Om Puri was an arts student in Khalsa College, Patiala, when local thespian Harpal Tiwana was invited there to judge a talent fest. For an hour, as Puri took stage in a Punjabi play, Tiwana was awestruck, and later invited him to join his theatre group, Punjab Kala Manch. That proved to be turning point, though it almost did not happen.
“Om was initially hesitant in joining the group as he used to work as a lab assistant too at the college at Rs 100 per month, and didn’t want to leave that job,” Tiwana’s wife, Neena Tiwana, recounted. “But my husband was adamant. He used to tell me, ‘This boy has the gift of a powerful voice and strong observation skills that can propel him to the skies.’ Finally, a salary of Rs 150 per month was offered to him.”
Neena was in tears as she remembered Puri, who passed away in Mumbai at the age of 66 on Friday.
Puri spent his formative years in Sanaur, a village near Patiala, where he was brought up since the age of 8 until he left for Delhi and then Mumbai to become an actor at the end of the ’60s. He was born in Ambala three years after Partition but, owing to the poor financial health of his parents, his maternal family in Sanaur took up the responsibility of raising him. He started formal studies only after that, first at a local government school and later at Khalsa College.
‘Improvisation greatest ability’
His first play with the Tiwana group was a Punjabi version of Albert Camus’s ‘Cross Purpose’ staged at the local central library and other places. One of his more memorable performances was in August Strindberg’s ‘The Father’ that was staged at several places in Punjab and outside.
Nirmal Rishi, who acted with him in those plays, recalled Tiwana’s workshops as “full of fun” with Puri and the team. “Om had an amazing way of conquering impossible situations,” she said, “Proper lights were out of our budget, so we used to take empty biscuit tins, cut out holes and put powerful bulbs inside. His improvisation on and off the stage was his greatest ability.”
Puri had said in several interviews that he was introduced to the seriousness of acting during his theatre days in Patiala and owed a lot to Tiwana who later also prepared him for admission to National School of Drama (NSD).
Sunita Dhir, who acted with Puri in the cult Punjabi film Chann Pardesi, said, “His death is a loss of an era in Indian cinema.”
‘Looking for birth home’
Puri’s childhood friend, senior journalist Naresh Kaushal, told HT that Puri’s father worked as a railway employee for a few years in Ambala. “After he (Puri) shifted to Sanaur in the neighbouring Patiala district, we studied together in a government school up to matric (Class 10),” Kaushal, who flew to Mumbai to attend the actor’s cremation, said.
He recalled how Puri never missed any special occasion in his family and attended weddings of his three daughters in Chandigarh and Panchkula.
“In later years, he would take me and roam around the Ambala railway station, trying hard for hours to find the locality and house where he was born. But we could not locate it as massive changes had taken place in the area,” he said.
Actor Kuldeep Sharma, former director of Tagore Theatre, Chandigarh, also fondly remembered Puri as a wonderful person besides being a great actor. “Whenever he visited Chandigarh, he made it a point to meet us and discuss for hours various happenings in the field of art, especially theatre,” Sharma said. Anil Dutt, a theatre actor from Ambala, said the news had shaken artistes of the region.