he was going to work opposite Helen Mirren and called him up excitedly. He was pretty nonchalant about it, and it was not pretence… That’s who he was, not impressed with himself or his achievements.

He’d had a troubled childhood and been through some rough times, that’s what made him such an intense actor. He poured out every pain he’d experienced into the characters he played. There were some demons though that he couldn’t completely exorcise and in recent times, he was besieged by trouble on the personal front.

The world acknowledges Om Puri as an excellent dramatic actor. But few knew that comedy came easily to him. He had a sense of the absurd and was terrific in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Mandi and a stage play Bichchoo. Versatility is the true hallmark of an actor, and Om was truly versatile. He was at ease in both parallel and mainstream cinema and made a mark in international cinema too. He had so many years of creativity still left in him, aise kyun chale gaye aap, Omji?

“Rehne ko sada dehr mein aata nahi koi Tum jaise gaye aise bhi jaata nahi koi…”– Kaifi Azmi