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The film, theatre and television industry lost one of its greatest actors and human beings on Friday morning when news of Om Puri’s sudden demise hit the network. He passed away after a cardiac arrest. He was 66. Mourning the loss of a ‘dear friend and down-to-earth man’, former journalist Naresh Kaushal counts more than half a century of friendship, the golden years he spent with his ‘brother who fondly called him Neshi and would request his wife to cook Punjabi food every time he was in town’. “We were together in Sinnaur, a kasba near Patiala…it was his maternal and my paternal home. Om was a brilliant student, the class monitor throughout.
Watch: Om Puri’s Cinematic Journey
He had a tough childhood, and for some reasons had to leave his maternal uncle’s home when he was in Class VIII. I remember he landed with his bag and baggage at the school and stayed with us for some time. Many people of the village helped him at that time,” a teary-eyed Kaushal says.
He recalls the days when Puri was focused on the Army as a career, till a cultural programme in which he played an Army officer changed his life. “He was so lost in the character…that was a turning point, for that made him leave Army dreams and pursue acting,” adds Kaushal.
For Kaushal, ‘Puri was family’. “Banda bindass tha,” he says, smiling, adding how he and Puri were the only two students from school selected for the 4th All India Jamboree in Allahabad as part of scouts. “He had a good sense of right and wrong, and would be unbiased. His dream of late was to settle in Punjab and he had even bought a flat near Kharar,” Kaushal says.
“He was a simple person, great actor and an affectionate friend,” is how MP Kirron Kher remembers him. “I enjoyed working with him. Very tragic that he has gone. We will miss him,” she adds.
The feat he achieved in the world of acting is unparalled. Actor and musician Kamal Tewari calls him the true performing artist. “Our association must be 40 years old, from the time I was in the Punjab Government Repertory Company and he was with Harpal Tiwana theatre. What I loved about him was his encouragement of other artistes. He had no airs or ego, just pure love for the art.”
A stalwart, Padma Shri and honorary officer of the Order of the British Empire, Puri was part of the first Punjabi film to win a national award, Chann Pardesi.
“He did such a fantastic job that audiences asked us who this actor was who played Tulsi. He had such a deep and clear understanding of a character,” says J S Cheema, who was co-producer of Chann Pardesi.
As much as he was famous for his films, Puri was equally loved for his generosity and helpful nature. Punjabi actor Aman Dhaliwal recalls how Puri helped him get his visa to work overseas.
“Some three decades ago, I wanted to make a film and wanted to cast him. He asked me, what’s your budget? I had none, so I told him I still have to gather funds. He immediately turned to me and said, you start making the film, the money will come later. Always eager to help, share and connect, he was a perfectionist,” says G S Chani, a documentary filmmaker.
While friends recall Puri’s playful banter and endless jokes, his sharp wit and humble nature, they also talk of his struggle. “Creatively, he felt disappointed…over the kind of commercial films being made, and the roles he was being offered. He was looking for meaningful cinema.
There was a creative conflict he was battling with and it did affect his health in the last couple of years,” says film critic and friend of 15 years, Ajit Rai.
Theatre director Rani Balbir Kaur agrees. A long-time friend of Puri, she says he broke many stereotypes of acting.
“But he went through his own struggles and always felt that he never got his dues from film producers, and that affected him deeply and caused him a lot of anguish. In spite of their average looks, he and Naseeruddin Shah created a new idiom in the field of theatre and cinema,” says Kaur.