Om Puri's story is every struggling actor’s fantasy: Naseeruddin Shah remembers close friend

Naseeruddin Shah

Jan,06 2017 12:23:12 IST

Editor's note: When Nandita C Puri wrote her husband's biography — 'Unlikely Hero: Om Puri', published by Roli Books, Naseeruddin Shah provided this note as an introduction. Titled 'In Appreciation' it detailed his decades-long association with Om Puri, first as classmates at the National School of Drama, as friends, rivals ('for roles, not girls', as Naseer writes), and colleagues who held each other in great esteem — and affection. Looking back, this note now seems like the perfect tribute to Puri, from one acting legend, to another. Extracted from 'Unlikely Hero' with permission of Roli Books:

In the fledgling days of his movie career, Om Prakash Puri, Padmashree, OBE (to use his full name and honorifics), was struck by severe doubts over whether he would be confused with and perhaps lose his identity to Om Shivpuri, former theatre doyen and unremarkable character actor in countless Hindi films. So our Om considered adopting a pseudonym! My two suggestions, ‘Vinamra Kumar’ and ‘Antim Khanna’ were rather impatiently turned down.

Then the time came for the hard decision. ‘Prakash’ was out for obvious reasons. Despite good old Amrish still being very much around, the ‘Puri’ could possibly pass. And so Om sweet Om had to change. Trivia addicts will be delighted to learn that in one or two of his first films he was actually billed as ‘Vilom Puri’ and ‘Azdak Puri’, both names he considered and then wisely discarded, finally deciding that the one his parents thought up was indeed the best. And damn, he was right.

Naseeruddin Shah with Om Puri. Photo courtesy Colors TV

Naseeruddin Shah with Om Puri. Photo courtesy Colors TV

This anecdote cries out for a punch line and here it is. True in every detail. Shortly after Om had been accumulating the success and regard that had long been his due, Mrinal Sen shooting at a studio in Mumbai received a call from ‘Om’ asking to meet. A request Mr Sen happily granted until embarrassingly, Mr Shivpuri showed up instead! Om Puri and Om Shivpuri — only time will decide which one of them posterity will remember. But I think it is a foregone conclusion.

Om and I are similar in that we are not, either of us, ‘gifted performers’. Being entertaining does not come easily and since we both have had to slog to make things work for ourselves, I think, at the risk of sounding more pompous, acting has acquired a slightly higher purpose than mere entertainment.

Our relationship started as students in 1970 and then went on to becoming that of rivals (for roles, not girls), it then progressed to colleagues and in spite of all, we have remained friends. He is one living person whom I have constantly envied for the courage and integrity he has shown. We used to be different actors then but now we have a lot of similarities. He used to be the hardworking one among us and I used to take my abilities for granted. Now it is the other way round to an extent. Yet we have a healthy regard for each other and I am closer to him than either of my brothers.

When I first met him at the auditions at NSD, we appreciated but also envied each other. In a healthy way though. When I saw him perform in the lead in Ibaragi, a Japanese play, it was a revelation. At that point in time Om was an introvert, quiet. In the play he was cast in a flamboyant role which was completely opposite to his character. It first opened my eyes to him when I saw the magic in his performance on stage. It killed my envy and jealousy and made me, albeit grudgingly, admire his performance. It also opened my eyes to the kind of performance that could be achieved from him.

Naseeruddin Shah as Om’s co-actor in Govind Nihalani’s debut film, Aakrosh written by Vijay Tendulkar. Om played a mute tribal man, Lahanya Bhiku, which impressed the best names of the industry.

Naseeruddin Shah as Om’s co-actor in Govind Nihalani’s debut film, Aakrosh written by Vijay Tendulkar. Om played a mute tribal man, Lahanya Bhiku, which impressed the best names of the industry. Photo from 'Unlikely Hero' published by Roli Books.

I have watched with fascination since 1970, not only Om’s struggle to master his craft, but also his unending generosity with money, time and affection, and needless to say, I have been more inspired by him than any other living person. He often credits me with having goaded him to move to Mumbai and movies, a compliment I happily accept. But the simple fact is that the movies would have found him had he still been working in the State Bank of Patiala!

The story of Om Puri is in fact every struggling actor’s fantasy: that a thoroughly ordinary guy can get ahead with nothing but good talent as godfather, hard work as insurance and the best of intentions as guide. I often wonder how Om feels to be considered Amrish Puri’s son or brother. Or for that matter he is sometimes mistaken for me! I, in turn, have more than once been asked if I am him or Amol Palekar or Girish Karnad. Makes you wonder if people actually look at performers closely at all or promptly lump them together. I daresay someone who knows little of cricket would easily mistake Zaheer Khan for Irfan Pathan! Though how could anyone, who has seen the face of Om Puri in Aakrosh, so easily mistake him for anyone else, I am at a loss to figure out.

The gradual metamorphosis, to which I have been a close witness, of OP Puri to Om Puri — from the scrawny, pockmarked adolescent underdog with hungry eyes and an iron will, living in a corridor with a stove, a saucepan and a few books into a significant, somewhat paunchy and a very prosperous player in the international acting scene — is the sort of stuff about which ballads were sung in the old days.

Om, however, has to make do with a doting wife recording his numerous accomplishments. In prose.

Published Date: Jan 06, 2017 12:23 PM | Updated Date: Jan 06, 2017 12:40 PM