The mention of Om Puri brings a smile to the face of veteran director and writer Govind Nihalani. In town for the Om Puri retrospective at the 12th Habitat Film festival, which kicked off yesterday at India Habitat Centre in Delhi, Nihalani is perhaps the perfect fit to helm a retrospective on the late actor. Puri gave some of his best performances in Nihalani’s films. “My first memory of Om Puri takes me back about 35 years. I had just come to Mumbai and was in the glorious struggle phase.
My friend Ram Mohan who pioneered modern Indian animation, was making a black-and-white documentary and we were brainstorming on whom to cast. We had heard from the then director of FTII, Girish Karnard, that there are these two fine actors at FTII, but they both are on strike as part of the ongoing agitation at the institute.
I had also heard of these actors. So we thought, bula lete hain, dekhten hain. We called them and informed them of this documentary that we were making. Om and Naseer, they came and met us. They were supposed to play out-of-work labourers. Humne socha, shakal surat achchi hai, correct. Bilkul workers dikhte hain dono, toh inke saath kaam kar lena chahiye (We thought, their look was nice. Both look like workers so we should work with them),” recalls Nihalani. He went on to make six films and a TV mini-series with Puri over the next 25 years. “That’s how the phenomena of Om came into my life,” he says. That first meeting triggered an unlikely friendship between the director and actor, both new to the pulsating energy of Bombay. “First and foremost we were friends.
I had never thought when we first met that I will make a film and cast him. But we had grown so close that when I made my first film Aakrosh (1980), he was the first person I thought of. Mujhe laga yeh aadmi shakal surat se sahi hai (I thought the man fit for the role). The time that I knew Om, it’s one complete block of feelings and completeness. It’s not that there are so many milestones that we covered together, ki humne yeh saath mein kiya, aur woh kiya. It’s a feeling of one solid relationship, which can be best described as having the presence of a man in your life, whose presence touches every aspect of your life,” says Nihalani.
The opening film of the retrospective, Tamas, which was screened yesterday at the Festival, is considered one of India’s defining works on Partition. Based on Bhisham Sahni’s novel, it had Puri in the role of a low caste tanner, Nathu. “I had picked up the book from a small kiosk near Shri Ram Centre in Delhi. We were then shooting in Delhi for Gandhi with Richard Attenborough and the unit was put up at the Ashok Hotel. And once I started reading it, I was possessed.
I had always wanted to make something on the Partition, given that I was from Karachi, but I had never dared to venture in that territory,” he says. Nihalani says he had even pitched the project to the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. “The Indian Film festival was being held in Delhi then and all filmmakers had a two-minute window to interact with the PM. When my turn came, I asked Mrs Gandhi, if there was a serious film being made on the Partition of India, based on a novel, will the government support it? She asked me, ‘When do you want to make it?’. I replied, ‘Jab aap paise de dein’ (when you give the money) to which she said ‘will depend on the political situation in the country when you make the film’. She was very astute,” says Nihalani.
Tamas did get made and won the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration but Nihalani is not sure if a Tamas is possible in today’s times. “The political and social situation of the country will not allow it. But I still have hope, because Tamas still continues to be shown, be it at a film festival or some channel on August 15,” he says.
It’s been a tough year for Nihalani. His impending project — an animation film faced some difficulties, but now is all geared to be released next year. But the loss of his friend is something he is still reeling from. “Three days before he passed away, I’d called him, and had berated him the way I would. I asked him where he was. He said, ‘Main Lonavla main hun, parson aa raha hun, aate hi phone karta hun’. The phone call never came. Only the news of his passing did,” concludes Nihalani.