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'I am being used like a potato'

By Subhash K Jha
January 09, 2017 12:10 IST

' every dish -- be it a comedy, thriller or a love story.'
'The bhindi costs Rs 60 per kg, but the price of potato remains unchanged.'
Subhash K Jha remembers conversations with the legendary actor who the world lost on Friday.

IMAGE: Om Puri and Sadashiv Amrapurkar in Ardh Satya.

When Omji, as I insisted on calling him, came home with his friend and companion Seema Kapoor, he was not feeling well.

Excessive smoking had killed his taste buds.

He couldn't savour the food we served him for lunch. At the end of the two hours, Om promised he would take better care of his health.

He never did.

Just recently he was in hospital with a cancer scare, and again, he promised to stop smoking and cut down on his drinking.

But unhappy people need an outlet, some kind of numbing comfort for their soul. Even artistes as steeped in brilliance as Om.

On hearing of his sudden death, I relived Om's most glorious performances.

The implosive anger he projected in his best parts in Govind Nihalani's Aakrosh, Ardh Satya, Droh Kaal and Shyam Benegal's Arohan was squandered in the comedies he insisted on doing with Priyadarshan and David Dhawan.


IMAGE: Om Puri with son Ishaan at the New York premiere of his film The Hundred-Foot Journey. Photograph: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

With Omji, I could be as critical as I wished about his work. He would never take my comments amiss.

Normally, when actors ask for an honest opinion, they don't mean it. Om did.

Each time, I would see him in some frightful cringe-worthy potboiler with his belly hanging down to his knees, I would remind him he was the actor from My Son The Fanatic and The Mystic Masseur (the latter a delightful adaptation of V S Naipaul's novel and one of Omji's unsung gems).

He would remind me of his financial responsibilities.

"I have a son. He needs careful nurturing. I can't just sit back and relax. Naseer's (Naseeruddin Shah) children are grown up. His responsibilities are over. Besides, he has earned a lot more than me. I've been paid peanuts for my efforts."

"I was paid a mere Rs 7 lakh for playing one of the central characters and working four months non-stop in Raj Kumar Santoshi's China Gate. I'm sure Naseer must've got five times more money for the same film."

"Surely big filmmakers like Santoshisaab should be more cautious of my worth. But I've no complaints. I may return to theatre, or do a small but meaningful film that gives me satisfaction as an actor."


IMAGE: Om Puri in Priyadarshan's Malamaal Weekly.

Om was exhausted with his prolific output and deeply embittered by his professional and personal conflicts.

In one of our recent conversations, he said to me, "Enough is enough. I've slogged for 30 years, I have accumulated a decent bank balance though it may not be decent by Bollywood standards. I've done roles for fun and for job satisfaction. Now I need to take it easy. I keep turning down offers. I need a break."

The break has come so suddenly and unexpectedly.

Friends like Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi are in a state of shock.

The two actors, with Om, formed the titanic triumvirate of non-mainstream actors who changed the way we look at cinema.

While Naseer and Shabana have come to terms with their lack of fluency with commercial cinema, Om remained torn between the two extremities represented by Shyam Benegal and David Dhawan till the end.

The meagre remuneration as compared with actors much less skilled who were stars, bothered Om.

"I am being used like a potato in every dish -- be it a comedy, thriller or a love story. The bhindi costs Rs 60 per kg, but the price of potato remains unchanged. I have to make my family and myself financially secure. To a large extent, I'm already on the way to doing that."

"If today I decide to migrate to a small town, I don't have to worry about my income. But I want a little more from my career. I do have certain ideas for films swimming in my head. Sometimes, I feel being part of an escapist entertainer is just fine. At other times, I feel like addressing myself to issues that bother me."

He was an restless unhappy man, who couldn't lie to himself.

Till the end, he tried to find peaceful ground in his personal life. The rage that imploded in his best performances often manifested in foot-in-the-mouth declarations on public platforms, like the one recently about our soldiers.

Om repeatedly got into trouble with his unthinking sound bytes. He took the backlash on his chin like a man, but he wasn't prepared for this one final blow that date dealt his life on Friday morning.


IMAGE: Om Puri at the mahurat of film Jai Ho Democracy. Photograph: Pradeep Bandekar

I will miss your gravelly voice on the phone as you spoke out on your personal and professional lives.

In spite of my cleaning up some of the Puri pronouncements, when it was published it invariably got the actor into trouble. But he never denied his quotes, never said he was misquoted.

Omji owned up to his mistakes. That's what made his performances so authentic.

He never lied to the camera. He never lied to himself.

Subhash K Jha