It took me a while to sit down to write this piece. There is something of a tendency for people who have had a single encounter with a celebrity – who have coincidentally sat next to him through a flight journey, for instance – to write tributes when the celebrity is no more. And, in reading those tributes, one is left with a sense of annoyance at someone claiming insight from that one encounter.
I did not want to be that person.
But in a month during which so much else has happened that I would typically want to write about – the horrendous mass molestation of women in Bangalore, the farmer suicides in Tamil Nadu, the attacks on people for not standing up for the national anthem, the protests against jallikattu – I find myself constantly revisiting a glimpse I had of Om Puri through three evenings in his company.
The death of artists is unique in that they leave behind everything that made them artists – their work, through which most of us accessed them and knew them and loved them, remains immortalised. The sense of loss we feel is less for the person than for the work that they would have created in the years left to them.
There are those for whom the loss is visceral – friends who had known them for years, even decades; family, who had seen dimensions of them that were hidden from the public.
But then, there is a third category that defies classification – those who neither knew them nor were strangers to them; they are those who are afforded a peek into the person behind the persona or personas.
The Om Puri whom a few of us met through three evenings in Raipur was a funny, considerate, joyful man – the sort of man who makes one relive the conversations one had with him over and over again; the sort of man whose likeability must be shared with the world.
I met him under the strangest of circumstances. I cannot claim to know him. Chances are that he would have forgotten me and most of the other people in the group with which he was hanging out.
Two of my friends from school and I had met more than a decade after we had passed out, and decided to go on a road trip. One of them had volunteered with various wildlife conservation organisations, and at his instance we decided to travel to Raipur for a conference on the conservation of elephants in Chhattisgarh.
After having driven more than a thousand kilometres in under 24 hours, we washed up at the guest house, exhausted. I was not entirely sure I wasn’t hallucinating when I saw Om Puri in the lift. It wasn’t a doppelganger, though. It turned out he regularly came to wildlife conferences as a special guest, offering his support through the publicity his presence would bring.
That first evening, he held a press conference. At the time, his film Dirty Politics was due to release, and while he was willing to answer questions about the film, he insisted that the presser would be about the conference for which he was in Raipur. I watched as he effortlessly steered the questions towards the event. The reporters tried to steer them back towards Om Puri. He smiled broadly and responded with comebacks that were both pointed and funny.
That was the last evening we met Om Puri the actor.
Through the two days of the conference, he was Om Puri the man. He sat through every speech and every presentation, keeping the audience bound to the seats by his presence.
When the representatives of tribes who had been invited to speak wandered off into rhetoric, he would intervene by walking up on to the dais and adding a one-liner that effectively ended the speech.
“Beta,” he said to one, “You clearly have a lot to say. We’ll organise a conference just for you one day. For now, let’s also give other people a chance.”
The audience burst into laughter, the speaker grinned sheepishly, and Om Puri led him off.
The day the conference ended, the college students who had attended wanted pictures with him. He pulled faces for the selfies, and finally said, “Bhai, let’s take a group photo and be done with it.” The students crowded around him, and he looked around. He mounted a high chair and sat on its backrest, improvising a throne for himself. When the photographer asked, “Ready, sir?”, he held up his hand to indicate that he should wait, reached out for the long braids of two girls sitting at a handy distance, held them as if they were reins and glared at the camera.
The last evening, and the last time I was to meet Om Puri, was one I will treasure. My volunteer friend showed up at our door, laughing.
“Om Puri’s asking for you girls,” he said, “He asked me to bring both my girlfriends.”
We rolled our eyes.
“I told them you weren’t,” he added, “But then, he said, ‘They’re girls, right? They’re your friends, right? Yes? So that’s what I said"
It was the hoariest of jokes. But, as I was to shortly learn, Om Puri’s timing was so precise as to extract the punch out of every line he spoke, and bring freshness to lines that had been spoken a thousand times before.
“Apple juice?” Om Puri asked, holding up a glass of whiskey as we went to his room. Most of the speakers from the conference were in the room. We joined them on the sofas.
Om Puri looked around, and said, “Now, I feel like I have yet another press conference to give. Why are all of you on one side, staring at me like that? Come, you come here; you go there. Now sit around me. And someone sing.”
