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A Good Man To Know

Friday, January 13, 2017
By Deepa Gahlot

When an actor passes away, the obits are invariably laudatory—who will be mean enough to speak ill of the dead?— very rarely are the words sincere. But everybody who praised Om Puri did so from the heart.

What he accomplished in films is documented and well-known, but all who spoke about him were emphatic about him being a fine human being.  He was cheerful and good-natured, friendly, helpful and affectionate towards his friends. At the beginning he played oppressed villager and angst-ridden kind of roles, but even when he moved over to commercial cinema and became a star, he remained quite unaffected by his fame.

Once be bought his terrace flat in the suburbs, he stayed there most of his life, and said that he would keep his modest car and unfussy lifestyle, so that he would not have to do bad films to pay for excessive luxury.  (He took inordinate pleasure in the turtles he had as pets.)

He was among a handful of Indian stars who did several films abroad and many in lead roles, but even this achievement never went to his head. He stayed down to earth, and always had a good word to say about his colleagues’ work.

Like some of his contemporaries who disowned the parallel cinema movement that had given them their initial burst of fame, he was always open to doing a small film for a good role, because he said the money came from the big films. He retained the friendships he forged at the start of his career, and he was so warm and hospitable that people wanted to be friends with him.

Om Puri had trained at the National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India, but after doing some plays with the group Majma that some NSD alumni had formed, he gave up the stage, which was entirely the loss of theatre. With his expressive face and wonderful voice, he would have been an asset in any production. Rather late in his acting career, he returned to theatre, and chose to do a simple production—a Punjabi version of Tumhari Amrita, which he did with Divya Dutta. It was like dipping a toe in the water for him—if he could manage the rehearsal and travel schedules for this one, he promised to do more plays. He was very pleased with the full houses that greeted the play and had made a list of productions that he would do as soon as the schedule of the latest film ended.

As it happens so often, reality comes in the way of the best-laid plans. There are half a dozen unreleased films—at least he went with his boots on, when his audiences still wants to see more of his work. For an actor, staying in the hearts and memories of people is the best reward.

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