'Unlikely Hero: Om Puri', by his former wife Nandita Puri was released in 2009 and caused a controversy due to the following chapter in the book. Puri had expressed his displeasure with some sections of the book and the following chapter titled 'Om At Home' is believed to have strained their relationship, ultimately leading to their split.
'This is perhaps the most difficult chapter of the entire book. Perhaps it is this chapter alone that has been the cause of this book incubating for nearly fifteen years. And yet, it is this chapter that will make this into a well-rounded biography as it will add layers and reveal the man behind the actor.
Being a journalist of conscience, I have been brutally honest in my columns even to the point of annoying my friends. But in writing this, I had to tell my husband’s story and tell it engagingly without being provocative or partial. At the same time I could not mask the truth. It was a strange predicament.
Writing about one’s parents, siblings or children is far easier than writing about one’s spouse. In the case of a marriage, the couple starts off as friends and lovers and then forms a certain relationship where they get to see the best and the worst of each other. To the world a person may be a great human being, a helpful colleague or an eternally smiling friend. Back home he lets his guard down. He becomes his true self.
Tantrums emerging out of his anger and frustrations initially witnessed by his parents are subsequently borne by his partner because they have become so close. Such moments call for the wisdom to be silent, to ignore the impetuous remarks, and try to understand the pain behind them. Was it not Browning who wrote, ‘Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be’? And that is how enduring marriages are made on earth.
This biography, about an actor who believes in the honesty of his craft, had to naturally reflect the professional aspect. But being a biographer who was living with her subject and saw him at his weakest moments, I had to subdue my personal opinion and strive to write objectively as well. It was a fine line I had to tread.
Om has very set ideas about what should be written about him. So when fifteen years ago he told me he would sponsor me to write a biography on him, I held back on two counts. One, I was a fresh writer with stars in my eyes regarding the subject and felt deep down that I would not be able to do an honest job.
It would only end up being one long eulogy! The one you read at funerals. And one people are mostly likely to pass over with a smirk. The second reason was, I hate the term ‘authorized’ in biographies. It implies you have written them according to the subject’s point of view, who then becomes the ‘author’, not you. Nothing is uni-dimensional.
More so, life and relationships. And Om has not always been very conducive to opinions which were not very flattering to him. Om loves to be honest but at times his honesty is selective. So, I chose to hold back till I knew him well and could tell his story better.
This time round when Om sat for this book with me, narrating his story and experiences over several long periods, he managed to overcome his diffidence and was sometimes even brutally honest.
There were times even I had to ask him whether he was sure he really wanted to tell what he was saying. He nodded a yes with a ‘I want to be as honest as possible’ look. Other times, he asked me to change a few facts here and there, as he did not want to be harsh to some people, especially the women in his life.
There is an old Arab proverb that says, ‘The words of the tongue should have three gatekeepers.’ The first gatekeeper asks, ‘Is it true?’ That stops a lot of traffic immediately. Once you get past this gate, then the next gatekeeper asks, ‘Is it kind?’ And finally if you pass this one, the last question is, ‘Is it necessary?’ I try to abide by these qualifiers whenever I write.
When we first started dating, Om used to call me Nondita, emphasizing the Bengali accent. He even wrote it as Nondita in his love letters to me. Over the years, my name has taken on a more Punjabi accent – Nanditta!
Initially, I would get a little shocked with his Punjabi expletives. To get me used to it, he would suddenly call me with urgency; and when I rushed to him, he would have a wicked gleam on his face and say, ‘Teri …’
One night, just as we retired, he got up saying, ‘Oh shit!’ Concerned, I asked, ‘What?’
And he replied, ‘Teri …’
He has caught me unawares like this many a time but now I have wizened up to his pranks.
Yet, I must admit he has me foxed when he rehearses his lines.
‘Have you got the money?’ he would ask suddenly.
‘What money?’ I would respond, sheepishly realizing that it is his lines he is rehearsing and not me he is talking to.
The authenticity reflected in his acting can be slightly unnerving. Having excelled in tragic roles on-screen, Om loves to play the protagonist off-screen too. In all his failed relationships, he always paints himself to be the wronged rather than the wrong one. And people tend to believe him. That’s the flipside of being married to a very fine actor: he gives a convincing performance. Plus, he must always have the last word!
