Om Puri is universally regarded one of India’s greatest actors but few know that the man behind the mask didn’t take himself or his own celebrity too seriously, or that he was funny, unassuming and loved a practical joke as much as anyone else.

BY ROHAN GUPTA

My earliest memory of Om Puri is answering the doorbell for him one early morning in Calcutta (as it was known then). There he stood in a dirty worn out white vest with a red gamcha over his shoulder, hair dishevelled, face unwashed and scruffy with stubble. I remember opening the door, taking one look and announcing nonchalantly that Om Uncle was here.

His shock and dismay that a child barely five years old had seen through his elaborate costume was instant. A loud litany of colourful language—featuring the choicest Punjabi and Haryanvi—was unleashed in my direction, leaving all of us squealing with laughter.

Om Uncle was in the city to prepare for the filming of City of Joy (1992), and was spending time getting into the character of Hazari Pal by pulling a rickshaw through the streets. Unbeknownst to him, mere minutes before the doorbell rang, his new avatar had been revealed to us courtesy an article in The Telegraph. After many more jokes were cracked about the way he looked, and breakfast consumed, we were taken downstairs to our awaiting chariot, and he proceeded to take us on my most memorable rickshaw ride.

As he pulled all four of us (I still don’t know how we fitted) through Ballygunge into more busy thoroughfares like Phadi and Hazra, he would weave and negotiate traffic like a pro who had been doing this for much longer than he had. Naturally, the ride was littered with humorous commentary, and the banter between him and my father non-stop. If he appeared to get a little tired and slowed down, my dad didn’t hesitate to prod him with his foot; if we came too close for comfort to a turning vehicle he would be yelled at in the crudest Haryanvi to ring his bell (the euphemisms are lost in translation). At the end of our ride, he was paid 20 rupees and off he went, taking one production assistant he had come with.

The small crowd gathered outside our building who wanted to see for themselves if Om Puri was around was not convinced that it could have been him. He would come home now and then during the remainder of the shoot, not for any more rickshaw rides, but for a home cooked meal and laughter.

For us, he was no famous actor, he was always just Om Uncle, and I suspect that’s why he loved spending time with us.

***

I don’t actually remember the first time I met Om Uncle. But the earliest memory I have of him is the rickshaw incident. I had obviously known who he was, because I remember opening the door and saying, “Om Uncle is here”.

My mom used to work with him on this television project for Doordarshan called Raag Darbari. She was in advertising those days, and she used to work as a producer. They were shooting in Lucknow for a really long time, and they became good friends. He used to tease her over being the producer and getting to stay in a better hotel. So he’d make her bring him packed sandwiches.

Om Uncle always liked to surprise us when he was in town. On the rare occasions we knew to expect him for dinner, it was because he had telephoned (at a time he knew none of us would be home) our cook to inform her, and to go over the menu. There were many occasions when he would call her and have her send him food to his hotel or to set, and others when we would return home from a family outing only to realise he had showed up in our absence, eaten dinner, taken the leftovers and gone back to his hotel, leaving a laughing cook behind but no dinner for us. “Arrey bou di, Om sahaab aaya tha, shab khaana leke chalaagaya (Bhabhi, Om Sahib had come, and left with all the food),” she would say between giggles.

He and my dad really got along, because dad’s family is from Bhiwani. So Om Uncle and my dad would speak Punjabi-Haryanvi to each other. He would call up randomly because he’d got a good joke. He’d go, “Arrey, tauuuu…”—he called my dad “tau”—and he’d proceed to tell him the most vulgar, dirty Haryanvi joke he’d got and then both of them would erupt into laughter. And then my dad would try to outdo him, and it would go on for a while.

***

When we moved to Chennai, he would still get in touch and come to visit us. By then, I had grown up enough to appreciate his work; I’d seen a lot more of his films, and really begun to admire him as an actor.

My first memory of seeing him on screen was in this old TV movie about Gautam Buddh, and he was Anguli Mal in that, the guy who goes from being a villain to a disciple. And I used to be terrified of him, till I found out that that was Om Uncle. Then the illusion sort of broke. And my friends would also be terrified of him, and I used to reassure them and say, “No, no, it’s okay, that’s my uncle.”

I remember seeing Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), but then it was watching films like Ardh Satya (1983) in my teens that made me discover what an insanely good actor he was.

