by Shevlin Sebastian
On a moonlit night on the beach at Kovalam, some years ago, actor Om Puri was dressed casually in a bright orange T-shirt and khaki Bermuda shorts. He had come to attend a literary festival where his wife Nandita read extracts from her biography of him.
Om was at ease, as guests milled around him. Seeing his down-to-earth manner it was difficult to believe that he was, as veteran American film critic Michael Sragow said, ‘the greatest living actor today.’
A day later, at the poolside of the Taj Green Cove, smoking a cigarette with relish, Om talked at length about his life.
In the early seventies, at the Khalsa College, in Patiala, during a drama competition, Om was acting in a Punjabi play called ‘Anhonee’. The judges were Harpal and Nina Tiwana from the National School of Drama (NSD). “They gave me the best actor award,” says Om.
The Tiwanas invited him to join their troupe, the Punjab Kala Manch. But he did not have any free time. During the day he worked as a lab assistant in the college, while he attended classes in the evening. Harpal said, “How much do you get paid for your job?”
When Om replied that his salary was Rs 125, Harpal said he would give Rs 150. Om joined at once. “Acting was my passion, so I had no problem in saying yes,” he says.
Om remained with the troupe for three years, acting in plays all over Punjab. Thereafter, following a stint at the NSD at Delhi, and the Film and Television Institute of India at Pune, Om moved to Mumbai in 1976 and played bit roles, before Govind Nihalini cast him in ‘Aakrosh’ in 1981. Then came Satyajit Ray’s ‘Sadgati’, before he got the role of Sub-Inspector Anant Velankar in ‘Ardh Satya’ in 1983.
“It was the biggest turning point in my life,” he says. “When I read the script by [Marathi playwright] Vijay Tendulkar, I said, ‘Wow’. I could totally identify with the character: the political interference, the pervasive corruption, and the way it damages the soul.”
When the film was released it became a hit. Thereafter, he acted in several movies. Looking back, Om said, "For me, the real hard-hitting cinema was between the 1980s and 1990s where Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Basu Chatterjee, Mrinal Sen and Gulzar made some remarkable films.” he says.
Om’s next big break came when he was cast as Hasari Pal, the rickshaw-puller in the Roland Joffe film, ‘City of Joy’ in 1990. Following the release, he received worldwide critical acclaim. “It opened a big window of opportunity for me in the West,” he said. Om acted in several Western films, including ‘My Son the Fanatic’, ‘East is East,’ 'Parole Officer' and ‘Wolf’.
Along the way, Om has won numerous awards, like the Padma Shree, the Karlovy Vary award and the Order of the British Empire in 2004. His filmography runs to over 200 films.
More recently, he featured in Bollywood films like 'Ghayal Once Again' and 'Mirzya'. His distinct baritone was used as the voice of black panther Bagheera in the Hindi version of the Hollywood film, 'The Jungle Book'.
Unfortunately, on the personal front, things were not hunky-dory. In 2013, Nandita filed a domestic violence case against him. They separated, leaving him with only visitation rights to their son, Ishaan.
Asked to explain his philosophy of life he said, “The other day a dear friend of mine passed away. As I stared at his body, a thought came to me: ‘He has two hands, two eyes, two legs, a nose, a brain, and hair. He has everything, and yet something was missing. Why is he not moving? Why is he not talking?'”
Om became silent and stared into the distance. Then he finally said, “The spirit is missing. What is life? It is so fragile. We are at the mercy of a power in the universe. So let us stop boasting, and become humble.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)