Om is not a major accumulator or collector. Indeed, he has quite basic needs and wants. Ironically, he is not a major film buff either. Having had an overdose of films at the FTII and various film festivals earlier on, he can survive without visiting a theatre for years together. And apart from a few, he rarely watches his own films.
As for reading, Om may read a play once in a while but you will rarely catch him reading fiction or a thriller. One of the few fictional works he has enjoyed is Irving Wallace’s Lust for Life. Since his surgery, though, he has been reading a lot of self-help books. When I gifted him Eknath Easwaran’s Take Your Time, he was instantly hooked. He later read many more books by Easwaran and has gifted them to friends and also introduced me to Climbing the Blue Mountain, Strength in the Storm, among others.
Perhaps Easwaran’s uncomplicated philosophy appeals to Om’s simpler side. And since Om is not overtly religious or ritualistic, he takes solace in spiritual reading.
While Om is not ritualistic, he does not mind others being so. Ours is a secular house and though I say my daily prayers, Om does not advertise his conversations with God. For example, instead of making a ritualistic hue and cry on his father’s death anniversary, he quietly gives money to four or five elderly people in Bauji’s memory.
But once in a while, he does give in to superstitious people. Like the other day, I caught him giving a five-hundred-rupee note to the sweeper woman out of the blue as someone had advised him to do it on account of some eclipse! At such times favour-seekers easily cash in on his gullibility.
Similarly, since Om is very open to ideas, he can get swayed by people easily. Especially over politics. He has neither been politically savvy nor had any overt political leanings. Some years ago, a few of his older friends who were communist sympathizers suddenly began to support the non-secular BJP. Never one to take politics seriously, Om got roped into campaigning for the New Delhi BJP candidate Vijay Goel during the 2001 elections for a lakh of rupees. When the BJP was routed, Om realized his stupidity and felt embarrassed. He quickly gave away the one lakh rupees to charity. It was later due to the prodding of Kapil Sibal and a few other sensible friends that Om formally joined the Congress party in 2004. Even after joining the Congress, he has preferred to remain on the sidelines.
Om usually relaxes by cooking, at times by gardening. These are his stress busters. He was first fascinated by cooking while watching his mother prepare those rare delights of his childhood. Later as a Boy Scout and living on his own since a very young age, he could rustle up a meal at short notice. After a long day’s shoot, Om comes and peeps into the kitchen. Even chopping vegetables over a couple of drinks is relaxing for him.
Many a time I have caught him making parathas and relishing them with dollops of butter in the dead of the night.
When shooting abroad, Om insists on an apartment and loves to do grocery shopping.
While I tend to get excited at the sight of pretty shop windows, Om salivates at the sight of colourful fruits and vegetables. He prefers the Indian variety in food but likes to experiment with recipes. More than being a gourmet cook, he excels at improvisation. I call him a ‘food fixer’. Whenever I goof up a dish, he is easily able to do something to make it edible.
Om loves to call friends home and cook for them. And during his shoots abroad, his favourite pastime is to cook a meal for his co-stars and unit members. Though his favourite cuisines are Thai and Mexican, he cooks the Indian fare, like pulaos, parathas and alu-palak raita, among other dishes, quite well. One evening, he was cooking for Roland Joffe at his Bel Air residence that overlooked the entire Beverly Hills. When Om was kneading the dough for rotis (or chapatis), he realized there was no belan or rolling pin to roll the rotis with. He immediately took an empty wine bottle as his belan and sitting in BelAir we had home-made fluffy rotis with delicious Indian curry.
A typical day in the life of Om Puri is to rise early, at the crack of dawn. At five he heads out for a walk at the Nana-Nani Park in front of the house. Then after two cups of tea he shaves, bathes and gets ready to head out for a shoot. He usually has a light breakfast of either fruits or two boiled egg whites. If he is home by 6 or 6.30 p.m., he heads to the nearby club for a swim. Back home it is a couple of drinks, a cuddle with Ishaan, an early dinner, a page or two of Easwaran and in bed by 10 p.m. Om hardly watches TV and just skims through the headlines on news channels.
The best time both of us have is usually over Om’s customary two pegs, when he and I chat about all manner of things, concerning politics, literature, films, music, and wherever else the mood takes us.
