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Om Puri was my oldest friend: Naseeruddin Shah

The Indian actor-director talks about how he cannot, at the moment, imagine a life without the veteran actor

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On January 6, Indian cinema lost one of its stalwarts, Om Puri. Having debuted with a Marathi film Ghashiram Kotwal, this National School of Drama alumni had a career in films spanning over 40 years. He was known for Hindi films such as Aakrosh, Ardh Satya, Maachis and Maqbool and international projects East Is East (English), Actor In Law (Pakistani).

Hailing from a modest Punjabi film from Ambala, Puri started working while studying. After school he was accepted at the NSD. Puri in several of his interviews had spoken of his close friendship with veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah, who he had met at the NSD. He often mentioned how he couldn’t afford a decent shirt to wear to an interview at the Film & Television Institute of India.

This was just one incident that Shah had come to the rescue of his friend. They often described their relationship as based on healthy competition. Shah claimed that he had been “jealous” of his friend when he was offered roles in international projects.

“Here I was playing a loud Punjabi from Delhi [in Monsoon Wedding] while Om was given lengthy roles of an Urdu speaking Muslim,” Shah revealed in an episode of The Anupam Kher Show. “It couldn’t get more ironic.”

When Gulf News tabloid! spoke to Shah about his relationship with Puri, he said it would “take too long to explain” their relationship. Neither was he ready to speak of them at this point, so soon after Puri’s death.

“He was the oldest friend I had in the world and I can’t quite imagine him gone. The thought that I’ll never see him again is very difficult to stomach,” said Shah during an interview to discuss his theatre production Riding Madly Off In All Directions. “But I feel angry [with] him because he should have looked after himself better.”

Shah’s wife, Ratna Pathak Shah, also remembered Puri fondly and described spending some really “fun times” with him.

“I met Om through Naseer and we had hit it off from the first time we went. When Om started Majma [theatre group] that’s when we started working together. This was way back in 1976. It was fantastic — we had no money, no resources or a place to sit down and rehearse lines. We used to get on the top level of a double decker bus in the afternoons at Churchgate and drive all the way to Santa Cruz because it would be practically empty. We sat there and did our lines. Sometimes we did the journey twice and thrice over till the play would finish,” she said. “[Somehow] I associate Om only with the fun part of our earlier days in theatre. It was such a wonderful time. He had seen everything that Mumbai could have thrown at anyone. I was completely bowled over with his determination, hard work and his incredible belief in himself.”

Puri had a difficult childhood. When he was six, his father was arrested for theft of cement from Indian Railways, rendering the family homeless. Puri and his brother took up small jobs — he in a local tea shop and his brother as a porter — to support the family. But he channelled his hardships to portray the characters he played.

“It’s possible to change one’s life with talent and ability,” Puri said. “How else a six-year-old child who washed dirty glasses at a tea stall could become Om Puri?”

Although Shah agrees Puri’s life as being highly inspirational, he says he couldn’t make a film or play based on Puri.

“Firstly it would be impossible to find an actor to portray Om Puri, so I wouldn’t even attempt it. I have written about him at length in my memoirs and might do it again as I’ve been asked to do so by many publications. But I can’t come up with anything articulate at the moment so I haven’t written anything. I will at some point write about him because his life is really very interesting. He had a pretty full life and I don’t think he died dissatisfied — he had fulfilled everything he had ever wanted. Not many people get to do that,” said Shah.