Veteran Indian actor Om Puri’s death on Friday was mourned across the border in Pakistan, with filmmakers recalling their personal interactions and many on social media lauding his efforts to foster better relations between the two countries.
There were several reasons for Pakistanis to feel a connect with Puri, who died at 66 of a heart attack.
He played Pakistanis in several Bollywood and international films, ranging from Zia-ul-Haq in Charlie Wilson’s War to the Maulana sahab in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and had visited the country several times to participate in film festivals and other events.
News of Puri’s death was carried prominently on all English and Urdu news websites, with most reports referring to his desire for better relations between the two sides.
Famous versatile Bollywood and Hollywood actor Om Puri will always be remembered for his efforts to support peace between India and Pakistan pic.twitter.com/m9snWfp0gs— Hamid Mir (@HamidMirGEO) January 6, 2017
During a visit to Pakistan last year, Puri had said he had known Pakistanis abroad for 20 years and always received love from them, “so much so that it’s hard to believe that there are conflicts between our two countries”. He also said he prayed that the two sides find a way to peace and work for progress, friendship and trade.
Soon after news of Puri’s death broke, filmmaker and journalist Hasan Zaidi tweeted about a humourous incident that happened when he spoke to the actor to invite him to the KaraFilm festival in Karachi in 2004. That would turn out to be Puri’s first visit to Pakistan.
“When I’d first called to invite him, he’d asked me if he could have a drink in Karachi since he was used to having a peg or two every evening. I promised him we would make arrangements for him,” Zaidi said.
Om Puri was an international star but he was one of the most down-to-earth people I've ever met. When I'd first called to invite him...>— Hasan Zaidi (@hyzaidi) January 6, 2017
...he'd asked me if he could have a drink in Karachi since he was used to having a peg or two every evening. I promised him we would...>— Hasan Zaidi (@hyzaidi) January 6, 2017
...make arrangements for him. When I went to see him in his hotel room his first night here, he produced a bottle saying he'd brought it..>— Hasan Zaidi (@hyzaidi) January 6, 2017
But when Zaidi went to meet Puri in his hotel room in Karachi, the actor produced a bottle of alcohol that he had brought along with him because “he didn’t want me to go through any trouble”. That wasn’t all – Puri said he had also brought his own snacks to go with the drinks.
At the KaraFilm festival, Puri promoted Dhoop, a film about the death of a young Indian Army officer during the 1999 Kargil war and his parents’ efforts to commemorate his memory.
“Om Puri’s performance was so good and so human that no one had an issue with the fact that the film was about the Indian Army. People warmed up to him and we found out his father too was in the army,” Zaidi told Hindustan Times.
“It was a really nice thing to find he was so down to earth and people really warmed up to him,” said Zaidi, who keep in touch with the actor and his wife. Zaidi also met Puri during a subsequent visit to Mumbai.
At the movies, Puri portrayed Pakistanis several times – the dictator Zia-ul-Haq in Charlie Wilson’s War (2007), which was about the US involvement with the mujahideen in Afghanistan through Pakistan, George Khan, the conflicted patriarch in East Is East (1999) and its sequel West Is West (2010) and Abu in The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2013).
Puri also made his debut last year in a Pakistani film, Actor In Law.
While shooting in Karachi, Puri told the media: “I really like working in Pakistan, because I’m pampered a lot here. I keep responding to people’s salaams from morning to night. So many people want to throw me a dinner party at their house. And everyone wants a selfie.”