Om listens to me mesmerized as I talk about varied topics from scientific theories to Beethoven and I have realized over the years that he is a quick learner. And when Om decides to hold forth on any subject, one knows he talks with deep knowledge and understanding.
Once he had pointed out that while he is ‘deeply informed’, I am ‘widely read’. Quite a few of my views and opinions on films, particularly on Indian cinema, are due to his influence. In fact, many times, when he reads my columns he feels it is his thoughts that are being aired. I owe a lot of the maturity in my columns to these pre and post-dinnertime conversations with Om, which I cherish greatly.
On a non-working day too, he rises early and goes for his walk; but he skips the grooming bit and heads out to the friendly neighbourhood udipi, Swadesh, where he enjoys a sada dosa and chai while he chats up with the other male buddies who are regulars there. Back home, he either potters with the plants or in the kitchen or generally chews on my brains. Since on his off-days he likes to be choosy about brushing his teeth or taking a bath, we have to put up with his unkempt look about the house. On days like these he likes to discipline Ishaan or haul me up, albeit mildly – not letting it escape us who the boss is. In case we forgot!
After a lazy lunch at home and a nap followed by a swim in the evening, he either calls a couple of friends to sample his culinary skills or goes to the Pahwas’ place for dinner. Manoj and Seema Pahwa treat him like an elder brother. They say, ‘His simplicity, especially when he saunters into our home at short notice and shares our meals, is very endearing.’
Sometimes, we also head out to one of the nearby eateries. Om does not like travelling too much for a meal. ‘Choose a place within half a kilometre from the house,’ is the option he gives us. So it is Legacy of China for Chinese, Pop Tate’s for Continental, Satranj Napoli for Italian or Urban Tadka for good ole Punjabi cuisine. Earlier, Om abhorred eating out, but nowadays he has begun to enjoy it, thanks mainly to me.
These days we joke about the changing times. We decide on a fancy place, the cuisine and the cost it will incur. Then we decide to eat at home instead and pat ourselves for having managed to save money – especially at the time of recession!
However, he still hates clubbing and late night parties. Any invite that says ‘9 p.m. onwards’ is relegated to the bin.
Having grown up in his maternal uncles’ family of farmers, Om was always lured by land. He often jokes that had he not been an actor he would have either been a cook or a farmer. And he keeps saying he would like to retire to a farm. It was twenty years ago that Om had decided to look for an ideal farmhouse. His ex-secretary Dubeyji took him to see many plots in Maharashtra. Finally, six years ago Om zeroed in on his ideal weekend getaway in Khandala, close to the Deccan Hills area.
The bungalow in question was bought from one Mansoorbhai witha beautiful garden, which the previous owners had landscaped into three layers, the topmost overlooking the Western Ghats. Om named it ‘Ishaan Kutir’ meaning Ishaan’s hut. In front of the bungalow Om bought a small plot of land, called ‘Ishaan Vatika’ (Ishaan Garden), where he lets his farming creativity flow. From makai (sweet corn) to brinjals and papayas, and bananas to alphonso mangoes, our ‘mini farm’ yields nearly everything. The thrill of eating homegrown vegetables and fruits has a different flavour altogether. We try to head out there on Friday evenings and return by Sunday evening. Those two days in Khandala are enough to rejuvenate us for the rest of the week.
Lonavala and Khandala used to have a lot of Parsi population. Some of the old bungalows are still there, albeit dilapidated. Yet, the town retains its old charm without a single mall or multiplex (I hear one is going to come up soon though) and is famous for its fudges and chikkis (sticky, sweet jaggery and peanut candies). Buying groceries in the local market, walking around the hills, visiting neighbours for a cuppa and generally catching up on sleep are the things to enjoy there. And the best part is, as Om had always envisioned, we can reach this paradise in less than two hours from our doorstep.
Sometimes it takes longer to reach downtown in Bombay!
‘Husbands are street angels and house devils’ – an old proverb. Many will agree with me. Flip the gender and it applies to both sexes. I have a short fuse, which snaps every now and then. Om has one which when it snaps, booms the neighbourhood down. Some years back, a friend had called and asked whether Om and I had had a huge fight in the morning. I was surprised as she lives a good kilometer away from us. ‘Yes. But how the hell do you know?’ I asked.