I’d known very early on that I wanted to be involved in the performing arts, maybe right since I was four. I always liked impersonating people. I used to be part of children’s theatre groups.

Right from when I was 11 or 12 years old, I used to talk to Om Uncle about performance and acting. And the one thing he used to always tell me, every time I asked him for advice back then was, “Make sure you finish your studies. And that doesn’t mean just school. Make sure you go to college, get a degree, because education is the most important thing you can do for yourself.” I guess he was a little worried because in those days, it was very normal for kids to drop out and then join Bollywood. But he was very adamant about this. He would say, “I won’t even talk to you seriously about acting until you finish your studies.”

Of course, being a kid in India, I would get to perform for him, like all kids are asked to do for friends and family. My mom would go, “Ohhhhh, show him what you can do!” and so I would always have to play the piano for him or imitate people. So eventually I used to just make jokes about my mother in front of him. And he used to love it, because he used to love humour like that.

For him, it was the funniest thing if you could laugh at yourself. That also taught me a lot about laughing at myself, being funny, and not taking everything too seriously—he never took himself too seriously, ever, as far as I know.

This was revealed to me much later, when some years on, when I was in Class 11 or 12, he was in Chennai shooting a Priyadarshan movie. Salman and Kareena were in it, but I don’t remember the name of the film. I do remember that the shoot was in AVM studios. I was in school then, so I told the girl who used to run the Sishya school magazine that I could get her an interview with Om Puri, and it would be good for our magazine.

So I called him up to ask if we could come, and he said “Of course” and invited us for lunch to the set. We went into his vanity van and he shared his lunch with us. Then, my friend began the interview. I’d had to make sure she would ask him questions that would befit a man of his stature and not just stupid school kid questions. I remember one of the questions I had put into her list was, “You’ve worked with directors in the past like Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal. Tell us a little about the modern directors now. What do you feel has changed?”

And very quickly, he just turned around, and without batting an eyelid looked straight at my friend and said, “Which directors do you mean?” and she obviously hadn’t done her homework, so she didn’t know what to say. And I had to jump in and say, “Well, you did Lakshya (2004) with Farhan Akhtar and you did this film with so-and-so” and he said, “Yeah, that’s okay.”

When he started talking about these films, we discovered that he’s hardly watched any of the movies he’s been in. He must have been in something like 700 movies, and he’s watched a handful of them! Lakshya was perhaps on this list. I remember I had called him up after watching it and told him, “I really enjoyed your performance”, and he said, “Oh, I was good? I haven’t seen it.”

That was the kind of attitude he had to himself, to his work. He was very clear that work was work, and that you must keep working, and he was very clear that he needed to make money—he knew that his place in the industry wasn’t as secure as that of a Shah Rukh or a Salman, a leading actor, and he knew that he had to depend on whatever he could get to continue doing what he was doing and keeping himself happy and supporting his family.

***

I went on to study theatre in the US, and after college, I had to apply for an artist’s visa in 2011. We went to his house in Mumbai, and he wrote a recommendation letter for my visa interview, and that helped me a lot.

My mom would always keep him informed about what I was doing. I would often get a message through her or directly from him. When I started working with Mira Nair (in 2010), he said, “I’m proud of you.”

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with him on The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012) by Mira Nair. I was working on casting extras for the Delhi schedule. But I had no idea Om Uncle was in the film until I went to Delhi. And then I heard, and I was so excited, so delighted to learn he would be playing Changez’s (Riz Ahmed) father—a role that so perfectly suited him.

On his first day at the set, I remember being nervous as I walked up to his trailer—it had been well over a decade since I had last seen him, I was now in my twenties; would he remember me? As he stepped out of his trailer, all I had to say was, “Om Uncle, it’s Rohan” and he pulled me into a hug and demanded I get my mother on the phone. He then berated her about my hair being too long, my beard too scruffy and said I was far too skinny to call myself a Punjabi or Haryanvi. To the rest of my colleagues who had no idea I knew him, or that he was being funny, this was the most stupefying sight.

We spent a few good days together on set, and I even ended up in a scene with him. It was the last scene of the film, a funeral scene, and I had over a hundred extras to supervise. It was ridiculously early in the morning and we were shooting in the middle of nowhere—quite literally in the middle of a field—in rural Uttar Pradesh.

