When the news first hit me that Om has passed away, I was hurled into my past, and memories of those enchanting days spent with him in my apartment in Bandra, in the early ‘80s, began to flicker on the screen of my mind. Those were the best of times for Om and me.
Both of us had made a spectacular impact on the conscious of the nation and the film industry. He, with Aakrosh (1980) and me, with Arth (1982). We both would spend hours at my place, talking passionately about art, life, cinema and the political situation. One thing, which I remember distinctly was, that he would always delay eating food, which was warmed and say ‘let’s have this food after the one last drink.’ This is one detail that comes back to me. Little did I know then that the alcohol he innocently consumed in those days, which I gave up 28 years ago, and he couldn’t, will ultimately contribute to his sudden death.
Om Puri was an extraordinary actor, something that everybody in India and South Asia accepts because he had done such exceptional number of roles. He was the one who deconstructed this narrative that if you want to be a part of Bollywood, you need a certain kind of physiology or a particular kind of look. Those were the times when the doors were shut on people who were not fair skinned and not “good looking”. Om just smashed that narrative, and proclaimed to the nation that if you have talent, you can become a force in the industry and enjoy your share of applause.
We both got very successful and obviously, with this success, we drifted apart. I tried to involve him in some of my movies but it didn’t happen because of multiple reasons. But years later, I ran into him at the Bite the Mango Film Festival in the year 2004, which was held in Bradford, UK. This Om Puri was now head and shoulders above the Om Puri, which I knew in Mumbai. Here was an internationally acknowledged and recognised actor who had made a tremendous impact on the people of Bradford. I was stunned to see the kind of reception he received there. That was the last time we spent considerable amount of time in each other’s company.
Goodbye Om! A part of me goes with you today. How can I ever forget those passionate nights we spent together talking about cinema & life ?— Mahesh Bhatt (@MaheshNBhatt) January 6, 2017
A few years later, I ran into him in Karachi at the Kara Film Festival. We were both fascinated to see the kind of show, which was put up by the young girls and boys of Pakistan. They believed that through movies and music, India and Pakistan could kick-start a process, which would bring both the nations, which had drifted apart, closer, and erase the bitter memories that existed between them.
This belief is something Om held on to till his dying day. He repeatedly asserted that irrespective of the blow hot, blow cold policy that exists between India and Pakistan, the civil society and the artistic community must do everything to keep the cultural and artistic bond alive.
Om Puri is remembered by the world as a great actor but I am his lifelong admirer because of the brave stand he took in those terrible times when the winds of hatred were blowing through our country and everybody was tight-lipped on the issue of the Pakistani actors performing in Indian films. He was reprimanded by a large section of people, but he held on to his beliefs. He asserted that the differences between the two countries could never be resolved through bloodshed. I would not be wrong to conclude that Om was actually a Gandhian at heart.
With the demise of Om, a part of me, too, has gone, but his enchanting smile and that mischievous glint in his eyes will live in me for a long, long time.
Thank you Om. It was great meeting you in this lifetime. Alvida!
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