‘Oh. Mom told me,’ was her reply.
Her mother lives on the third floor in the same building as ours and she heard Om’s voice booming all the way down four floors! During the initial years of our marriage, Om was wary about parting with his money. He would never give me a monthly allowance for household expenditure and preferred to pay the bills personally. He would be away for months and the milkman or grocer would be knocking for their dues, every time to be told, ‘Saab is away.’ Once when I complained to a friend, Om’s simple logic was, ‘What if she runs away with my money?’ It was only after a couple of years that Om loosened his purse strings and tightened his trust towards me.
‘So why can’t you say zero? Why use complicated words?’
A few years later, I met the legendary actress Zohra Sehgal. She had worked with Om in The Mystic Masseur in Trinidad. I introduced myself as Om’s wife. She immediately asked, ‘The zilch-wali?’
That’s the extent of Om’s wonderment at new English words!
I too have had my embarrassing moments with Hindi. It has now improved by leaps and bounds thanks to Om. During my early days in Bombay, someone had called one afternoon and Om did not want to talk at the time. So he gestured to me to tell him he was asleep. In my most polite tone, I told the person, ‘Omji so rahi hai.’ Om nearly collapsed out of shock. He wanted to burst out right then but had to maintain his silence. Surprised, when I asked him about his reaction, he replied, ‘God! You changed my gender!’
Talking about gender, there are certain notions about work that have not changed for him despite having seen a different life. ‘What do you do the whole day? Nothing. Just write a few columns here and there’ is a typical salvo he fires at me during our typical arguments.
‘Well, I run the house, look after my son apart from writing the few columns here and there!’ Not to be outdone, I retaliate.
‘But aren’t there servants to cook and clean? So what do you do?’
‘Well, I tell them how to clean and what to cook,’ I reply, exasperated.
Om still thinks I should physically get down to cleaning and cooking or else it doesn’t count as work!
Once, journalist Alpana Chowdhury while interviewing us, asked me, ‘Is he a typical chauvinist?’ Since Om was sitting next to me, I looked about a bit uncomfortably trying to frame my answer as diplomatically as possible.
‘Well, err …’
‘I’ll answer that for her,’ he said seeing my discomfiture. ‘You see, I am very liberal. I don’t mind my wife wearing jeans and I don’t expect her to carry a thaili (cloth bag) and go buy vegetables in the market …’
‘Well, the very fact that your image of a woman is that of carrying a thaili and buying vegetables, shows you have very chauvinistic ideas about them,’ Alpana interrupted. Being caught off-guard, Om looked a little uncomfortable, switched the tape off and told Alpana,
‘I’m shooting tomorrow at Filmistan. Drop by there for the rest of the interview.’ Alpana and I have a good laugh whenever we recollect this.
Another time, we had a part-time maid who would come at seven sharp in the morning. Being a mild insomniac, I tend to go into a deep sleep in the early hours of the morning. Once when the maid rang the bell, Om woke me up and told me, ‘The bell’s ringing. Go open the door.’ I sauntered groggily and came back and flopped myself back on the bed. Suddenly, I saw Om grinning.
‘What are you laughing at? And why did you not open the door yourself? You were awake. Why did you have to wake me up?’ I asked, irritable.
‘Wifely duties you see,’ he smiled smugly.
In fact, part of the reason for my insomnia is Om’s talent for snoring the house down. Sometimes, I lie awake for the better part of the night, listening intently to the variations in his snoring. I honestly feel I can record a classical disc with all the different movements!
Now, having got used to it, I sometimes miss it when he is not around, albeit happily. There are times when I wake him up to tell him to stop snoring. At such times, he apologizes and promptly goes back to sleep – and to snoring.
Sometimes, he himself wakes up and asks confusedly, ‘Was I snoring? I heard myself.’
On the first of May 2008, it was our fifteenth wedding anniversary. Om, who does not believe in parties or celebrations, personally called up a hundred close friends at a well-known suburban diner and celebrated with music, food and drinks. Of course, he held the party on 30 April to bring in the first of May, as it is a dry day in Maharashtra!'
(This is an extract from 'Unlikely Hero: Om Puri' written by his former wife Nandita Puri published by Roli Books in 2009. All images are courtesy the publisher.)