When the news first hit me that Om has passed away, I was hurled into my past, and memories of those enchanting days spent with him in my apartment in Bandra, in the early ‘80s, began to flicker on the screen of my mind. Those were the best of times for Om and me.
Both of us had made a spectacular impact on the conscious of the nation and the film industry. He, with Aakrosh (1980) and me, with Arth (1982). We would spend hours at my place, talking passionately about art, life, cinema and the political situation. One thing, which I remember distinctly, was that he would always delay eating food which was warmed and say ‘let’s have this food after the one last drink.’ That was one detail that comes back to me. Little did I know then that the alcohol he innocently consumed in those days, which I gave up 28 years ago, and he couldn’t, will ultimately contribute to his sudden death.
Om Puri was an extraordinary actor, something that everybody in India and South Asia sees because he had done such exceptional of roles. He was the one who deconstructed this narrative that if you want to be a part of Bollywood, you need a certain kind of physiology, a kind of look. There was a time doors were shut on people who were not fair skinned and not good looking. Om just smashed that narrative, and just proclaimed to the nation that if you have talent, you can become a force in the industry and enjoy your share of applause.
We both got very successful and obviously, with this success, we drifted away. I tried to involve him in some of my movies but it didn’t happen because of multiple reasons. But I ran into him years later at the Bite the Mango film festival in 2004, which was held in Bradford, UK. This Om Puri was now head and shoulders above the Om Puri, which Mumbai, Bollywood and India knew. This was an internationally acknowledged and recognised actor because the kind of reception that the people of Bradford - the racial community, English people who had their origins in Asia, from Pakistan and India - were just mesmerised by his presence. He would evoke some tremendous response by his presence and I was stunned to see the kind of level of stardom on an international plane. That was when we spent considerable amount of time in each other’s company.
He was sane enough to deal with heightened popularity and whatever was around him, sanely. Then I ran into him in Karachi at the Kara Film Festival where we were fascinated by what we saw. A show was put up by young girls and boys of Pakistan who had invited Indian actors, and there was an attempt to kick-start cultural and people to people kind of relationship via performing arts. That was something, which was imbibed in him and that remained in him. He firmly believed that irrespective of the highs or lows, and blow hot, blow cold relationships between the two countries, the civil societies and the artistic community must do everything to keep their relationship intact because the actors, writers, filmmakers and music people have a right to dream of a South Asia where the problem between two nations are resolved not through the bullets but dialogue. So this is what he firmly believed in.
What I really salute him for is that he was perhaps the solitary voice when the winds of hatred were blowing through our country post the terror attacks in Uri, where he had without mentioning this word, made a certain stand clear. Maybe he said things, which were politically incorrect and sounded bizarre, but in the heart of that or what was perceived by the world as an obnoxious utterance, was an artist who was saying that let us dare to live in the land of Gandhi and the ideology he left us with. That was all he was doing to articulate, but the manner in which he did it upset a lot of people.
While Om Puri remains to the world an extraordinary actor, I particularly am a great admirer of his voice. When I first saw him on screen in Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh and then Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), he remains a larger-than-life man because he dared to talk about a world where the human problems can be resolved without using the butt end of the gun but through dialogue and a sane discourse, and that made him very special for me.
He was an amazing guy who came from Haryana and carved a place for himself, changed the rules of the game of an inward looking industry, which had closed its doors to certain kind of people. He has contributed in deconstructing the old way of thinking and paved the way for younger generation, which is now reaping the fruits of what he had perhaps sown through his innumerable films in which he acted.
With the passing away of Om Puri, as I said in my tweet, a part of me has also gone. A part of me is also dead or rather buried because with people who leave you suddenly, the memories connected with them are also under fire.