While India mourns the loss of Om Puri, a stalwart in the field of acting, one of his old friends and directors, Shyam Benegal reminisces the days of Arohan, Susman and the famous television series, Bharat Ek Khoj.
“He was a friend, faithful and just to me but Brutus said he was ambitious and Brutus is an honourable man,” goes the famous speech by Antony in Shakespeare’s tragedy, ‘Julius Caesar’. Shyam Benegal was talking about his professional association and friendship with Om Puri, wherein moments of accomplishment and regrets filled in the space. He was cherishing the time they spent on sessions that folded creativity, innocence, and comradeship in a quest to take India to a different level of international recognition, at least in the field of cinema. So, after all, the obituary pieces that you have read about Puri, here is a piece of life, from the desk of one of his very early directors.
Early days – Bhumika (1976)
Unlike many accomplished directors of their time, there is a strange calmness in Benegal when you are having a conversation on cinema; however, this was different. Whether it was the shock that still persisted or the recollection that sounded a little different from his characteristic voice, one can’t say. Benegal goes back to 1976. “My association with Om Puri starts at the time when he was just about finishing his term at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII, Pune), way back in 1976. I had made a short film with him at that time and then we made a short documentary in 1979, shooting in Punjab and Haryana,” Benegal almost sounded scripted. “Then we did a series of films together. However, not many will know that during his final days at the FTII, he worked with me in a feature film called ‘Bhumika’ in 1976. He had a very short appearance and most people don’t even know Om was there. He was in a scene of a 1930s film being made within that film. It was a film within a film scene, you know,” he adds.
Shyam Benegal was one of the directors of the time who captured some of the most remarkable and path-breaking mass movements in the country. Naxalbari uprising was one of them, where he decides to rope in actors like Victor Bannerjee, Pankaj Kapoor, and Om Puri to record a time when the youth of Bengal, inspired by the lessons of communism, united oppressed farmers, raising a socialist voice. Incidentally, the music of the film was conceived and done by folk maestro Purna Das Baul.
Shyam Benegal continues, “It was in 1981 when we first worked on a feature film where he was in the lead role. Arohan (The Ascent) was shot in Calcutta and some remote villages in Bengal. In the film, Om was in the central character and he gave a radiant performance that also won him the national award.”
They first worked with an ensemble cast in a film called ‘Mandi’ and the experience was quite noteworthy as well. “In ‘Mandi’, the year was 1982 and there was everybody in the film that you can relate to as good actors in the industry at that time. There was Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil and Om Puri himself. Om was brilliant again,” he tried to remember some stories and then jumped to the next film very quickly.
“Then came ‘Susman’ in 1987, that won Om Puri an international award and the film was screened at prestigious film festivals such as the London Film Festival, the Chicago Film Festival, the Vancouver International Film Festival, the Sydney and the Melbourne Film Festivals. He gave an absolutely impeccable performance as he played a weaver in the film that dealt with the struggling handloom weavers in a time that were witnessing rapid industrialisation,” Benegal was still in awe as he described Puri’s contribution in the film.
The Versatile Puri
The period between 1988 and 1991, assumes Benegal, was the most vital period in Puri’s career as he worked on projects that tested his versatility. “He was part of a television series that I directed called ‘Bharat Ek Khoj’ made on Jawaharlal Nehru’s book, ‘Discovery of India’. He played multiple characters in that and I still remember one of the finest performances he gave was for the episode on the Mahabharata,” Benegal was time travelling, it seemed, from the other side of the telephone. “He played the character of Duryodhan, and I remember there was a long speech of eight minutes that he had to do. And in those days we used to shoot in 35 mm films and I was very worried about how we will manage. But, he gave an impeccable performance! Then, he played some diverse characters stepping in the shoes of historical and mythological greats such as Aurangzeb, Ravana, Alauddin Khilji and so on. Each of them was different and he pulled out a brilliant take out of somewhere, every time,” Benegal added.
“He never got enough time to prepare, as we were shooting every day, but he was still brilliant. I have always admired him for his total dedication to the craft and his ability to concentrate was immense. Even two minutes before the shot, he might be very relaxed but as soon as he faced the camera, his precision in delivery was immense – that was Om Puri, the actor to me,” exclaims Benegal.
Here’s a tweet that is still pinned to his Twitter Profile which leads us to a certain inference about his state of mind in the last few months; however, it is probably customary for an artist to lead a distrubed life.
I don’t expect anything from anybody,When You Grow Old.Your Days Are Gone; It Is Part Of Life.
— Om Puri (@OmRajeshPuri) November 3, 2016
The generous co-actor
Actors are often pointed out for their egotistic approach when it comes to being in the thick of things; Benegal observed Puri from a very different angle as he continued, “As a human being, I have always seen him as a kind and friendly person around on a film set. He was never a selfish actor and for all those people who worked with him, they found him totally considerate and generous. I think, it was also because he was so confident in his ability that he never needed that artificial attempt to take the centre stage. He rather helped everyone in so many different ways. He would function as if he was part of the direction department, that he was part of the art department. He had no compunction what so ever. I still remember the days when we went to Paris together to shoot a sequence of my film ‘Susman’ in 1985-86; he was incredible; he was all over the place. He functioned as the production manager, actor, helped us find a place to stay and what not! He was the most helpful person I had, away from home,” the director who worked with Puri on several occasion remarked.
Concluding his exchange of thoughts, he remembers the friend he lost very recently by adding, “And, till this date, I know I made an extremely good friend, very loyal and very special to me. We used to have long conversations over the telephone from time to time. He was travelling out of the city most of the times in the recent years, he was really highly thought of outside of India. I don’t know if people know about this but he got the OBE (Order of the British Empire) which is of the similar stature of the Padma Bhushan in India. He is a very well known name in London like in India; they must be saddened with his passing away as well.”