At the Press Club of India in Delhi, not long before he died, amiable actor Farooq Sheikh dropped by one night to promote one of his offbeat films made on a low budget with a young and unknown team. As we stood in the corridor, he crossed us, wearing a kurta, and with his typically sublime ‘Chashmebadoor’ look, gave us a smile and a twinkle of his endearing eyes. He was in his mid-60s, and looked hale and hearty. It was an endearing moment, because he was a much loved actor in every Indian household. We could never imagine that he would soon pass by, suddenly, also of heart attack, in Dubai, December 27, 2013. His famous television show, which marked a certain genius in an overwhelming realm of TV utter mediocrity, was, ironically and beautifully named: Jeena isika naam hain. Literally, it would mean, Life is like this only.
In his television show, where he made a synthesis of the deeply personal and the cinematic with anecdotes, surprise guest appearances from the past of the protagonist, and a spoofy and joyful commentary, he once invited another great, Naseeruddin Shah. In between the usual banter, in which Naseeruddin poked fun here and there at Bollywood, he invited Om Puri, who was in London. I still remember the dark, bitter satire in Om Puri’s voice: “In Bollywood, they distribute all the good roles among their relatives. We are left holding a knife, or a stethoscope.” That was enough uncanny caricature and bitter realism to make Naseeruddin burst out in laughter.
You should see the young pictures of both these actors, both of them from the National School of Drama in Delhi. Thin, wiry, unshaved, emaciated almost -- they looked like protagonists of a different planet – surely, they would never get a chance in ‘fair, chubby and lovely’ Bombay cinema. That Om Puri shacked up with Naseeruddin in his early and difficult struggling days in Mumbai, and that both of them broke all the prejudices and clichés of ‘good looks and chocolate heroes’ in Bollywood, symbolized the amazing heights which Indian parallel cinema reached in those eclectic and restless days of political and social rebellion and unrest in India.
Together, along with magnificent actresses like Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Deepa Sahi and Ratna Pathak, they marked a glorious symphony unparalleled in mainstream or parallel cinema. Indeed, they mainstreamed the parallel with their amazing versatility and talent. Indeed, the two, Om Puri and Naseeruddin, were cast together as ‘witches’ in Vishal Bhardwaj’s epic Maqbool, based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth; it was a masterstroke of a kind. They carried the roles in stunning synthesis, two witches in a dark symphony of brute genius. Among all others who are mourning, today will truly be one of the saddest days for his old theatre and cinema buddy: Nasseeruddin Shah.
I have met the great actor only once. And, yet, it seemed that I have known him for years, as if, he was embedded deep in our ‘cinematic consciousness’ like both, an everyday reality, and like a classical moment from an epic film. Sitting on the steps of India Habitat Centre’s guest house in Delhi many years ago, with a journalist, I told her: “Look, who is coming out of the car.” She became speechless. It was Om Puri, as simple and ordinary, and as solitary he can be. With no trappings of a celebrity.
We stood up. It was our spontaneous standing ovation to a living legend of Indian cinema and theatre, who, later, also outclassed himself in regional, Hollywood and Pakistani cinema. She said, “We are your fans.” We were speechless, face to face with the actor. He smiled, his rugged, humane and weather-beaten face becoming soft and humble. He stretched out his hand, met us warmly. “It is cold here,” he said, in that baritone, staccato, deep, deep throaty voice. He touched her jacket. “This is a nice jacket,” he said. “I have caught a cold here in this cold.”
His voice lingered on the steps. We, who never had any obsession with a celebrity, were overwhelmed. Today, in the morning, she called up, “Om Puri is dead.” She remembered that meeting. It was a sad and shocking morning. Year 2016, ended on a bad note. Year 2017 has already started on a bad note. John Berger died, great thinker and writer, whose heart was always beating for the oppressed and the deprived, from Latin America to Palestine, and whose every intellectual intervention was an attempt to liberate the mind and the soul, to create a better, equal and fulfilling world, without injustice.