The shoot was long—there were a lot of rituals to film, including a funeral procession which was taking forever. The last sequences we shot were Changez’s eulogy, followed by the recitation of an Urdu poem by Om Uncle. The idea was that the crowd would join in at the end of the poem, and so I had taught it and rehearsed it with my extras the day before, and they all knew it well.

Om Uncle hadn’t had the time we had, and there was always one word which would trip him up: “sutwaan”. Somehow he would always fumble on this one word, or if he got it right, fumble the next line. He could feel the crowd around him getting restless and he defused the tension instantly by coming up with a song featuring the word that was so irritating. Instantly the cast and crew erupted into loud laughter. The very next take, he nailed the entire poem, and did it once more “for love” as Mira says. At the end of his second successful take, he asked politely if he could try it one last time.

What followed is one of the reasons I have the greatest respect for this man. Instead of launching into his poem for this last take, he made a speech in which he—with his trademark humour—begged forgiveness from the crowd for having not been as prepared as he would have liked. It was laden with self-deprecating humour which acknowledged how frustrating it must have been for them to listen to his “horrible” voice over and over again.

***

I always called him “Om Uncle”, even on the set—he could never be anything else. Thankfully, when I had to work with him in a professional capacity, I was in charge of a completely different department. Our worlds were different on set, and we would only meet in a personal capacity. We would have our meals together, just sit and talk nonsense when there was nothing to do.

Of course, we talked about the difference between the west and the east in the way work was approached, the way filmmaking was approached. Om Uncle said he always admired the professionalism and the respect that people had for one another while working in the west. He said, “I make it a point never to be late to work, and yet I’m always waiting for other people to show up. I will always be on time, irrespective of the fact that I’m not going to be working for the next two hours.” He always had that ethic and that drive.

Even when he was staying in a hotel, he would make sure he never took more than what was owed to him from production. He would arrive in the country just when he had to for the schedule, and leave as soon as he was done. He would not use room service. He would not touch the mini-bar. Anything he wanted, he would arrange to buy outside. He never had hang-ups about what treatment his stature merited. You would not hear “I deserve this” or “I need this” or “Hold an umbrella for me”. He never needed any extra attention on the set. He was very happy sitting by himself, reading his script, and making notes.

He was always making notes, always, in the script—acting notes, what to do in the scene, things that came to his mind, choices he may want to make as an actor in the moment. He had shown me those a very long time ago, when I was a kid. Even in those days, working for Hindi movies, he used to insist on a script where possible—and a script in the screenplay format, with blank spaces on the side so he could make notes in the margins. And in those days, it was difficult for Hindi movies to provide a script.

The last time I saw him also had to do with a script. I was working as an associate producer on a feature film that was being made by a first-time filmmaker in New York. I’d been sent to Mumbai for fundraising and to market the film-in-development.

We had always wanted Om Puri to be the father character—an NRI father not very different from his character in East is East (1999) in terms of the background, but not as conservative and crazy; more funny, in fact. So I called him and said, “I’m working on this film, and we’d love to have you be a part of it and I want to come give you the script” and he said, “Arrey, what script? For you, I’ll do it.” And I started laughing and said, “No! I want to come there and I want to give you the script, and you can decide whether it’s worth your time.”

That was my last face-to-face interaction with him, maybe in 2013, in Mumbai. After that, we would speak now and then. He had become a bit of a recluse by then—he didn’t like meeting people too much, didn’t want to keep in touch except with close friends. My mom was one of those friends.

***

I heard about what happened first from friends—I started getting messages about Om Uncle. Then, I saw the news and went, “Oh, shit.”

It is all very sad, because he had so much of his life ahead of him, so much more work to give us.

And, of course, on a personal level I was sad that I had lost a mentor and that I would never get to work with him again. My dream was always to direct him in something, and that won’t happen now.

I will always remember what a clown he was. Some years ago, when my brother got married, he was supposed to come for the wedding. But he missed his flight from Chandigarh. So he called me up and said, “I’m very sorry, but there’s no other flight from Chandigarh to Madras. Why do you live in Madras? Keep the wedding here in Delhi. I’ll come to Delhi.” And this was on the day of the wedding. And so I said, “I wish, Om Uncle, but I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do now. It’s the day of the wedding.”

Thanks for all the laughter, Om Uncle—we’ll keep laughing when we remember you.

Rohan Gupta is an actor and filmmaker based in New York

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