“We miss him all the time.” That’s a sentiment that Om Puri’s widow Nandita, a journalist and their 19-year-old son Ishaan echo wistfully and repeatedly, while talking to Masala! about the veteran actor whose sudden demise at 66 earlier this year shook not just the Puri family but also Bollywood at large. We met the Puri family last month, days short of what would have been his 67th birthday (October 18).
He liked to keep his birthday low-key. “I remember his 50th birthday. He didn’t think it was any special,” says Nandita. He was a man of simple needs. “Until Naseeruddin Shah gifted him an Armani on his 50th birthday he was happy with his modest Titan watch,” she beams. In the following photo feature, Nandita and Ishaan sift through their family album to offer a glimpse of the private life of Om Puri, his friendships and desires and how in the end, he was just another man from humble beginnings and with unassuming looks who went on to become one of Indian cinema’s unlikeliest heroes.
“He didn’t have any unfulfilled desire. He had lived a good life,” says Nandita, also the author of Unlikely Hero, Puri’s biography. However, Puri, who spent his childhood in his maternal uncle’s farms in Patiala, Punjab, dreamt of moving to his farmhouse on Mumbai’s outskirts someday. “He loved gardening.”
Ishaan describes his relationship with his father as very open. “I could talk to Baba about anything,” he says, “But he would keep giving me some lecture or the other, which at times did bore me.” Ishaan admits that having an older dad, as compared to his friends’ fathers, was something he was initially embarrassed about. “Whenever I’d ask him to come down to play football he made an excuse about his knee pain while my friends who had younger dads played with their kids all the time.”
Puri, who artfully straddled the demands of commercial and art cinema, could juggle between an Ardh Satya and Mandi, Aastha and Chachi 420 and Hera Pheri and Dabangg. Though he was a product of the 1980s art cinema and honed his skills in theatre he never pursued the stage in later years. In fact, left the art-house cred for bit roles in mainstream Bollywood. Many sceptic observers felt he was wasting his talent away. But raised on the hard knocks of Govind Nihalani’s parallel cinema and Shyam Benegal’s frugal productions the actor was simply making up for lost commercial opportunities. As he liked to joke, “Art cinema gave me my bread but the butter, jam and Scotch came from commercial cinema!”
At his son’s 10th birthday: “Mom was a stricter one, so I’d always run to Baba. He spoiled me.”
Shyam Benegal, says Nandita, was her husband’s “moral, emotional and educational mentor.” The Benegal-Puri association produced such award-winning cinema as Kalyug, Mandi, Arohan and Susman. Benegal is also heading the Om Puri Foundation, founded recently by Nandita to keep her husband’s legacy alive.
“About two-three years ago,” Nandita recalls, “we had gone to the hospital to collect Om’s surgery reports. The doctors had asked him to quit smoking and drinking. Before collecting the reports, he was behaving all God-fearing. But once he opened the reports in the car and things looked fine, he took out a packet of cigarettes and started smoking!” Towards the end, the family reveals, he was drinking heavily. “I wanted to take him to a rehab,” says Ishaan, who, incidentally, had his own first drink on his 18th birthday with dad.
At their wedding in 1993. Om Puri was already married when he met Nandita, a journalist who had come to interview him in a hotel room. Filmmaker-cinematographer Govind Nihalani, the man behind Puri’s career-defining hits (Aakrosh, Ardh Satya and Tamas), was the unofficial photographer at the wedding.
With Tom Hanks on location in Morocco for Charlie Wilson's War. He played Zia-ul-Haq, the former Pakistani President.
Naseeruddin Shah, his co-star of Aakrosh, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and Maqbool, cradling Ishaan. “Naseer and Om were never rivals,” clarifies Nandita, “but each was envious of the other.”
“When Ishaan was three or four, his favourite actors were Amitabh Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan followed by Om Puri.” His logic being, “Hrithik acts and dances. Mr Bachchan whom he calls Buddy, acts, dances and sings. Baba only acts!”
With Steve Coogan in The Parole Officer, a 2001 British comedy. Following the success of East Is East in 1999, Puri became a staple in British television and films. “People recognised him on London streets as George Khan,” Nandita says, smiling. Of Pakistani origin, East is East’s George Khan was the typical South Asian found in the UK, with a confused sense of home and belonging. Played with customary flair by Om Puri, he’s the tyrannical father of teenage kids who want to embrace the English culture as espoused by their friends but are eventually done in by their father’s radical values – a classic clash of East and West.
Nandita dubbed him “food fixer,” for his ability to salvage a bad dish. Puri enjoyed cooking, rustling up what Ishaan calls “midnight sweet parathas.”