Om Puri was born in Ambala (then in Punjab) without a doubt, but there is a dispute regarding the date and year of his birth. There are neither any birth certificate nor record, but his mother, Tara Devi always told him he was born two days after Dussehra. Either in 1949 or 1950, she was not sure. Later when he joined school in Patiala, his maternal uncle chose March 9, 1950 as his official birthdate. Years later in the mid ‘70s, when he came to Bombay after his National School of Drama stint, he chose two days after Dussehra that year as his birthday. It was October 18. Whether he chose it deliberately to coincide with the birthday of his mentor at NSD, Ibrahim Alkazi, he never admitted. But we did celebrate 18th October as his birthday though at times he received wishes and cards twice a year. The majority from friends and family on October 18 and sometimes from official quarters on March 9.
It took him so long to decide on a birthday because he never had the occasion to celebrate throughout his school and college years except for the fact that his mother made kheer two days after Dussehra each year while she lived. He was seventeen when he lost her. No fancy parties. Just a bowl of simple kheer made at home to celebrate the birth of India’s “greatest living actor,” according to Salon.com in 2000. As many years later his friend and colleague, actor Naseeruddin Shah was to remark, “Om was born with a wooden spoon in his mouth.”
Om did not mind that a bit. Though he did over 350 films in a career spanning nearly four decades; earned, lived and travelled well, and was feted at home (Padmashri, National awards and many more) and abroad including by the Queen of England with an OBE and at the Oscars and BAFTAs, he never forgot his humble beginnings. Much as he enjoyed dining with sterling cutlery, he was equally at ease licking his fingers. Om never made a fuss about his birthday. In fact, once at a shoot in the early ‘80s he forgot about his birthday till his costar Shabana Azmi reminded him the next day and they cut a cake on the sets. His standing instruction to his manager was to keep two dates free in a calendar year…. one was 2nd July, son Ishaan’s birthday as he was “the jewel in my crown” and the other, May Day, which was our anniversary as he didn’t want to encounter my “wrath” for not pampering me! But he never took an off on his birthday. He spent it without fuss, working.
Since the time we married in 1993, till his last birthday in 2016, I made kheer or payesh at home, albeit a different kind from his mother’s. It was after my mother’s (whom he loved) recipe with gobindobhog rice and nalen gur from Kolkata which he relished. Even if he was outdoors, the kheer was made irrespective and kept till he returned. Like the birthday kheer, the other constant factors were a telegram from Danny Denzongpa (till the telegrams stopped), letter from the late Sunil Dutt and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s message on the answering machine, “Om Puri, Shev Puri, Paani Puri, Bhaaji Puri….Happy Birthday.” This apart, were the numerous bouquets that arrived each year and turned our house into a garden.
I remember having a surprise party for him with his close friends the year we got married. He said that was the first big birthday he had but told me politely he would rather give a bonus to his staff than lavish on food and drinks. “They’ll slog for two years what we’ll spend one evening.” That made me guilty. But what he cherished most were flowers and cards. Especially the ones Ishaan painted every year for him. And he appreciated the pencil portrait I did of his one birthday, mildly telling me, “You’ve put way too many pockmarks!” One birthday I asked him what he wanted as I was out of ideas. He thought hard and said, “Six pairs of socks, six chaddis (underwear) and six kerchiefs.” Seeing my disbelief, he said, “I’m serious. I need them. Don’t waste money on things I have.” That was Om, pragmatic as ever.
But once in a while he didn’t mind little indulgences. Like when he admired Naseer’s Armani watch and very thoughtfully on his birthday, Naseer presented him with one. Om was touched and it never left his wrist. As for milestone birthdays, he never bothered. We were more excited than him. On his 50th birthday, we were in London filming for The Parole Officer with Omar Sharif and Steve Coogan. He returned to the hotel after a day’s work, ready to order in room service and retire when I gave him 50 of his favourite items wrapped …. from cigarettes to whiskey to his favourite aftershave and snacks and underwear included. He was happy that it was “sensible and practical,” though three-year-old Ishaan had a blast opening the gifts. We later went to see ABBA The Musical at the West End leaving Ishaan with a baby sitter.
Om’s 60th birthday was at Abu Dhabi during the film fest there and the staff wheeled in a beautiful cake in our suite followed by a scrumptious meal. But the icing was Ishaan giving him a facial and back massage. Om really loved it as Ishaan walked all over his back or moved his small creamy fingers all over his face.
The best birthday as Ishaan recalls was in 2013. It was in the South of France in a small village Albi where Om was filming Lasse Halstorm’s The Hundred Foot Journey with Helen Mirren, which was produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. Ishaan and me managed to reach Albi by lunchtime and Om was overjoyed. The 350 strong unit gave him a surprise party with a beautiful cake and Om thanked them, choking to tears. It was touching to see Hollywood celebrate a colossal yet humble talent and for us to be together for our special man on his special day. His mother would have been proud. Though the bouquets have stopped coming since last year, his legacy will continue to live on through The Om Puri Foundation. Om wanted to start a gurukul for acting in his farmhouse in Khandala where he wanted ten deserving students each year to intern with him not only as actors, but as good human beings through acting, farming, exercising, yoga, music, cooking and living a compassionate life. Like he did.
And through the Om Puri Scholarships, Fellowships and Kisaan Awards, we aspire to take forward his dream. And I will continue to make the kheer so that he keeps smiling from wherever he is.
(Nandita Puri is the author of Unlikely Hero: Om Puri and heads The Om Puri Foundation)