Remembering Girish Karnad: A voice of reason in an unreasonable time
Four days ago, I saw a missed call from Girish Karnad. We hadn’t spoken in a while so I called him back. He laughed, saying it was a mistake, but we spoke for a few seconds. I enquired about his health. He said he was fine, though I knew he wasn’t keeping too well.
I wake up four days later to the rude shock that Girish had passed away. I was deeply saddened. It was as if his accidental call was a way of saying goodbye.
I will miss him. I will miss his ideas, and advice to me from time to time as a member of the advisory board of the Om Puri Foundation. He was on the board because he was a mentor, benefactor and friend to my late husband.
Om’s journey from poverty to success revolved around the kindness of friends. And Girish Karnad was foremost amongst them. Girish was a director at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in 1976 when Om excelled in the entrance interview, but the board had its reservations. “He doesn’t look like a hero or a villain or even a comedian. What do we do with him (Om)?” the board members said.
“That’s not our problem. We cannot deny him admission on his looks alone,” Girish said and thus Om Puri entered the last acting batch at FTII, Pune.
Later when Girish realised Om was scrawny and starving due to lack of funds and having a tough time financially, he recommended him to B V Karanth for his film Chor Chor Chhupja (1975) for the Children’s Film Society during the summer holidays so that Om didn’t have to miss his classes. The ₹3,000 he got for his work saw him through the entire course at FTII. Had it not been for Girish…
Girish and Om continued to share a warm, friendly rapport and the greatness of Girish was he never made Om ever feel that he had done him a favour. When we were staying at the Dorchester in London during Om’s shoot of The Parole Officer (2001), right around the corner from the Nehru Centre in Mayfair where Girish was the Minister of Culture for the Embassy of India, he used to call us over for Indian meals (which we craved). One morning for breakfast, he asked what we’d like to have. “Masala dosa,” I quipped cheekily.
“Your wish is my command,” he said, and in a jiffy his cook appeared with a crisp dosa. Seeing my perplexed look, he explained, “Today is Friday, my dosa day. So the batter was ready. And you got lucky. Any other day, it might not have been possible.”
One of the last films both Om and Girish shot was in London. It was Sangeeta Datta’s Life Goes On (2009) along with Sharmila Tagore. Both teacher and student shared screen space. At the 2010 Jaipur Literature Festival, Girish and Om shared a stage, doing dramatised reading of Girish’s Tughlaq. Om read Tughlaq.
I knew Girish was not well. But his appearance with his portable oxygen tank in Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) seemed like part of the script. Effortless. And that is the hallmark of a great actor.
Apart from being an actor (Manthan, Godhuli, Swami) and a radical playwright (Nagamandala, Yayati, Tughlaq), Girish was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. A multilinguist, and a connoisseur of food, wine and music. He was a voice of reason in an unreasonable time. A gentleman to the core. They don’t make men like him anymore.
Wherever you are, stay well my friend. And enjoy your drink with Om.
Author bio: Journalist and author Nandita Puri, is the wife of late actor Om Puri
From HT Brunch, June 16, 2019
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