In recent times, some of the finest have passed by, people we knew and cherished for their humanism, progressive politics and great scholarship and writings: Journalists Vinod Mehta, Praful Bidwai, Girish Nikam. Earlier, a legend of our times in cinema and literature, UR Ananthamurthy passed by. He had earlier said in a moment of angst and anger: If Narendra Modi is elected prime minister, I will leave India. He left the world.
Among the several extraordinary films Om Puri made with Shyam Benegal and other filmmakers, there are two films which broke all boundaries of the image of anti-hero, and pitched the dark political underside of the Indian reality right up-front, with absolute transparency. These arthouse films became big mainstream successes. They were directed by one of the finest cinematographer and directors in Indian cinema, Govind Nihalani. Made in the early 1980s, in the post-Emergency and post-Naxalite movement era, it reflected the crumbling edifice of an unequal, ugly and brutish Indian democracy, which seemed to have betrayed all the ideals of the freedom movement.
‘Aakrosh’ and ‘Ardh Satya’, marked a turning point, in its suppressed anger, angst and rebellion, and the helplessness and tragedy which went into the unmaking of India’s young democracy. It also celebrated the volcanic explosion of eclectic rebellion, especially of the marginalized, the exiled and the condemned, like a society being ripped apart in full public view, whereby the brutalistation of the Indian political and justice system seemed to have reached its zenith. From the silent and speechless adivasi, whose eyes and face spoke with infinite suffering and anger, to the volatile and brooding cop who takes on the diabolical and dirty symbols of society, these two Nihalani films with Om Puri in lead (along with Smita Patil) broke the thresholds which divided parallel and commercial cinema. They became household names, acclaimed as great actors, throwing the nasty truth at the face of a society steeped in false consciousness and deception, even as the wheels of hunger, oppression and injustice rolled on.
In this genre, it is difficult to forget Om Puri in that short work of genius in black and white, etched on the screen by another master, Satyajit Ray of Bengal. Based on a classic by progressive writer and literary giant, Munshi Premchand, ‘Sadgati’ translated the infinite tragedy of a Dalit peasant, trapped in the shackles of a brutal caste society. Om Puri was made for the role, even as he cut wood, like the myth of Sisyphus, eternally condemned, without a pause.
Pakistani journalist and peace activist Beena Sarwar interviewed Pakistani director Nabeel Querishi in September 2016. His second film, ‘Actor in Law’ starred the veteran Indian actor He said, “The experience of working with Om Puriji was like a dream come true. Getting a chance to work with such a legendary actor in just my second film is an honour for not just me but all the co-actors as well. He is very humble, down-to-earth and very professional. I always considered him as an international actor, and not just a Bollywood actor.”
Those who have seen Om Puri with another superb actress, Helen Mirren, in ‘The Hundred-Foot Journey’ directed by Lasse Hallstrom, will testify to his international status. Indeed, directed by Damien O’Donnel, ‘East is East’, where he plays a Pakistani Muslim patriarch living in Britain, is a classic of its own kind. No one else but Om Puri could have lived and translated these characters with such pulsating realism on screen.
Om Puri worked across the language spectrum in India: From Malayalam to Punjabi, Kannada and Marathi films. From Shyam Benegal’s historic television series based on Jawaharlal Nehru’s book, ‘Discovery of India’, to Bhishm Sahni’s ‘Tamas’, to sundry commercial movies, this journey was still unfolding. That it was cut short by a heart attack, is a reminder of both the fragility and ephemerality of life.
Good people die early, as the saying goes. Here was not only a good man who walked on earth and on celluloid, he was also a genius craftsman of word, silence and image, mixing imagination and realism, brilliance and simplicity, like a documentary film becoming fiction, and vice versa.
Writes documentary filmmaker Rakesh Sharma in a post on facebook (his film, ‘Final Solution’ on the Gujarat Genocide, too, is a classic): “So many memories, especially from the rather intense couple of years we spent together on ‘Discovery of India’ in the late 1980s. I am unable to believe Om is no more, that I'll never hear his baritone bellowing ‘Kaise Hain Panditji’ or, feel his warm bear hug again! I'm too overwhelmed now to recount any memories or share anecdotes. Rest in peace, Om. The incredible legacy of your work will live on.