The Om Puri picture used as the book cover
A no-holds-barred book (well, almost) is what Nandita C. Puri, actor Om Puris author and columnist wife has penned for her husband in a biography titled Unlikely Hero. Upset about the tamasha surrounding what was meant to be an unadulterated tale about her husbands journey, Nandita engaged in a candid chat with t2…
Has Om read the book? What was his reaction?
He has read bits and pieces, especially the two chapters related to his childhood and his relation with women titled That Amore. When he read the chapters before it went for print he said he was fine with it because he had nothing to hide. He was very open about the fact that theres no point in a biography if its not honest. Both Om and me are quite disturbed about the publicity gimmick (about Oms alleged outrage over the contents). Had I expected it we would have been better performers at this tamasha.
What prompted you to write a book on your husband?
The idea was actually his when I first met him in Calcutta and was profiling him for City of Joy. He told me: Why dont you write my biography? I knew he had a very interesting childhood, grew up in immense poverty. It was very interesting and inspiring but I was a cub reporter (with The Telegraph) at that time, I dilly-dallied with the thought and didnt feel confident enough to write about a stalwart. Once we got married he again asked me to write his biography. He said hed get it authorised but being a journalist I didnt want that. I wanted to write it as honestly and engagingly as possible with my choice to include or not include what I want. I didnt want it to sound like a eulogy by a wife but a serious journey of a man, a documentation of his life, various eras and films that hes been through. I needed a certain amount of objectivity and detachment. I felt too young and immature to attempt it for a long time until around 2007 when I felt I had seen enough. What he had told me 15 years ago, he repeated 10 years ago and so on. So every time there was a new dimension to his stories and I felt I was ready to do justice to the subject. So I started collecting information, pictures, memorabilia and interviewing his co-stars and directors all over India and abroad. So after several drafts and editing, the book is finally ready.
Was he a hard subject to pursue?
Yes he was. Although it was he who had wanted me to write the book when I actually got started, he became a little hard to pursue. He was like Abhi nahin, shooting ke baad. So finally I threatened him that either he tells me his story or I write it completely from my perspective. Then slowly he opened up. I would always have a pen and paper in hand when sitting with him. He would narrate his stories, then suddenly go back and say he doesnt want it to be written about. So my job was to convince him. It was part casual and part professional.
How much does the biography mirror the man?
It would mirror Om quite a lot. It starts off with his childhood, school and college days, studying at NSD and FTII, early struggling years, Ardh Satya, the film that catapulted him, his theatre days. You cant remove the person from his work so it slowly moves into commercial cinema and his crossover to films in the west. But then its not just about his journey from childhood to cinema. Theres also the humane side. His follies that make him more gullible to the reader, his personal life, his quirks, his relationship with other women, taste in food and clothes and his lifestyle. It took one-and-a-half years to put it all together but its a fruit of 16 years. Thats how long Ive known the man. It was just about fine-tuning the details.
Was it difficult demarcating your roles as biographer and wife?
Yes because for a wife the canvas is huge. Being a journalist I was constantly documenting his story but I was privy to much more intimate details about his personal and professional life. That made it very difficult at times. So on the one hand you know what will give your writing that extra edge, yet at the same time you remember you have a son and you think a lot of times before laying bare everything. But Ive been 90 to 95 per cent bold and honest.
You must have had copious material and archives to draw from…
We sat together and decided on what we should put down. It became really long so the editor helped cut it down by almost 60,000 words. Now it is 208 pages and Ive managed to omit parts which I later realised I didnt miss on re-reading.
Are there references to names that might spark a controversy?
Yes there are names, references and details about his relationships spelt out rather boldly. Too bad if reading about it affects anyone. As a storyteller I had to be honest and make it engaging. Its about a mans personality. It couldnt be just hard fact and boring story or all fluff and no fact. There were many people who didnt want to give interviews. Like Ebrahim Alkazi, who Om has always regarded very highly from his NSD days as his mentor and a great scholar. But when I approached him for the interview he was very upset with me because I had written about Priya Rajvanshs murder and her relationship with Chetan Anand who he was very close to. So he sent a note to Om saying he did not want to talk to me. It was in very sad taste because it was about someone who Om regards as a huge influence and would have been able to give a different perspective to the writing. Also some of his ex-girlfriends refused to talk. So it was more of Oms perspective.
What would be the most interesting revelations about him in the book?
Apart from it being a sort of documentation, one of the revelations would be his childhood and his personal story of poverty, deprivation and what moved him to follow his dreams. The second part of the book talks about the women in his life, his first sexual experience at the age of 14 and other sexual escapades that no one usually wants to talk about. The third part talks about Om as the only crossover actor who has been quietly working in western cinema alongside Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Omar Sharif and others. Hes Indias actual import to the west and the only Indian actor to be awarded the OBE. So there are accounts of his first-hand experience of working with them. Ive been there with Om on these sets abroad, so I interviewed Ben Kingsley and Mike Nichols for his biography. I had also met Michael Douglas who had remarked: Hes one damn good actor.
Any other interesting anecdotes from friends or co-workers apart from Patrick Swayzes foreword?
Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) and he have had an association for over 40 years from their NSD days. They have a love and hate relationship, healthy jealousy and a lot of disagreements but consider each other as brothers. So some wonderful anecdotes by him. Also we have something in our house called the Smita Patil toast. Years ago he would love the toast in Smita Patils house, which she used to make every time hed go over. On asking for the secret recipe she revealed that she would butter the toast before putting it in the toaster. After Om told me this I also started making what we now call the Smita Patil toast. Also there are fun stories about Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro that was made on such a low budget and went on to become a cult film.