As I travel to his funeral right now, I can’t stop thinking how unfortunate it is that only after someone’s death we go through their life. When we go through Puri saab’s life, we discover how much he influenced Indian cinema. He truly was the common man of the Indian industry. There’s not supposed to be a common man in cinema, but he was a common man who also happened to be a superstar. The generations should learn from the art that he has given to them. When you go through his performances, his cinema, stage performances, his work in television, you will discover how much knowledge and richness he gave to the Indian cultural scene. Unfortunately, this discovery only happens when a person dies, but that’s how it is.
In 100 years time when people talk about cinema, they will talk about Om Puri, who broke the myth that you have to look a certain way to be in the industry. He went onto to become India’s first international actor. Yet, he never had a sense of achievement about it. He was the first Indian actor to get a lead role in City of Joy and his last Hollywood film, in which he was paired alongside Helen Mirren. The film was produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. That says a lot about a man who never made any pomp and show about the kind of work he did.
As comfortable as he was with working with Shyam Benegal, he was equally comfortable working with someone like David Dhawan. He did both parallel cinema and commercial cinema with equal enthusiasm. He never showed it off and never showed how brilliant he is. With Ardh Satya, he became the first superstar of parallel cinema. His performances in some films were unbelievable . And in some way they gave a boost to so many actors like me. He gave us the affirmation, a path that we could walk on and succeed on that.
I would like to remember him as a lone man and a lone actor. That was his legacy and he never made a big issue out of it. I used to tell him ”Puri saab when I work with you, you are not someone great but when I see you on the screen, it’s fantastic.’ He said two things. ‘Personality kuch cheez hoti hai. And secondly, talent should only appear on screen. It should always stay hidden.’
Knowing him personally was a pleasure. Like a typical Punjabi, he was very warm, earthy, had a roaring laughter and someone who made everyone comfortable. We never had the hush silence around him thinking that the god of acting had come in. He used to be a common man. He never carried the burden of being Om Puri on his shoulder. Unknowingly that is what we imbibed.
I remember I did an adaptation for Shakespeare’s King Lear in London. We were in England for 20 days and staying in apartments, which Puri saab loved. Every day for those 20 days he used to cook for me and call me for dinner. He would go himself to buy vegetables, fish and do it all himself. And then he used to call me and say, ‘Aaja, aaj main khana bana raha hun.’ Before I even took a bite he used to say, ‘Pehle tareef kar’ And I used to reply, ‘ Puri saab masala ho na ho magar pyar bahut hai.’
Today, a news channel called me to comment on his death saying that he is such a big loss for Bollywood. He is not a big loss for Bollywood. He is a big loss for the entire Indian film industry. Actors are ambassadors in their own manner. Unlike sportspersons, actors don’t have a scorecard or a medals tally. If it had been, Puri Saab would always have been at number one or number two throughout his career.
I was supposed to meet him and was supposed to work with him on his lifestyle and health, since I worked on mine last year. He wanted to start it in new year and change his lifestyle, but little did I know that he wanted to change his life, and not just his lifestyle.
The only thing I felt was that he died a lonely death. It is his personal life. I feel bad, that he was alone when he died of a heart attack. I will want the world to remember him as the generous, kind and wise man who made us very proud. I would want the younger generation to remember him as someone who showed us that if you work hard and remain honest, you will always succeed in life, no matter what you do.