One of the attendees, a local reporter, was a gifted singer.
“What are you doing writing stories in Raipur? Come to Bombay with me tomorrow,” he said, “Sing for movies.” Everyone laughed. “No, I’m serious.”
Encouraged, a second guest began to sing. Once he finished his song, to polite applause, he offered to sing another.
“Beta, you don’t sing here,” Om Puri said, “You go to your house, go to the bathroom, close the door, and sing there.” He then turned to me, “You South Indian girls start singing from when you’re kids, right? You sing a song in your language.”
“No, sir, you’ll ask me to lock myself in a garage and sing,” I said.
Om Puri laughed. “No one can sing worse than I do. Gaana sunaao, beta. Tamil mein?”
“Aap apple juice pilaaoge tau main Tamil mein kya, Punjabi mein hi gaana sunaaoongi,” I said, in my brand of broken Hindi.
He reached out to high-five me. But the reference to Punjabi gaana had made him forget both his request and the ‘apple juice’, to my combined relief and disappointment.
“When Naseeruddin Shah and I were in NSD,” he said, “We had to sing in the final examination. Neither of us could sing a note and the teachers decided not to listen to two donkeys braying twice over. So they asked us to sing together. And this is the song we chose, the most tuneless of all songs.”
He went on to sing a Punjabi folk song.
“Now that we’re all drinking,” he said, though not all of us had a glass in hand, “It’s time for shaayiris.”
He went on to recite the Urdu couplets from memory. And all that was magical about him, about his presence on screen and stage, came alive again.
Having grown up in a non-Hindi-speaking culture, I had first encountered Om Puri on screen through his crossover films, starting with East is East. It was only later that I recognised him as the arresting Nahari from Gandhi, which I had watched in my childhood. It was even later that I watched the films for which he was most famous, the films that heralded the new wave, alternate cinema.
“I always speak my brand of English,” he said, suddenly, “Why hide what you are? Why try to be someone else? I’m a Punjabi. And this is how this Punjabi speaks. I’m not enamoured of the countries I go to. I’ve done more than twenty films in different countries. But I go on the day before the shoot and return when it finishes. When you’re on vacation, be on vacation. When you’re there for work, work.”
As the evening slipped into the night, we all spoke a lot more easily. The celebrity was no longer addressing the room. He had personal conversations with groups of two or three people. It was apparent he trusted easily. It was also apparent he treasured his privacy. That was an inconvenient combination, I thought.
Suddenly, he asked the three of us in his sonorous voice, “How long have you been driving?”
He had spoken during a lull in conversation, and everyone in the room turned to look.
“Seven years,” a friend said.
“Five,” said another.
He turned to me and cupped a hand over his year.
“Since I was eighteen,” I said.
“How many years is that?”
“That depends on how old I am now,” I said. I’ve always stopped short of revealing my age.
“Beta,” Om Puri said, “I’m weak in English and Maths both. Show me your licence.”
Everyone laughed. He held out his hand and scowled. I obediently dug into my purse and showed him my licence.
“Theek hai,” he said, after scrutinising it, “But I have a better idea than for you three to drive back. Sell the car here, and fly back.”
In the wee hours of the morning, we began to say our goodbyes.
The last thing I would hear Om Puri say was a Hindi sentence I cannot recall except in translation – “This girl keeps twirling her hair aise aise aise; it reminds me of those men with big moustaches who keep twisting the ends.”
“Shaayad main mard hota thha tau waise hi karta rehta thha,” I said.
“Kya, kya, kya?” he said, laughing, swatted my shoulder as one would do to a precocious child, and then high-fived me again. He gave each of us a warm hug, and then told my friend, “Tell someone when you and your girlfriends reach home.”
At a time when his name is in the papers for all the wrong reasons, and articles come out in the media every day with speculations on the circumstances of his death, I want to remember those three evenings, when my friends and I drove away with memories of his voice, his kindness, his timing, his mastery of humour, and his warmth.
Halfway to Madras, it struck us that we had forgotten to capture our encounter with the customary selfie. Somehow, today, that makes it all the more special.
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