‘I’m not a wife writing a eulogy’

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Nandita Puri tells  Tiya Tejpal what led her to hazard her daringly frank book

Crafted years
A light moment having just left FTII

You describe Om Puri’s meagre upbringing and his traumatic experiences with language. Did your backgrounds clash?
Om comes from a lower middle class, mainly rural, northern background. There was a lot of poverty in his life. I’m from an urban life in Calcutta. Very English. Very ‘convent’. Om dealt with a lot of culture shock when he started at FTII. He even spoke Hindi like Punjabi. He could hardly speak any English. Language was the main thing that kept him away.

Kept him away from?
From socialising. He wanted to run away from NSD. He was very inhibited. Ebrahim Alkazi encouraged Om to improve his English. He told him to read the newspaper aloud in front of the mirror, even if he didn’t understand. He made the effort and by the end of third year, he was much more confident.

He’s been a survivor.
His childhood is fascinating. It was the story of his childhood that prompted me to write the biography. We all have our unique childhood. Why would we want to read about Om Puri’s? Because of the incredible journey.

What is it about Om that helped him make this journey so successfully?
I think the immense poverty he encountered. His father didn’t have a regular job. He learnt to survive those odds. With his background, one couldn’t dream of being an actor, leave alone going to NSD. He started working early, giving tuitions, as a lab assistant, in theatre – just to earn enough to follow his dream.

A still from Gandhi

What moved him towards acting as a career?
As a child, he wanted to join the army. During the 1971 war, he would admire the army officers walking around. He loved the applause, the victory. I think it is the sound of clapping. It triggered Om’s love for fame.

What are his shortcomings?
None, really. He hasn’t trampled on anyone. He’s been focused and dedicated. He wanted to be an actor. Today, he is one of the stalwarts of Indian cinema, someone who stuck to acting, despite people asking him to direct. He knows what he is capable of and has honed that skill. He knows his shortcomings if he were to turn into a director. He hasn’t deviated from acting just because he can.

How did you deal with the taboo of being with a married man?
I didn’t want to fall in love with a married man. I was very young. But then, there were obviously shortcomings in his marriage. He insisted; so we carried on. There was a spark. Despite him being married, there was something sincere about him. I did question whether it was worth it.

Has it been worth it?
I think so (laughs).

Have either of you been in touch with his ex-wife?
No. She is still very bitter.

Sporting a beard with Naseer for Mrinal Sen’s Genesis

What about his much debated relationship with Naseer. Who are the other important figures for him?
They have a blow hot, blow cold relationship. They love and hate each other. Both feel closer to each other than their own brothers. There is a healthy jealousy. Om looks up to Shyam Benegal as a mentor. We call him “Encyclopaedia.” He’s built up this whole aura around Shyam babu. Anything he’s stuck about, he’ll first call Shyam.

What about his politics?
He is a right-wing socialist. We did a mashaal march when they tried to cut up the trees outside our house.

Many of Om Puri’s roles illuminate the inequalities in India. Most stories like his end in disappointment.
I think Om really feels that. Initially, I felt he was unduly kind, but now I have become more understanding towards people. Earlier, I thought we all know about poverty. When Om would be very generous I’d ask, ‘Why are you giving so much bhao (importance)?’ He’d say he gives biscuits or money to little boys because he too used to look forward to that little roti.

‘Language kept him away from socialising. He was told to read the newspaper aloud in front of the mirror’

You’ve described Om’s first sexual experience vividly. How do you think Indians interact with sexuality?
Indians are chhupa rustams. I think every Indian has had a sexual experience like Om’s. But everyone will deny it.

Did you hold back anything?
Yes, I guess so. I’m used to profiling people, but it’s different as a wife. Even though I did reveal a lot, I did have to hold a little back. At first, he was very apprehensive. He was not very keen that I do the biography. He had asked me to do it in the beginning when I was a young journalist interviewing him. He was just conspiring to spend more time with me. Once I became his wife, he didn’t need such ploys. Later on, it was my decision. Om is constantly talking, so in a way it is more like an autobiography than a biography. I’m saying all the things Om has been meaning to say all these years.

‘One of   Om’s women said he was like an onion with so many layers. I wish i’d been there to see that dynamism’

Did Om try to influence it? You even present yourself from his viewpoint.
This is a biography of Om, not my perspective of him. For me, this is the story of Om Puri, what he stood by and what he represents; that is what I had to capture. Somewhere I had to bring myself in. I knew people are going to expect a certain honesty. I respect my bluntness and forthrightness. I’m not a wife who’s writing a eulogy. I thought that if I’m going to open up his life, I might as well open up mine.

How was the revelation process? Did you feel left out of the journey?
Except one, his ex-girlfriends refused to talk. I would’ve liked their perspective too. One said Om was an onion with so many layers to peel off. I wish I’d been around earlier to see that dynamism.

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